Why comprehensive threat assessment is vital to an effective school safety strategy

Q&A with Dewey G. Cornell, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist and Professor at the University of Virginia, and Todd Wagner, Managing Director at Navigate360
By: | October 16, 2020 | Thought Leadership

Todd Wagner is Managing Director at Navigate360.

What are some key elements of a comprehensive school safety strategy?
Wagner: Leadership and establishing a culture of safety are at the top of the list for me. School safety is composed of a giant checklist of integrated technical, mechanical and cultural factors, but people seem to make the biggest difference. Our kids grew up in a digital era like no other. We need to adapt to their struggles and identify ways to help them through social/digital channels. They need passionate people willing to lay down new policies and programs that reach these children and give them a voice.

Why are an increasing number of schools and districts using tip lines to be alerted to threats or concerns?
Wagner: Passionate leaders have been quick to recognize the value of prevention. I often refer to an adage that says, “If you want to know what is happening in your community, just ask a teenager.” The U.S. Secret Service Analysis of Targeted School Violence studied 41 incidents of targeted school violence and found that most of the attackers communicated a prior threat to their target or communicated their intentions to carry out an attack. In many cases, someone observed a threatening communication or behavior but did not act, either out of fear, not believing the attacker, misjudging the immediacy or location, or believing they had dissuaded the attacker. School safety organizations that have aligned their efforts with these findings are better at identifying trends and have a knack for staying out in front of big issues. To focus on prevention, schools are learning to create a culture where students feel safe sharing their concerns. When you frequently receive multiple tips from multiple people about the same issue or concern, you know you’ve created a successful program.

How effective are tip lines as part of a school safety strategy?
Wagner: Tip lines are massively successful when passionate people are comfortable asking kids to engage in a “safe to say” culture and respond to tips 24/7/365. Nearly every tip line has prevented loss of life in one way or another. We hear about suicide prevention weekly, and often daily. We receive calls to thank us for playing a role in preventing tragedies like Columbine or Parkland. The work we do—and the culture we promote—is incredibly emotional. Tip lines can and will prevent the unthinkable, but they need people. Schools can’t just buy an app to fix a broken culture.

What are the most common concerns reported in tip lines?
Wagner: Over the past five years, suicidal ideation, drugs and bullying have been the top three. Unfortunately, this is not surprising when you consider the suicide rate by adolescents and young adults is up nearly 60% from 2007 to 2018, one out of every five students report being bullied, and there is more stress than ever—it’s literally an epidemic.

Dewey Cornell, Ph.D., is Clinical Psychologist and Professor at the University of Virginia.

Why is threat assessment so vital to the effectiveness of tip lines, and school safety in general?
Cornell: Once schools know about a threat, they must be prepared to assess the seriousness of the threat and then respond promptly with a strategy that keeps everyone safe and resolves the underlying problem or concern. It is essential to have a fire alarm to let you know there might be a fire, but you need an effective fire department to investigate and put out the fire.

What is a behavioral threat assessment team, and what role can this team play in schools?
Cornell: Every school needs a behavioral threat assessment team to evaluate the seriousness of any known threats, and to take appropriate action. Threat assessment teams are multidisciplinary groups with expertise in administration, educational services, law enforcement, and mental health. They help schools identify and coordinate services for troubled students before their problems escalate into violence. Prevention must start long before an incident occurs. They also help school authorities avoid overreacting to student misbehavior and guide them to make fair and equitable decisions about disciplinary consequences. Threat assessment complements and enhances the school’s existing student support services in areas such as mental health counseling, special education and bullying prevention.

What has research found about the impacts of using threat assessment in schools?
Cornell: Over the past two decades, our controlled studies have found that schools using the Comprehensive School Threat Assessment Guidelines (CSTAG) can respond safely and effectively to student threats of violence. CSTAG teams can direct educational and mental health services to troubled students, keeping students in school and avoiding excessively punitive responses and racial disparities in disciplinary consequences. In schools using CSTAG, there are reductions in school suspension rates, teachers report feeling safer, and students report less peer aggression and bullying.

What role should technology play in school safety?
Cornell: Technology gives us useful tools for gathering and sharing information, and can facilitate collaboration and professional judgement.  However, we need adequate investment in professional staff and staff training to make best use of technology. Despite the persistence of shootings in our communities and a few schools, schools overall have grown much safer over the past 25 years.

Navigate360 provides the technology, education and services that span the full spectrum of school safety, from prevention and preparation through response and recovery. To learn more, go to www.Navigate360.com