Schools identify student threats, but often barred from sharing info
Schools around the country have been setting up teams to assess threats posed by students who display signs of violence like the former student who compiled a “hit list” years ago in high school and went on to kill nine people in a weekend shooting in Dayton, Ohio.
Despite consensus on the approach’s benefits, school officials say they are limited in what they can do by privacy concerns, a lack of resources and limits on what they can communicate once a student leaves school.
The gunman, 24-year-old Connor Betts, was suspended for compiling a “hit list” and a “rape list” during his junior year at Bellbrook High School, former classmates told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity out of concern they might face harassment. Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Schools wouldn’t comment and refused to release information about Betts, citing legal protections for student records.
The goal of screening programs at a growing number of schools is to not only flag and address threats raised by students, but also to track and manage any risk they might pose to themselves and others.
Under protocols endorsed by the Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education, school districts are encouraged to set up a threat assessment team including at least a school administrator, a mental health professional such as a school psychologist, and a school resource officer or another law enforcement representative.
The teams consider concerns raised by other students, school community members and even people commenting anonymously through tip lines in some cases.
In Michigan, each district has an emergency plan as well as law enforcement partnerships, board policies and student handbooks to address potential threats.
"It certainly is a priority and districts are trying to handle this in a proactive rather than a reactive manner," said Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators. "It's tough to predict what can happen in today's age. The idea is to try to be as prepared as possible. We all want students to feel safe in their buildings and teachers and staff and whomever else."
The Novi Community School District has a team that mobilizes when threats arise. That group operates informally when situations bubble up, Novi schools Superintendent Steve Matthews said.
But adding to the challenge, he said, are federal laws that limit what can be shared with the public about an investigation or student discipline.
"That student has rights to privacy and we can't violate those," said Matthews, adding there needs to be a solution that would allow for better information-sharing when a threat is deemed valid.
"What we can do (now) is let families know we are addressing the situation and taking appropriate action. That sometimes satisfies parents and most times, does not."
If there is a perceived threat from a student in Novi schools, Matthews joins with law enforcement and building administrators to address it.
"We're trying to balance both the safety of our students, which we take very seriously, with also recognizing students are going to make some poor choices in how they phrase things and seek attention," he said. "It's a challenge. I don't want to put the 6,700 students in my district at risk because I didn't take a perceived threat serious enough."
The district last year added a second police liaison officer and has a school safety committee that Matthews said regularly meets to "think about threats to our district and to our students." Officials, he said, don't have the resources to regularly monitor multiple social media platforms.
Gary Niehaus, superintendent of the Grosse Pointe Public School System, said his first priority after joining the district four years ago was to commission a safety audit of all of its buildings.
The district, he added, reports any potential threats to law enforcement, which can conduct home visits and assess whether the threats are credible.
"We're continuing to find better ways to protect our kids, our facilities and staff," he said. "We continue to believe that we have kids inside our building that really do care enough to alert us when there are things that look as if they are going to go in the wrong direction."
Doug Pratt, a spokesman for the Michigan Education Association, the state's largest teacher's union, said different school districts are dealing with issues to best meet the needs of their individual communities, school workers, parents and students.
Pratt said the focus should be on prevention and intervention "before tragedy strikes."
"That’s why MEA believes we need to invest in more school counselors, social workers, school psychologists and other professionals, as well as smaller class sizes for teachers — so that dedicated professionals can identify and resolve issues long before violence happens," Pratt said.
In November, a school safety task force organized under former Gov. Rick Snyder issued a set of recommendations on how to improve school safety in Michigan.
Afterward, a School Safety Commission was created to come up with practices for school safety measures, including the role of safety liaisons and technology. The new commission held its first meeting on July 25.
Several Michigan school safety statutes went into effect in March, including regulations for designating district liaisons for school safety and reporting requirements, such as a rule that districts and public school academies report certain incidents to the Michigan State Police within 24 hours.
Schools are coming under pressure to have threat assessment systems in place because of new state laws and court rulings that have held school systems liable, according to Stephen Brock, a professor at the School Psychology program at California State University, Sacramento.
Students who engage in threatening behaviors need to face consequences, but any disciplinary response must also be accompanied by intervention to address the root causes, Brock said.
“There are a number of different explanations for why someone might engage in an act of violence and what we need to do, if the person is not an immediate risk, is begin to figure out why,” said Brock, who is also the lead author of the National Association of School Psychologist’s school safety and crisis prevention and intervention curriculum.
Success stories cannot be discussed because of student confidentiality, Brock said, but he said interventions have prevented far more tragedies than those that have occurred.
Schools are not completely responsible to follow up on treatment, but rather must assess the credibility of the threat and make referrals to professionals for more thorough evaluations, said Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services.
At Ohio’s West Liberty-Salem High School where a 17-year-old gunman wounded two in 2017, Assistant Principal Andy McGill said his district’s threat assessment team of administrators and school counselors is set up to work with outside agencies and law enforcement to address both the immediate and long-term consequences on students and the entire community.
“There are so many pieces to it,” McGill said. “It can be overwhelming trying to think about the entirety of the situation and the broad scope of the situation but it’s really something you have to do.”
Detroit News staff writer Christine Ferretti contributed. Associated Press writers Michael Melia in Hartford, Conn., Julie Carr Smyth in Dayton, Ohio, and Michael Biesecker in Washington contributed to this report. Waggoner reported from Raleigh, N.C., and Thompson from Buffalo, N.Y.