NJ’s training on school threats now more urgent

JOHN MOONEY, EDUCATION WRITER | JUNE 3, 2022

NJ Spotlight News

May 25, 2022: Esmeralda Bravo, center, holds a photo of her granddaughter, Nevaeh, one of the Robb Elementary School shooting victims, as she is comforted by Nevaeh's cousin, Anayeli, during a prayer vigil in Uvalde, Texas.

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Dating back at least five years, the state’s training for New Jersey school and law enforcement officials comes with a clinical name and lots of detail on processes and procedures that belie its tragic topic.

But the latest online session of the “School Behavioral Threat Assessment & Management” certainly took on a greater urgency — and interest — than usual on Thursday, as experts and educators spent the day discussing strategies to address troubled students who could turn violent against others or themselves.

The session comes in the aftermath of the Texas school shooting last week, where the 18-year-old gunman was somehow missed by such safeguards in his school, leading to the mass shooting at the Robb Elementary School and the deaths of 19 schoolchildren and two teachers.

New Jersey’s director of school safety with the Department of Education couldn’t avoid recent events when introducing the online program Thursday to more than 300 participants, a mix of school administrators, nurses and counselors, and local and county law enforcement officials.

Getting troubled students on radar

The underlying premise of the training is to identify and help students who show troubling signs. “What we are looking to do is to position ourselves in such a way as to be able to have someone on our radar who is moving along a pathway toward violence in our schools,” said Jeff Gale, director of the state’s Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning.

“When you listen to what is being taught today and see what happened in Texas, you will see this process aligned in the context of those incidents,” he said. “Our hope collectively is we latch onto this methodology and try to intervene long before we see someone firing weapons in one of our schools.”

The six-hour session was led by two experts from the Texas-based security firm Sigma, which has been conducting New Jersey’s training for several years. Slide by slide, the focus was on preventing the tragedies early. That means identifying what they called a student’s “pathway to violence” by having a system and process in place to react to tips and so-called red flags in structured ways.

Instructors told teachers and staff to pay particular attention to any threats by students of violence in schools, whether they’re in remarks to other students, in social media and in writing assignments. They were told to look for patterns of comments.

“It’s all about getting into their world, putting arms around them and getting them off that pathway,” said William Zimmerman, one of the trainers and a former law enforcement officer with the Capitol Police in Washington, D.C.

Missing the signs?

Zimmerman said repeated research into mass shootings and specifically school shootings found that in most cases, schools and others had seen signs that a student may act violently and didn’t act upon them.

The mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut a decade ago was a case in point, where a 20-year-old man killed 26 people, 20 of them children, after his school and others had missed multiple warning signs.

“These individuals do not fall from the sky,” said Stephanie Leite, the second Sigma trainer for the Thursday session, a forensic psychologist. “The district knew about him, didn’t want to deal with him. To say he fell through the cracks is an understatement … He was shoved through the cracks.”

The strategy relies on schools having specific teams of school and law enforcement officials in place that would take the lead screening tips and other signs, collecting further information and assessing whether a student poses a danger to others or themselves and needs specific help. The so-called threat assessment teams are not required in New Jersey schools, but an informal poll of the webinar’s audience indicated versions of them exist in many districts.

The strategy also relies on following the best practices laid out by several reports by the U.S. Secret Service, the latest in 2021, that looked specifically at school shootings and their warning signs. In those reports, the authors laid out specific questions to ask about a student and for devising strategies for gathering further information.

Not foolproof

This approach, however, comes with obvious traps, and the training Thursday delved into the dangers of biases and profiling and the overreliance on one or two pieces of information without looking at broader context.  “Just because a student is uncooperative, it doesn’t mean he’ll be violent,” Zimmerman said.

And he said no strategy is foolproof. “The problem with threat assessment is you can do everything right, and bad things still happen,” Zimmerman said. “We’re dealing with humans.

“What you are looking for is doing things correctly and through the best practices that we have,” he said. “And when that is done, there are a lot of things that can be stopped.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-06-03 02:56:19 -0700