Expert: Schools need teams to assess threats, intervene

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 383 views 

Schools should use many resources they already have to gather protective intelligence, assess threats and work as a team to prevent acts of student violence, according to Cindy Marble, a 27-year veteran of the Secret Service who now works as a private security consultant.

Marble spoke Tuesday (June 28) to the Arkansas School Safety Commission. Gov. Asa Hutchinson formed the commission in 2018 following a school shooting in Parkland, Fla., and reconvened it, with many of the same members, via executive order on June 10, after a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. He has asked the members to review and update the previous final report published in November 2018. An initial report is due Aug. 1, with the final report due Oct. 1.

Addressing the commission remotely, Marble said student school shooters are at the point of despair and desperation and don’t believe there is another way out.

“A lot of these situations are suicides with collateral damage. They don’t want to feel the pain that they’re feeling, and they sometimes want others to feel the pain that they are feeling,” she said.

Marble said most of the reports she received during her career did not constitute a direct threat but instead involved a “behavior of concern.” She said information comes from disparate places. The dots must be collected and connected to determine the all-important “why” behind a person’s behavior. When a person is on a pathway to violence, officials must intervene, but if a person is not on a pathway to violence, then he or she needs support. A school’s threat assessment team can determine what help a student needs and then create a plan for providing it.

She said she worked with many concerning individuals during her 13.5 years in Washington, D.C., but few cases required her to act as a law enforcement officer. Instead, she often connected troubled individuals to mental health providers and family. She said school staff, students and parents should understand the process is about helping people. That way, they are more likely to provide information. A key piece is having an anonymous reporting system. Students are the best source of information, but many are conflicted about “tattling.”

“Threat assessment is not an adversarial process. … It is meant to intervene and to help,” she said.

Marble said schools are already doing much of the threat assessment work, but they may not be working as a team and sharing information. They should form a threat assessment team involving the principal, school-based mental health professionals, school law enforcement officers, information technology professionals, and others. In one school district, the elementary art teacher was a vital part of the team because she knew all the students.

School districts should define students’ concerning behaviors rather than waiting for a threat to be made. Schools should watch for changes in behavior, academic achievement and dress. Most school-based violence cases involve students who are being bullied, she said.

She said schools must create a climate of safety, security and trust. They should conduct surveys to determine how students feel about the school, and whether they believe they can tell a trusted adult that a fellow student’s actions are concerning them.

Marble described one school violence case where the district was found to be 54% responsible. Before the act occurred, there were many signs a problem could occur, but school officials did not communicate with each other or work as a team. The student was being bullied, and his mother had reported it. The physical education teacher responded that the student should “man up,” and the assistant principal’s attitude was that boys will be boys. The student made numerous comments that frightened other students, but the assistant principal working with the school-based psychologist determined that the student would be suspended. The school resource officer was merely sent to search the home for weapons when the officer should have been a core member of the team.

Marble said the school also failed to inform the parent what it had learned. She said that, in her experience, parents are often too close to the situation and don’t know what they are seeing.

In response to a question about privacy by Vilonia teacher John Allison, a member of the commission, Marble said the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, includes a safety and security clause and only applies to school-based records, not what a student or teacher observes. She said school officials and districts cannot be sued for FERPA violations.

The committee next will meet on July 5 as it prepares to produce its initial report. Subcommittees are meeting to review and produce recommendations for school facilities, law enforcement and other areas.