As the nation continues to reel over the horrific mass shootings in Odessa, Dayton and El Paso, questions have started to arise about whether schools have a role as a kind of “early warning” detector for troubling behavior, thus potentially preventing violent outbursts later.
Indeed, the 24-year-old shooter in Dayton did exhibit violent tendencies in high school, and was suspended but was allowed back shortly thereafter. School administrators, teachers and staff often wonder how to handle threats of violence but many school districts do not have policies in place to ensure threats are assessed in a procedural and thorough manner. With these violent acts seeming to take over social media, school safety is on the minds of parents, students and teachers alike.
Both the National Education Association and the National Association of School Psychologists offer guidelines on how to prevent and manage violent behavior in schools. These have been crafted with input from both educators and mental health professionals, and provide actionable advice, such as creating detailed crisis response plans, providing adequate mental health supports, documenting concerns, and having a structured threat assessment process in place to evaluate and intervene in students’ potentially violent behavior.
Additionally, violence prevention in schools is being addressed at the state level. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf recently passed Senate Bill 144, which requires districts to create at least one threat assessment team to ensure students who may pose a safety risk get necessary evaluations and treatment. It also encourages better cooperation between schools and county agencies, including juvenile justice, in determining how to handle at-risk students.
These teams would be required to undergo training to identify the signs and symptoms of potentially violent behavior and to create a multi-tiered support system to prevent an incident and promote resiliency. The training must be consistent with nationally recognized best practices, such as the Comprehensive School Threat Assessment Guidelines (C-STAG) training developed by Dewey Cornell, a well-known forensic and clinical psychologist.
School entities must establish procedures and ensure that all stakeholders, including students, employees, and parents/guardians are informed about the team’s purpose as well as how to report potential threats. The law includes threats of safety to others as well as to oneself, thereby including suicide risk procedures.
As trauma can be an indicator of future violence, it is important to note that Senate Bill 144 includes Trauma-Informed Education, which requires district-wide training on the signs of trauma and how to connect students with appropriate services. This also requires district policies to include trauma-informed approaches.
Most children spend the majority of their formative years in school settings. To that end, schools can be a valuable partner in identifying problematic behavior early on so that it can be addressed and treated, so there is less of a risk of violence later on.