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Safe Schools: Survivors, families pushing for VA’s Threat Assessment Teams across US

CHARLOTTSVILLE, Va. – In the aftermath of the high school massacre in Parkland, Florida, one thing about accused shooter Nikolas Cruz stands out loud and clear: His brooding anger, disturbing behavior and violent threats raised red flags all over the place.

“It was the worst-kept secret in Parkland,” said Patrick Petty, a student who survived the attack that claimed 17 lives. “We all knew as soon as it happened. As soon as we found out what was happening, we all knew that it was this kid.”

Experts say it’s one thing nearly every school shooting has in common: there are almost always warning signs. That’s why there’s a long-running effort in the public schools of Virginia to catch those warning signs and do something about them before any bullets start flying. Now, survivors and victim relatives from Parkland, Fla., and Sandy Hook, Conn., are pushing for Virginia-like programs across the country.

After Columbine in 1999, schools in Virginia pioneered the use of so-called Threat Assessment Teams. That name may sound like the SWAT Team is about to move in — but in fact— it’s a way to help troubled students before they shoot up a school.

“When a student makes a threat, that’s really a red flag that they’re frustrated, upset, something has gone wrong,” said Prof. Dewey Cornell at the University of Virginia.

He’s been studying school violence for more than two decades. He believes the standard campus approach to threatening behavior — zero tolerance and expulsion or suspension — is counterproductive.

“We’ve seen in a number of school shootings that kids were alienated, angry, upset, and then excluded from school, which only gave them more time to become resentful and plan and prepare an assault,” Cornell said.

Instead of going down that path, lawmakers in Richmond adopted a decidedly different approach. State law now requires every public school in Virginia, from kindergarten through college, to have Threat Assessment Teams standing by.

The effort began in the year 2000. Following the Columbine High School attack in Colorado that claimed 15 lives, the Virginia General Assembly established a program for identifying at-risk students.

In 2008 , following 33 shooting deaths on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., the assembly passed a new law that required all public colleges to have Threat Assessment Teams.

Then, Sandy Hook happened, a shooting spree at an elemtary school in Connecticutt in which 28 children and adults were fatally shot. That prompted Virginia, in 2013, to require Threat Assessment Teams at all public schools from the college level down to kindergarten. The law was updated in 2016 to give Threat Assessment Teams authority to obtain criminal history and health records of students whose behavior is of concern.

“It can help resolve the underlying concern,” said Dr. Gene Deisinger, a former deputy police chief in Blacksburg. His consulting firm SIGMA Threat Management Associates provides training programs for Threat Assessment Teams statewide.

When a concern about a student’s behavior— or a threat– is reported, the team meets to evaluate the student’s trouble and decide what, if anything, needs to be done. Virginia law requires that each team must include members with expertise in counseling, instruction, school administration and law enforcement.

“We sometimes identify people that have legitimate grievances,” Deisinger said. “They are being bullied, they are being harassed.”

The team’s first step is to gather as much information from as many sources as possible.

“So that all that information synthesizes,” said Donna Michaelis, manager of the Virginia Center for School and Campus Safety. “They can find the best and most appropriate intervention in the child’s life.”

When asked if — in her gut — she thinks the system works, Michaelis replied, “Absolutely.”

Rarely does the team decide the situation requires “calling in the cops.” Each team has the expertise to refer the student to counseling or mental health services or to grapple with personal issues that are provoking tension.

That means the outcome can be good, not just for the school administrators, but also for the student the team is worried about.

“Absolutely,” said Dr. Jesse Turner, principal of Albemarle High School in Charlottesville, Va. “Once the children understand and feel as though they are supported, and they have a pathway to help them — I’ve never seen it not work.”

According to audit reports on Virginia’s program, 1,956 Virginia schools reported 9,238 threat assessment cases in the 2016-2017 school year. There were 928 cases considered “high-level threats” and in 888 of those serious cases, “the threat was ultimately averted,” the audit said. In 40 of the 928 serious cases “an event occurred, nearly half (18) involved suicide attempts by students.”

Virginia was the first state to make threat assessment mandatory in all schools. Now the idea is catching on in other states, and legislation is working its way through Congress that would help pay for it.

“After 9-11, we secured our skies,” said Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana. “It’s time now that we secure our schools.”

Daines joined Sen. Orrin Hatch, of Utah, and Marco Rubio, of Florida, at a U.S. Capitol news conference promoting the legislation. Two members of the Petty family from Parkland, Fla., were there as well.

Ryan Petty lost his 14-year-old daughter, Alaina in the Parkland shooting. He and his son, Patrick are now lobbying lawmakers to act on the human side of the equation instead of endlessly arguing over gun control. They’ve already made progress at home in Florida.

“I’m happy to say, in three weeks we passed a school safety bill” in Florida, he told Rubio and Hatch at a roundtable discussion inside the Capitol.

“I think we would all agree,” Rubio told him, “that the best way to stop these (shootings) is to stop it before a killer ever steps foot in a school or in a mall or in a stadium or anywhere.”

Now they hope to spark federal change, in memory of Alaina, by lobbying for the federal Stop School Violence Act.

“I wish we had the Stop Violence Act a month ago,” Ryan Petty said at the outdoor news conference with several senators.

His son, Patrick added, “So that something like Parkland will never happen again and no other student, no other person, has to bury their sister, or family member, or loved one.”

Key Dates in The Commonwealth of Virginia

+2000 Following Columbine H.S. shooting in Colorado (15 deaths), the Virginia General Assembly established a program for identifying at-risk students.

+2008 Following the massacre at Virginia Tech (33 deaths), the Virginia General Assembly passed a law requiring all public colleges to have Threat Assessment Teams.

+2013 Following the Sandy Hook tragedy (28 deaths), the Virginia General Assembly revised the law to require Threat Assessment Teams at all schools, K-12 and college.

+2016 The Virginia General Assembly gave Threat Assessment Teams authority to obtain criminal history and health records of students whose behavior is of concern.

Data for the 2016-2017 school year

+1,956 Virginia schools (K-12) reported 9,238 threat assessment cases.

+928 of the cases were considered “high-level threats.”

+In 888 of 928 serious cases “the threat was ultimately averted.”

+In 40 of 928 serious cases “an event occurred, nearly half (18) involved suicide attempts by students.”

Threat Assessment Teams

+ Virginia law requires each team to include members with expertise in counseling, instruction, school administration and law enforcement.

+The Commonwealth of Virginia provides training for members of each team.

+The team determines if a threat has been made or if a student’s “behaviors are threatening, aberrant or concerning” and whether the threat or concern is serious.

+The team implements “a strategy to continue to assess, monitor and manage the case.” If there is “an immediate threat to life or physical safety” then it “must result in an immediate notification to law enforcement.”

All data and quotes are from publications of The Commonwealth of Virginia.

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