Secret Service Releases Guide to Prevent School Shootings

As deadly school shootings continue to plague communities across the nation, the Secret Service has developed an updated guide to prevent violence.

The federal report released this month highlights eight areas necessary for creating a comprehensive targeted violence prevention plan: Establish a multidisciplinary threat assessment team, define concerning and prohibited behaviors, create a central reporting mechanism, determine the threshold for law enforcement intervention, establish assessment procedures, develop risk management options, create and promote safe school climates, and conduct training for all stakeholders.

According to the report, since the creation of the U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) in 1998, the task force has provided 450 in-depth trainings on the prevention of targeted school violence to over 93,000 attendees including school administrators, teachers, counselors, mental health professionals, school resource officers, and other public safety officials.

The report cites the tragic events of the February 14th, 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and the May 18th, 2018 shooting at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas as reasons for the ongoing need to provide leadership in preventing future school attacks. “Keeping our school children safe requires the shared commitment from states, school boards, and communities with the ability to dedicate resources to this critical issue,” explained Director Randolph Alles. “In the wake of these tragedies, the U.S. Secret Service has launched an initiative to provide updated research and guidance to school personnel, law enforcement, and other public safety partners on the prevention of school-based violence.” He indicated this most recent report, ‘Enhancing School Safety Using a Threat Assessment Model’ is the first phase of the initiative.

The report is one of the most involved and detailed pieces of literature produced out of the Trump administration on how to prevent targeted attacks. The guide encourages schools to establish reporting mechanisms like online tip forms, hotlines or even smartphone apps. It also encourages positive building climates, so students feel comfortable sharing concerns.

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A notable element of the report focuses on stereotyping potential attackers. “There is no profile of a student attacker,” indicated officials. “There have been male and female attackers, high-achieving students with good grades as well as poor performers. These acts of violence were committed by students who were loners and socially isolated, and those who were well-liked and popular. Rather than focusing solely on a student’s personality traits or school performance, we can learn much more about a student’s risk for violence by working through the threat assessment process.”

So, if a shooter could be anyone with any background, how do you identify those at risk of enacting violence against a school? The report offers insight on defining prohibited and concerning behaviors. “Keep in mind that concerning behaviors occur along a continuum,” noted officials. “School policies should also identify behaviors that may not necessarily be indicative of violence, but also warrant some type of intervention.” Such as a decline in performance, increased absenteeism, withdrawal or isolation, sudden or dramatic changes in behavior or appearance, drug or alcohol use, and erratic depressive and other emotional or mental health symptoms.

The very first step officials suggest is the development of a multidisciplinary threat assessment team with a designated leader. The teams should be charged with establishing protocols and procedures and they should meet on a regular basis.

In Stark County for the last several months, school Superintendents and local law enforcement officials have already been meeting consistently to develop these plans via the Safety and Security Task Force under chairman, Stark County Sheriff George T. Maier.

The third recommendation in the federal report is the creation of a central reporting mechanism. This would act as a hub of information that, with proper training and guidance; students, staff, and parents could send information. Teams would be responsible for monitoring all reports and responding immediately.

Law enforcement intervention is also a key point addressed in the report. Officials indicate the vast majority of incidents or concerns likely to be reported will be addressed by school personnel. However; officials recommend that all behaviors involving weapons, threats of violence, physical violence, or concerns about an individual’s safety should be immediately reported to local law enforcement. They expand on that recommendation by noting, “This is one reason why including a school resource officer or local law enforcement officer on the Team is beneficial.”

Establishing assessment procedures is another area highlighted in the development of the Comprehensive Targeted Violence Prevention Plan. Clearly defined processes and procedures are encouraged in order to guide efficient assessments. Areas of importance to achieve this focus detailed in the report include maintaining documentation to keep track of when reports come in; using a community systems approach to gather information and identify the sources that may have information on a student’s actions and circumstances; examine online social media pages, conduct interviews, review class assignments and consider searching student’s locker or desk; build rapport that can facilitate information-gathering efforts; and evaluate student’s concerning behaviors and communications in the context of his/her age and social and emotional development. The report dives into communication efforts in this area, investigative approaches, weapons access and interest, understanding stressors and other factors that can contribute to a student’s decision to act out violently.

Additionally, authors of the report indicate the need for the development of risk management options. Officials explain that this allows the Team to evaluate whether the student identified is at risk for self-harm or harming someone else at school. To achieve this the Secret Service Team suggests each student who comes to the Team’s attention be required to receive an individual management plan and an indication if the student requires monitoring or guidance. Resources listed that could assist the student include peer support programs, therapeutic counseling, life skills classes, tutoring in specific academic subjects or mental health care.

Number seven on the list of recommendations is to create and promote safe school climates. Overall, officials guide school districts and established school safety teams to build on a culture of safety, respect, trust, and social and emotional support. Teachers and staff are encouraged to build positive, trusting relationships with students by actively listening to them and taking an interest in what they are saying.

And to wrap up the detailed list of recommendations, officials strongly encourage continued training and education for all stakeholders. “School safety is everyone’s responsibility,” they noted. “Every adult at school needs training related to threat assessment and violence prevention including administrative, maintenance, custodial, and food service staff.” Additionally, they encourage students to receive training on the threat assessment process, where to report concerns and what information they should bring forward. Parents are also indicated as a critical component to making the plan work smoothly. “They should be clear on who to call, when, and what information they should be ready to provide.” And finally, law enforcement and school resources are encouraged to develop relationships with school personnel and students.”

Officials add that while school violence may still occur despite enacting school safety plans, “Everyone has a role in preventing school violence and creating safe school climates. The threat assessment procedures detailed in this guide are an important component of school safety and security efforts and have been determined to be best-practice in the prevention of targeted school violence.”

Additional resource links are provided at the end of the report.

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