This year has marked the highest number of school shooting incidents in American history at over 250, said U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas during the first day of the National School Safety Summit on Tuesday.
“Every child, every person in this country, and frankly around the world, deserves a safe, secure, supportive environment in which to be educated,” Mayorkas said during the virtual event hosted by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
As tragic mass shootings make headlines, community members, parents, staff and students nationwide are typically on high alert within their own schools, panelists said. That was notably the case this year after the May massacre that killed 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
While vigilance can help prevent further loss and tragedy, experts say it’s vital students and staff not be retraumatized in violence prevention efforts.
Behavioral threat assessments, tiplines to report safety concerns, and wraparound mental health services are all suggested to help prevent violence. But no one tool or hardening security measure can ensure violence is avoided — it’s going to take multiple strategies, experts at the summit said.
Here are 3 best practices they suggested to help prevent violence in schools:
Identify behaviors over profiling
Implicit bias training for threat assessment teams is an important tool to avoid using bias or emotion to drive a decision, said Colton Easton, project and training manager for Safer Schools Together, a school violence prevention consulting firm. Additionally, decisions need to be made with a data-driven approach, he said.
It’s also important to specifically train a member of the threat assessment team in digital threat assessments, Easton said. That “allows the team to be confident that they’re collecting information from as many sources of information as possible, including social media sites and platforms,” he said.
If a threat assessment is not done properly and a child is misidentified as a serious safety concern, that can lead to unnecessary suspensions, expulsions and referrals to the juvenile justice system, said Amy Lowder, director of student safety and well-being at Cabarrus County Schools in North Carolina.
These behavioral threat assessments are “not based on profiles or identifying types of students, but on identifying and intervening with concerning behaviors,” said Steven Driscoll, a supervisory research specialist at the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center.
Make students feel heard
Fostering confidence among students to report credible safety concerns is a huge responsibility of school staff, said Greg Johnson, principal of West Liberty-Salem High School in Ohio. In 2017, Johnson’s school dealt with the trauma of a shooting incident.
Building that trust to report a safety issue is work that must be done on a daily basis, Johnson said.
“We want our students to feel comfortable talking to people, whether that’s the principal, whether that’s the SRO [school resource officer], whether that’s the school counselor,” Johnson said. “That confidence is important, and it starts with communicating with students and listening to their voice.”
There should also be a follow-up with a student who reports a threat, especially if that report helped prevent violence, Johnson said.
Collecting threat assessment data from schools and comparing information across divisions in a region or state helps gauge if the tool is successful, said Donna Michaelis, director of the Virginia Center for School and Campus Safety and Public Safety Training.
In Virginia, Michaelis said, the state tracks its safety audit reporting by collecting threat assessment data from schools and sending it back to them to compare with other schools in the area.
Of all threats assessed by schools in Virginia within the past nine years, violence was averted in 99.7% of the cases, Michaelis said.
“That is huge,” she said. “It’s huge to tell your community members, your legislators that this process works and early intervention is critical. It’s also important to normalize the reporting of concerning behavior — reframing it not as a punitive action, but as a caring one.”
Another vital opportunity for collecting data is tracking if students received care after referrals for mental health support, said Sharon Hoover, co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health. Without such follow-up of services, the risk of violence can arise, she said.
That’s why the onus should fall on both state education authorities and federal partners to build data infrastructure so districts can ensure students are receiving care and that others are safe, Hoover said.