Threat Assessment in Florida Schools: The US Secret Service Perspective

US Secret Service LogoNow that the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission’s initial report has been sent to the Florida Governor and to the leaders of the Florida House & Senate, I’d like to share a few of the recommendations that went into the report, recommendations that I was privileged to work on with the team from the National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC), a part of the United States Secret Service.

It’s an honor to work with Dr. Lina Alathari and the amazing team at NTAC.  Dr. Alathari, who not only testified to the MSD Commission in July 2018 (see her presentation below) but the NTAC team was ready to help Florida with state-specific recommendations on school safety & threat assessment.


 

Here is a look at that collaboration.  I am pleased to say that most if not all recommendations were included in the MSD Commission report.  I’d love to get your feedback and comments.

 

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission
Behavioral Threat Assessment Recommendations
Presented by Commissioner Ryan Petty
Developed in collaboration with the National Threat Assessment Center, U.S. Secret Service

The scope of a behavioral assessment program in Florida’s K-12 schools should include identifying concerning behaviors displayed by current and former students and employees, assessing those who require intervention and managing their risk of violence or other unwanted outcomes.  Consideration should also be given to future expansion of any state requirements to include institutions of higher education (IHEs).

Oversight

  • The Florida Department Of Education (DOE) should be required to establish and maintain oversight for how the threat assessment process is designed and implemented across all Florida school districts.  This includes, but is not limited to, establishing standards for training, membership on threat assessment teams (TATs), investigative procedures, and reporting requirements.  An implementation deadline should be established.
    • As part of establishing and maintaining oversight over the threat assessment process, DOE should be required to standardize documentation and assessment procedures statewide that are based on the latest research and best practices in the field of threat assessment.  DOE must update those procedures on a continuing basis.
  • Each school district should be responsible for ensuring that each individual school within its district is covered by a TAT, whether that team is coordinated at the district, school, or multi-school level.  Each team must meet the standards established by the DOE while directing, managing, and documenting each threat assessment.
  • DOE’s reporting requirements should include such things as the number of incidents referred to the TAT, investigations conducted, individuals deemed at-risk, and interventions used.  When establishing the requirements, legislators should look to the Clery Act, which requires colleges and universities to maintain and disclose campus crime statistics and security information, for guidance.
  • Every school should be required by law to promote the FortifyFL App by reminding students of the anonymous reporting tool at the beginning of each school year and at least quarterly throughout the year. FortifyFL App reminders should be conspicuously posted throughout the schools.

 

Department of Education Standardized Protocols

  • Threat assessment program must include tools and protocols for identifying students of concern, assessing those who require intervention and managing their risk of violence or other unwanted outcomes.  Threat Assessment Teams (TATs) should not only focus on the prevention of school violence, but on a range of at-risk student behaviors, including bullying, depression, suicidality, self-harm, and drug use, among others.
  • All TATs should be comprised of specific static members from diverse disciplines, such as mental health and counseling, school administration, teaching staff, and law enforcement.  If the TAT is based at the district level or multi-school level, then each individual school must have a designated TAT point of contact who will be a part of any threat assessment affecting that school.  Other additional school personnel with direct knowledge of the assessed child and the child’s behavior should also be brought in on a case by case basis.
  • TATs should be required to meet at least monthly and be proactive, not just reactive.  Acting proactively includes looking for points of early intervention when students are exhibiting lower-levels of concerning behavior, continually assessing school climate, evaluating management resources and identifying new ones, as well as assessing anti-bullying efforts. (see Enhancing School Safety Using a Threat Assessment Model: An Operational Guide for Preventing Targeted School Violence)
  • TATs should have a case-tracking system and protocols that document the assessment process.  This would include requirements for responding to initial reports within a specified time frame and longer-term monitoring for the person of concern to ensure continued stability.
    • When school is in session, TATs should be required to convene, in-person or by phone, within 24 hours of receiving a referral.
    • When school is not in session, while TAT capabilities may have to be scaled down, the TAT must maintain continuity throughout school breaks to receive information on new cases and help monitor cases that require ongoing management.  

 

Assessment Tools and Standards

  • All behavioral threat assessments should be tiered with higher tiers reserved for the more concerning conduct.  While a threat assessment instrument will allow for consistency across districts, as well as information-sharing and documentation, the room should also be allotted for establishing situational context beyond what may be available in the instrument.  TATs should be encouraged to capture and respond to the concern of all bystanders, even if the threat assessment instrument designates a situation as low-risk.
  • Each threat assessment should focus on identifying prohibited and concerning behaviors, not just specific threats of harm.  Maintaining a low-threshold of concern to facilitate early intervention is key to prevention. (see Enhancing School Safety Using a Threat Assessment Model: An Operational Guide for Preventing Targeted School Violence)
  • Each TAT must proactively identify potential resources within the schools and surrounding communities to which the child can be referred.  This could include mental health treatment providers, counselors, mentorship programs, or social services, among others. This list should be revisited at least annually, and points of contact should be established and verified.  
  • TATs and Individualized Education Program (IEP) committees must coordinate information and courses of action regarding Exceptional Student Education (ESE) students.

 

Enforcement and Training

  • DOE or school districts should provide specialized training to TAT members on topics such as behavioral indicators, conducting thorough threat assessments, and risk management strategies.
  • School districts should provide mandatory training that is customized for those who may report concerning behaviors, including all school personnel, parents, and fellow students. This training should be updated or re-enforced on a regular basis.  The goal of such training should be to clarify what types of concerning behaviors these persons might observe, and to whom those concerns should be reported.
  • School personnel should be trained on commonly misunderstood issues related to FERPA.
  • Reporting observed behaviors to the TAT should be mandatory for all school personnel, and sanctions should be identified for non-reporting.
  • Efforts should be made to address the culture of underreporting that incentivizes schools to minimize their response to concerning situations.

We Found Another Big Piece of the School Shooting Puzzle–An Antibiotic for Suicide

As many of you know, since the killing of our daughter Alaina at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland Florida on Valentines Day, Kelly and I have been searching, studying, & looking for solutions to eliminate the national scourge of school shootings. When it comes to solutions that are focused on school safety and proven to work, we are finding pieces of the puzzle all over the place.  This past week we discovered a BIG piece of the puzzle, one that could fundamentally “change the game” for early identification and intervention.  We were introduced to Dr. Kelly Posner (@posnerkelly) and the work she leads in the field of suicide prevention as Director of the Columbia Lighthouse Project at Columbia University.   

 

Dr. Kelly Posner Gerstenhaber is a professor at Columbia whose work is saving lives in forty-five nations on six continents. The President of the American Psychiatric Association noted her work “could be seen as really a watershed moment, like the introduction of antibiotics…” The U.S. Department of Defense (Dr. Franklin’s quotes) called her work “nothing short of a miracle,” is central to their National Strategy, and stated, “her effective model of improving the world will help propel us closer to a world without suicide.” The CDC noted that her work is “changing the paradigm in suicide risk assessment in the US and worldwide.” After being commissioned by the FDA to develop their scientific methods of suicide risk identification, the FDA has characterized her work as “setting a standard in the field.”  Dr. Posner Gerstenhaber is about to receive The Secretary of Defense Medal for Exceptional Public Service, the highest level of award a civilian can get for impacting the nation.  Here is a recent interview (2/22/2018) with Dr. Posner on CNN:

 

 

Enter the Columbia Lighthouse Project

Let me share a bit of Dr. Posner’s work.  The Columbian Lighthouse Project and the Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale (C-SSRS) is in use in the U.S. Marine Corps, which has seen a 22% reduction in suicide.  It has helped to reduce the suicide rate by 65% over the first 20 months in the Tennessee programs of the nation’s largest provider of outpatient community behavioral health care, and reduced the suicide rate in Utah, the first decrease in suicide in almost a decade and helped to reverse an alarming, and previously increasing trend.

 

How Does the Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale (C-SSRS) Work?

The Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale (C-SSRS) supports suicide risk assessment through a series of simple, plain-language questions that anyone can ask. The answers help users identify whether someone is at risk for suicide, assess the severity and immediacy of that risk, and gauge the level of support that the person needs. Users of the C-SSRS tool ask people:

  • Whether and when they have thought about suicide (ideation)
  • What actions they have taken — and when — to prepare for suicide
  • Whether and when they attempted suicide or began a suicide attempt that was either interrupted by another person or stopped of their own volition

(more…)

Public School Discipline: Equal Opportunity Offenders

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos met with supporters and critics of an Obama-era directive on school discipline on Wednesday.  Secretary DeVos is considering changes to the directive and possibly repealing the guidelines outlined therein.

That 2014 directive, issued jointly by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, put school districts on notice that they could be found in violation of federal civil rights law if they create and enforce intentionally discriminatory rules.  However, and perhaps more importantly, school districts could also be at risk of violating federal civil rights laws if their discipline policies lead to disproportionately higher rates of discipline for students of different racial groups.  This risk was present, even if their discipline policies were written without discriminatory intent.

There is an excellent article titled, DeVos Meets With Supporters, Critics of Discipline Rules as GAO Says Racial Disparities Persist written by Evie Blad (@evieblad) covering the meeting and the testimony shared by both proponents and opponents of the directive, over at the Rules for Engagement Blog at Education Week.

Evie writes,

At the heart of the debate of the discipline guidance is why those differing discipline rates occur and the role of the federal government in addressing them. Also at issue: whether schools’ efforts to limit “exclusionary discipline,” such as expulsions and suspensions, have helped students feel more supported or have too severely limited teacher discretion in disciplining students.

(more…)

Over 75% of Mass Shooters Communicate Prior to Their Attacks

US-Mass-Attacks-2017

In what I view as further support for state and Federal “Red Flag” legislation allowing law enforcement to seek an “Extreme Risk Protection Order” sometimes referred to as a “Gun Violence Restraining Order”, a report released today from the National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC), part of the United States Secret Service, sheds new light on mass attacks carried out in public places. The NTAC studied 28 incidents that were carried out at 31 sites in 2017 (see map).

Highlights from the report include:

  • Over three-quarters (79%) made concerning communications and/or elicited concern from others prior to carrying out their attacks. On average, those who did elicit concern caused more harm than those who did not.
  • Nearly half were motivated by a personal grievance related to a workplace, domestic, or other issue[s].
  • Over half had histories of criminal charges, mental health symptoms, and/or illicit substance use or abuse.
  • Nearly two-thirds of the attackers experienced mental health symptoms prior to their attacks. The most common symptoms observed were related to psychosis (e.g., paranoia, hallucinations, or delusions) and suicidal thoughts.
  • All had at least one significant stressor within the last five years, and over half had indications of financial instability in that timeframe.

 

The key findings from the report, “support existing best practices that the U.S. Secret Service has established in the field of threat assessment. They highlight the importance of gathering information on a person’s background, behaviors, and situational factors; corroborating the information from multiple sources; assessing the risk the individual poses for violence; and identifying intervention points to mitigate that risk.   I’ve been discussing these intervention points with members of the NTAC to better understand what we can do to protect our children from threats at school. (more…)

March For Our Lives? There is a better way

 

Today is the day.  March 24th, 2018.  March For Our Lives is happening in over 800 cities around the globe.  Not coincidentally, I was a guest on Cavuto Live on FNC because I have suggested that there is an alternative path which will keep our kids & teachers safe at school.  The path that I believe most effective is that we must take steps to secure our schools.  Second, we must keep firearms out of the hands of those that would do themselves or other harm.  There is common ground here.

Why Not March for Our Lives?

In the days immediately following the murders of 17 innocent children and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSD), a very familiar narrative began to emerge.  It started, as it always does, with fervent questions.  Why did this happen?  Why did this happen in Parkland? Why at Marjory Stoneman Douglas?  Why is this happening again? Why? Why? Why?  We must do something, became a unifying cry.  But the unanswered question was, do what?

Before the families had begun to mourn, a litany of national gun control factions descended on Parkland. Organizing.  Agitating.  Inculcating.   With a well-worn refrain of gun control demands, they found willing recruits still reeling from the shock of the savagery. The TV media had already arrived in Parkland; together they would prove to be a potent union.  Live feeds.  Town halls.  Justifiable anger.

But in my view, it was and is the wrong prescription.  As a nation, we’ve been down this path before.  Many times.  Too many times.  This time must be different.

Three major legislative victories in the past five weeks, tell me that we are on the right path.  We have found common ground and ideas that will help to prevent another tragedy like the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

Just this week, Arizona Governor Ducey has proposed legislation, Safe Arizona Schools (pdf) based on the legislation we helped pass in Florida.  Here’s a look at what it does and here’s commentary from AZ Central’s Jon Gabriel.

ARIZONA PRIORITIES

As Arizonans shared their priorities during the stakeholder process, common themes were identified, including an urgency for:

  • Increased mental and behavioral health resources at schools
  • Restricting access to firearms for individuals who pose a severe threat to themselves or others, while respecting the second amendment rights of law-abiding Arizonans
  • Increased school resource officer and law enforcement presence at schools
  • Enhanced background checks

THE PLAN

Our proposal includes initiatives that are responsive to the priorities of Arizonans.

  • Invests in mental and behavioral health resources at schools
  • Severe Threat Order of Protection (STOP) to restrict firearm access for individuals who are a danger to themselves or others
  • Enhances background checks by improving the completeness and accuracy of the criminal history database
  • Establishes the Center for School Safety, creating a confidential, centralized reporting tip line to report and investigate concerns of school safety
  • Increases school resource officer funding and training and increases the presence of law enforcement on school grounds
  • Eliminates background check gaps
  • Respects the second amendment rights of law-abiding Arizonans

Sound familiar?  Kudos to Arizona for making a substantive proposal.  It’s now up to the Arizona legislature to pass these proposals.  We’ve shown how to do it in Florida.

As parents of the victim’s of MSD, we will continue to build on common ground across the US.  State by state and at the Federal level.  More on that later…

 

In Defense of WalkUp My Segment on the Michaela Show on HLN

Yesterday I had an opportunity to talk about #WalkUp on national TV. I was invited to be on the Michaela Pereira show on @HLNTV.  The idea behind #WalkUp is not mine.  In fact, I saw it on a Facebook post from a friend of a friend.  Here is what inspired me:

Instead of walking out of school on March 14, encourage students to walk up — walk up to the kids who sits alone at lunch and invite him to sit with your group; walk up to the kids who sits quietly in the corner of the room and site next to her, smile and say Hi; walk up to the kid who causes disturbances in class and ask how he is doing; walk up to your teachers and thank them; walk up to someone who has different view that you and get to know them – you may be surprised at how much you have in common.  Build own that foundation instead of casting stone.  I challenge students to find 14 students and 3 adults to walk up to and say something nice in honor of those who died in (Parkland) FL on the 14th of February. But you can start practicing now! #walkupnotout

The controversy that led to my invitation to be on HLN started when I posted this on Twitter:

It seems almost unbelievable to me that we as a society would debate the importance of being kind.  Unfortunately, the #WalkUp movement is often misunderstood and mischaracterized, sometimes purposely so.  I’ve seen several attempts to label #WalkUp as “victim blaming” or misrepresenting the impact that being kind can have on a disaffected and potentially violent youth.  Do I believe that the shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas could have been stopped if the students had been more kind to him?  Of course not.  In meetings last week with the Director of the Secret Service and the head of the National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC), apart of the Secret Service, I learned that there is a path along which disaffected & troubled youth travel called a “Continuum of Violence”.  A few of the key findings & implications are:

Students who engaged in school-based attacks typically did not “just snap” and then engage in impulsive or random acts of targeted school violence. Instead, the attacks examined under the Safe School Initiative appeared to be the end result of a comprehensible process of thinking and behavior: behavior that typically began with an idea, progressed to the development of a plan, moved on to securing the means to carry out the plan and culminated in an attack.

An important element in preventing these attacks is information that can be provided by students.  These are often key pieces of a puzzle when pieced together can aid school officials and law enforcement in stopping the attack.

First and foremost, this finding suggests that students can be an important part of prevention efforts. A friend or schoolmate may be the first person to hear that a student is thinking about or planning to harm someone. Nevertheless, for a variety of reasons, those who have information about a potential incident of targeted school violence may not alert an adult on their own. Schools can encourage students to report this information in part by identifying and breaking down barriers in the school environment that inadvertently may discourage students from coming forward with this information. Schools also may benefit from ensuring that they have a fair, thoughtful and effective system to respond to whatever information students do bring forward. If students have concerns about how adults will react to information that they bring forward, they may be even less inclined to volunteer such information.

By fostering an atmosphere of kindness as embodied in the #WalkUp movement, imagine the impact a student may have after having befriended a troubled classmate and felt if that student felt comfortable sharing that information with an adult.  It is not the responsibility of the student to intervene, just to share information, their piece of the puzzle, a piece that could ultimately stop an act of violence before it starts.

Several key findings point to the fact that kids send signals–both directly and indirectly–to others regarding their problems. The boys who engaged in the targeted school violence examined by the Safe School Initiative were not “invisible” students. In fact nearly all of these students engaged in behaviors–prior to their attacks–that caused concern to at least one person, usually an adult, and most concerned at least three people.

This finding highlights the range of behaviors in a student’s life that may be noticeable and that could prompt some additional probing by a caring adult. A student’s family, teachers, friends and others may have information regarding aspects of a student’s behavior that has raised concern.

So, #WalkUp can help change the school culture and create an environment of trust and safety as well enabling the sharing of vital information that could help protect students and teachers at school.  If the #WalkUp effort is done early enough on that continuum, a life can be changed in a positive way forever.  I’d say it’s worth more than a try.

If you’d like to read more about the research Secret Service has done on making our schools safer, you can find it here:  THE FINAL REPORT AND FINDINGS OF THE SAFE SCHOOL INITIATIVE (pdf)

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