Safer schools through better communication

Here’s an idea: Instead of turning our schools into fortresses to try to prevent the next school shooting, how about we do more? As we contemplate adding metal detectors and bulletproof safe rooms to schools, how about we try an additional approach?

How about setting up dedicated lines of communication within schools so students, teachers and staff can confidently share what they know about troubled kids and get them the attention they need?

In most cases, school shootings are carried out by angry current or former students. And who is in the best position to observe these disturbed kids? Other kids, of course! If Sebastian overhears his classmate Luke incessantly talking about guns, or if Ruby knows Owen is talking about his romantic heartbreak and suicide, shouldn’t we give these kids a fast and safe way to relay that information?

This common-sense concept is at the center of a new plan from the National Threat Assessment Center at the U.S. Secret Service, which recently issued an eight-step guide for safer schools. The plan has been described as “one of the most explicit pieces of literature to come out of the Trump administration on how to prevent targeted attacks.”

The guidelines encourage administrators to establish an atmosphere in which students can make reports about the disturbing behavior of their classmates without feeling like a “snitch.” The incoming reports would be assessed by a specially trained “threat assessment team” of adults that includes education, mental health and law enforcement professionals. This team would be dedicated to talking with — and seriously listening to — students. The goal: to build trust and break down the “codes of silence” so many teens follow. Suggestions in the federal plan include setting up an online tip form and a dedicated telephone hotline, and/or designing a smartphone app to accept reports about worrisome behaviors.

There’s no magic wand that will unmask potential school shooters, of course, but if a student sees that a classmate has posted a disturbing message on social media or a teacher suddenly notices a student isn’t completing homework and has withdrawn, they can use one of these new lines of communication to instantly alert the threat assessment team.

If the reported threat is found to be a one-time occurrence, light disciplinary action and a note home to parents might suffice. But if the threat is more serious or a repeat of past bad behavior, then the threat assessment team might direct the student to therapy or special tutoring. If the team decides the threat is a real and credible danger to the school, it will call in law enforcement.

This kind of system has been in effect in Los Angeles County since 2009. Dr. Tony Beliz set the program in motion and stresses that it is not just about confronting high-risk kids. It also has to be about really engaging with them and staying in touch well after the first contact.

“When we focus on the fact that we’re trying to help them get on with their life versus drilling them every day about whether you have a weapon, are you going to shoot somebody today, and we talk about the issues beneath that, they get better, they see some hope,” Dr. Beliz said.

School shooter Nikolas Cruz, who attended Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High but was involuntarily transferred to an alternative school for students with special needs, was well-known as a kid with severe emotional and anger issues. He had been diagnosed as disruptive, explosive and impulsive at the age of 5. Somehow, Cruz’s long-standing behavior intervention plan was discontinued as he approached his high school graduation. On Valentine’s Day 2018, he returned to Stoneman Douglas High and shot dead 17 students and teachers in one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history. Cruz’s classmates said they were not surprised when he was identified as the killer.

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Diane Diamond is a Nationally Syndicated Columnist