A Blip on the Radar: School Safety Synergy through Early Warning and Information Sharing

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Bruno Dias


School safety and security form a complex issue. Educators, as well as safety and security professionals, must balance the implementation of safety and security measures without sacrificing privacy rights and what should be welcoming learning environments for children. The increased frequency and lethality of violence within the American public education system highlights the importance of conducting a closer examination of contemporary school safety and security initiatives to identify prevailing opportunities and effective practices through research and empirical evidence.[1]

The pervasiveness of violence in American schools has been a problem for decades. With growing casualty rates and increased media coverage, federal, state, and local governments are pressured to enact laws, mandates, and initiatives aimed at preventing school violence.[2] The Federal Commission on School Safety and multiple state-led mandates, which include legislative actions, were either introduced or became law in 2018—one of the deadliest school years since the 1970s.[3] States that bore witness to highly publicized 2018 school shootings, such as Florida and Texas, have responded by enacting a range of measures, including the use of school-based behavioral threat assessment and management as a strategy to counter violence within the public education system.[4] Behavioral threat assessment and management processes help educators, and school safety and security professionals understand precipitating behaviors, stressors, and violence mitigators that should be regulated or leveraged to promote safety. Having a deeper understanding of what causes concerning behaviors helps school administrators formulate better management strategies, which in turn may keep students from progressing down a pathway of violence where retribution becomes the solution to correct a perceived wrong.[5]

U.S. government agencies have conducted multiple studies regarding behavioral threat assessments. Still, a recent 2019 Secret Service study highlights the importance of effective behavioral threat assessment and management processes in school violence prevention.[6] Before behavioral threat assessment and management, threats and concerning behaviors were dealt with by enacting zero-tolerance policies, which often resulted in the expulsion of students or criminal prosecution. Behavioral threat assessment does not replace disciplinary actions, but if done effectively, the number of conduct violations may be significantly reduced by adding a process designed to provide support and risk management rather than simply punish.[7]

This thesis applied a multi-step qualitative and comparative policy analysis framework that outlined the issues by defining the problem, assembling the evidence, projecting outcomes, and deciding courses of action.[8] This study evaluates strengths and weaknesses in school safety and security by drawing lessons from past incidents of school violence, assembling contributing factors to inaction, comparing another country’s holistic approach to counter incidents of targeted violence, and evaluating gaps in existing school safety legislation.

This thesis found that to be done effectively, behavioral threat assessment and management require the implementation of training, information sharing, and measurement tools that focus on efficacy instead of compliance or broad measures that consequentially affect children who do not pose a threat. This thesis determined that behavioral threat assessment practices should leverage the collective expertise of multiple stakeholders, ensure accurate understanding of existing privacy rights to guide information sharing practices, develop proper case management protocols, and implement policies that ensure beneficial information is not lost as a child moves from school to school.

Through a review of Texas and federal legislation, this thesis found both valuable elements as well as opportunities to enhance safety and security measures aimed at preventing school violence. In 2019, Texas took an essential step in increasing school safety and security measures through legislation, but despite making significant strides, to date, little guidance has been provided regarding how to assess if proper behavioral threat assessment case management and information sharing processes are being conducted.[9]

This thesis identifies areas where existing gaps should be addressed sooner rather than later, as failure to do so, will likely affect desired outcomes. By identifying existing opportunities, offering solutions, and recommending relevant legislation, this thesis helps educational institutions and homeland security stakeholders prioritize resources to build effective school safety and security programs.

It may never be possible to prevent violent attacks from happening in schools entirely, but schools must mitigate the risk through both proactive and protective means by developing processes that are defensible. This research concludes that there is no single solution to school safety and security. The focus must be placed on developing a layered security protocol that leverages entire communities to make school violence prevention an attainable goal.

The primary audience of this thesis includes legislators, school district leadership, mental health professionals, public safety professionals tasked with providing school safety and security functions, and fusion centers. While the narrow scope of this thesis was intended for Texas, the recommendations outlined in this thesis can be broadly applied at a national level.

[1] “Shooting Incidents Graphs 2010-Present Archives,” K-12 School Shooting Database, accessed July 24, 2020, https://www.chds.us/ssdb/category/shooting-incidents-2010-present/.

[2] Michelle Exstrom, “School Safety: Overview and Legislative Tracking,” National Conference of State Legislatures, May 8, 2019, http://www.ncsl.org/research/education/school-safety.aspx.

[3] Federal Commission on School Safety, Final Report of the Federal Commission on School Safety (Washington, DC: Federal Commission on School Safety, 2018), https://www2.ed.gov/documents/school-safety/school-safety-report.pdf.

[4] “Unprepared and Overwhelmed,” South Florida Sun Sentinel, December 28, 2018, https://projects.‌sun-sentinel.com/2018/sfl-parkland-school-shooting-critical-moments; Alex Samuels, “Gov. Greg Abbott Signs Several School Safety Bills in Wake of Shooting at Santa Fe High,” Texas Tribune, June 6, 2019, https://www.texastribune.org/2019/06/06/texas-santa-fe-mass-shooting-mental-health-school-safety/.

[5] Melissa A. Louvar Reeves and Stephen E. Brock, “School Behavioral Threat Assessment and Management,” Contemporary School Psychology 22, no. 2 (2018): 148–62, https://doi.org/‌10.1007/s40688-017-0158-6.

[6] Lina Alathari et al., Protecting America’s Schools: A U.S. Secret Service Analysis of Targeted School Violence (Washington, DC: National Threat Assessment Center, 2019), https://www.secretservice.gov/‌data/‌protection/ntac/Protecting_Americas_Schools.pdf.

[7] “Zero Tolerance,” University of Virginia, accessed August 15, 2020, https://curry.virginia.edu/‌faculty-research/centers-labs-projects/research-labs/youth-violence-project/violence-schools-and-1.

[8] Eugene Bardach, A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis: The Eightfold Path to More Effective Problem Solving, 4th ed. (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2012).

[9] Texas School Safety Center, “Model Policies and Procedures to Establish and Train on Threat Assessment” (San Marcos: Texas School Safety Center, 2020), https://locker.txssc.txstate.edu/‌f40474‌bcbab5f025bb1570f1bfbf9f06/Model-Policies-and-Procedures-to-Establish-and-Train-on-Threat-Assessment.pdf.

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