Building multi-disciplinary school threat assessment teams

“It’s critically important that as many perspectives as possible come to the table in the assessment of risk or threat as well as assessing potential protective factors.”


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By Carol Brzozowski

Law enforcement plays a key role in building multi-disciplinary school threat assessment teams.

“It’s critically important that as many perspectives as possible come to the table in the assessment of risk or threat as well as assessing potential protective factors,” notes Dr. Frank Straub, a psychologist who directs the Center for Targeted Violence Prevention, where he has conducted studies of targeted mass violence events in San Bernardino, Kalamazoo, Orlando, Parkland, and the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.

"It’s critically important that as many perspectives as possible come to the table in the assessment of risk or threat as well as assessing potential protective factors." (Getty Images)

Straub also leads the Averted School Violence project, a national database funded by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services that tracks, analyzes and reports on averted and completed school attacks.

“Too often, we have siloed effects where groups are walled off from each other,” Straub said. “Every discipline has its unique perspective and role it brings to the table.”

Team leaders should convene the threat assessment process, oversee training and ensure team members are aware of the latest developments in the growing field of threat assessment, Straub notes, adding that role is most likely assumed by a school administrator extensively trained in behavioral threat assessment within the school context.

A school resource officer is an ideal person to step into the team’s law enforcement role.

School psychologists or counselors representing the school mental health community also are critical, especially in addressing special needs individuals with public school Individualized Education Programs or private school 504 Plans.

“You want those individuals there to share their thoughts about this student’s behavior,” says Straub. “We’re looking for departures from typical baseline behavior.”

Other team members could include the student’s teacher and a school nurse.

Straub observes the threat assessment process is now opening up to some community stakeholders, such as people representing community mental health and faith organizations.

“Now you have a bridge between the school-based team and what might be going on with this individual in their community setting,” he adds.

[RELATED: Register for Police1's webinar on Building safer schools: How law enforcement and educators can develop effective threat assessment teams to stop school violence]

Addressing the importance of enhanced counseling and effective threat assessment measures to disrupt a potential shooter’s pathway to violence, Straub says research confirms the importance of a trusted adult role model who is engaged with students, particularly those identified as high-need, high-risk students and to whom other students can approach if they become aware of concerning behavior.

Working with high-risk adolescents is essentially case management addressing a student’s needs, situations creating risk, caregiver situations and the development of a care plan helping move the individual off a trajectory towards violence.

That includes social activities addressing challenges somebody might experience in terms of feeling helpless, lonely, or involved in certain spaces where they're perceiving to get support which isn't real support, but just brings them into an online community, notes Straub.

Frank G. Straub, Ph.D., has conducted in-depth studies of targeted mass violence events in San Bernardino (California), Kalamazoo (Michigan), Orlando (Florida), Parkland (Florida), the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, and Paw Paw (Michigan). He leads the Averted School Violence project, a national database, funded by the US Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, that tracks, analyzes and reports on averted and completed school attacks. He has also led a DHS-funded Countering Violent Extremism project in Boston and consults with several NGOs in counter-extremism and counterterrorism.
Frank G. Straub, Ph.D., has conducted in-depth studies of targeted mass violence events in San Bernardino (California), Kalamazoo (Michigan), Orlando (Florida), Parkland (Florida), the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, and Paw Paw (Michigan). He leads the Averted School Violence project, a national database, funded by the US Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, that tracks, analyzes and reports on averted and completed school attacks. He has also led a DHS-funded Countering Violent Extremism project in Boston and consults with several NGOs in counter-extremism and counterterrorism.

That entails examining the individual’s interests that led them to the pseudo community and using those interests and other aspects of online activity to engage the person in other activities that might be more supportive of social engagement and interaction that moves somebody away from violence, he adds.

In his organization’s analysis of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida from a mental health perspective, “there was a disconnect between school-based and community services,” notes Straub, adding that creates opportunities for high-risk, high-need individuals to fall into the cracks.

A behavioral threat assessment and management team can take responsibility for ensuring an individual is connected to services supporting their growth and moving them from violent ideation and potentially violent activity,” he adds.

Straub – who served for more than 30 years in federal, state and local law enforcement – notes that community policing and the various accompanying activities “is incredibly important for a host of issues. But we want our law enforcement officers to have deep connections with the community at large, particularly with our youth. We want individuals to see law enforcement as trusted members of the community.”

Straub says there also needs to be general training across law enforcement around threat assessment.

“We have patrol officers called to do a wellness check for students as well as adults, so there’s an understanding of some of the warning signs and what to do,” he said. “Recognizing the connections between suicidal ideation or homicidal ideation is important.”

Training includes intelligence systems engaged with an individual’s social media activity, where individuals are discussing their violent ideology or thoughts around self-harm or harming others, says Straub.

Straub emphasizes law enforcement can work with schools that may be using monitoring techniques “hopefully with notification to the students if they’re using a school computer on school property or at home, their activity on that is subject to be monitored.

“Sadly, from a response standpoint, law enforcement needs to be familiar with the schools and train in schools so they know how the door locks and alarm systems work, the evacuation points and points of egress.”

Prevention success ultimately comes down to the fundamental “see something, say something, do something” campaign, notes Straub. “If a teacher, peer or parent becomes aware of disturbing online content and potentially disturbing writings in classroom assignments, notebooks and diaries, it doesn't necessarily mean we have to go from zero to 100 that somebody has a particular interest let's say in Nazism – unfortunately, that has permeated a number of these attacks.

“We want to investigate. We don’t want to just brush it off. We want to ask questions: Why are you interested in this…is this because you're taking a history class or whatever the case may be. It's being observant of potential warning indicators, questioning them and doing something about it.”

Straub references a case in Paw Paw, Michigan, that in the beginning had gone well as an averted case of school violence.

“A teacher noticed an interaction between two young men laughing and passing a notebook back and forth in class,” says. “He asked the student to look into the notebook, then brings the student and the notebook to the principal's office. There was some very disturbing content in there of people being killed, people bleeding, some KKK references, misogynistic-type drawings and references and drawings of improvised explosive devices.”

Law enforcement obtained a consent search for his home. Finding nothing, they remained highly vigilant.

“Then the family actually prevents the attack when the grandfather notices a couple of his weapons are missing. There are metal shavings in his workshop. He suspects the barrels on the rifles have been cut down. He calls the young man's parents,” says Straub.

The parents confront the young man, who admits his intent to commit the school shooting. He was arrested and sent to a juvenile detention facility.

Although the parents’ concern averted a school shooting, six months after his release, he committed a homicide/suicide in a neighboring community.

Staub emphasizes to agencies looking to get involved in threat assessment efforts to take the lead by reaching out to community stakeholders and creating a multidisciplinary approach to prevention: “When there are seamless, trusting relationships between law enforcement, school officials, mental and medical health providers and the community at large, we have the opportunity to identify people before they start to be overly engaged in this process of contemplating violence and get them the help and interventions they need very early on.”


About the author

Carol Brzozowski is a freelance journalist and former daily newspaper reporter based in South Florida. Her work has been published in more than 200 media outlets. 

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