Creating Safer Schools: Prevention, Threat Assessment And Security
by Kimberly Sellery & Hugh Biggar, California Schools magazine Summer 2018
Columbine. Sandy Hook. Parkland.
School shootings at these locations, among others, have made headlines from 1999 through 2018. Each time another tragic shooting occurs, a flurry of media coverage around the incident ensues, heated debates about the place of guns in our society occur and discussions around prevention and safety concerns in schools take precedence. These discussions often center around one aspect of school safety, whether that be physical measures, examining disciplinary practices or banning certain weapons. However, research shows that it is important to approach school safety from a broad-based perspective — addressing a range of preventative and safety measures both at individual schools as well as at a district level.
This special section of California Schools aims to give a broad overview of three approaches that schools, districts and counties can take to work together to reduce incidences of school violence and create safe and supportive school environments that address the needs of all students.
“Ensuring a safe school environment for California’s students is of the utmost importance and contributes to their academic, social and overall success in college, career and civic life,” said CSBA CEO & Executive Director Vernon M. Billy. “Board members can set district and county office of education bylaws and policies that pave the way to safety for their schools and optimal outcomes for their students.”
The First Step Is Prevention: How Safe and Supportive School Environments Deter School Violence
One of the most important measures for preventing violent incidents in schools is one that is often overlooked — creating a safe and supportive school environment through a focus on improving social and emotional health. In 2014, The National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Education, released three guiding principles for improving school climate and safety: create a positive climate and focus on prevention; develop clear, appropriate and consistent expectations and consequences; and ensure fairness, equity and continuous improvement. To underscore just how integral socialemotional learning is to school safety, the California Department of Education in February of this year also released a set of guiding principles for teaching social and emotional skills that reflect these same categories.
“People think of climate and social-emotional learning as long-term prevention, but I would argue that it’s actually the strongest form of weapon reduction and violence intervention that we have,” said Ron Avi Astor, an expert in school safety and professor of school behavioral health at the University of Southern California. “Students know about this stuff earlier and experience it on school grounds on a regular basis. Unless you have a positive, caring setting that’s supportive, they won’t come forth and you won’t know about it.”
Social and emotional learning teaches people to recognize, understand and manage their emotions. A focus on social-emotional learning can lead students to establish and maintain better relationships with their peers and with adults, as well as help them to make responsible decisions. Integrating a focus on SEL throughout a district and in individual schools has been proven to not only reduce bullying and other violent incidents, but also to improve academic outcomes.
“Meta-analyses of social-emotional learning programs find a huge difference in outcomes from those students who have received the interventions versus those that have not,” said Patricia E. Campie, principal researcher at the American Institutes for Research. “There is a more than 25 percent difference in terms of social competence and more than 10 percent difference in terms of academic achievement.”
Assessing School Climate
Creating safe and supportive school environments requires stakeholders such as school board members, superintendents, principals and teachers to identify improving school climate as a priority. “First and foremost, the leadership needs to see school climate as part of the central mission,” said Astor, who also co-authored the Call for Action to Prevent Gun Violence in the United States of America, released in response to the Parkland shooting. “It’s not competing with academics, it’s not instead of academics — it’s equal to academics.”
School climate encompasses everything, from how welcoming is the school, to the school’s approach to discipline and behavior, to how well it reflects the different cultures and backgrounds of its students and the connectedness that those students feel both to the school itself and to the adults in the school. The first step in creating a safe and supportive school environment is measuring the current state that all California schools have at their disposal: the California Healthy Kids Survey. The CHKS, funded by the California Department of Education, is a comprehensive survey of resiliency, protective factors, risk behaviors and school climate available to all California local educational agencies. It provides LEAs with a standard tool that promotes the collection of uniform data and can be disaggregated to the district, school and even grade level.
Emphasizing the importance of evaluating current school climate, the School Climate priority area of the Local Control and Accountability Plan requires LEAs to provide “local measures, including surveys of pupils, parents and teachers on the sense of safety and school connectedness.” Districts and schools can use data collected from the CHKS to identify areas in which students are struggling in order to direct resources and supports. There are numerous other tools and surveys available in addition to the CHKS, many of which allow for family and community input. For example, Chula Vista Unified School District uses a tool called Thought Exchange, a web-based survey program. “We get parent, community, teacher and other school staff input on how things are going — what is going well, what needs improvement and what might possibly be implemented,” said Chula Vista USD Board President Leslie Bunker. “It is a great tool for LCAP prioritization and engagement.”
Creating a Positive School Climate
Creating a positive school climate requires a “systems change” approach to promoting student academic, social and emotional learning. The use of evidence-based prevention strategies, such as tiered supports, to promote positive student behavior should be a priority. SEL should be integrated across all school- and districtwide systemic platforms such as vision statements, strategic plans, budgetary decisions, staffing, professional learning and development, policies and regulations, curricular adoption criteria, instructional practices and instructional quality assessments.
“This focus on safe and supportive school environment has made a very positive impact on students and their achievement.”
At Chula Vista USD, SEL is woven into the curriculum and throughout the school day beginning in transitional kindergarten. “You need to have specific social-emotional programs or processes that can be used on a daily basis in order to create a safe environment,” said CVUSD Superintendent Francisco Escobedo. “Sanford Harmony and 2nd Step are two programs that our schools use. When the board crafted the LCAP, LCAP Goal #1 states: ‘Improve and increase access to services that support social-emotional learning, physical wellness and school success.’ Since the LCAP, it has truly become a high priority and primary focus.”
“This focus on safe and supportive school environment has made a very positive impact on students and their achievement,” said CVUSD trustee Bunker. “Students are scoring better on tests and there is less conflict happening. At the classroom level, you can see that if kids are not constantly in turmoil, they are able to focus more on academics. Plus teachers aren’t having to spend extra time negotiating issues between students — the students are learning to do that themselves.”
Staff from the Orange County Department of Education were part of the planning team that developed California’s guiding principles for social-emotional learning. OCDE has found that an emphasis on professional development has helped to further SEL and the contributions it makes toward a safe and supportive school environment. “School safety and professional development have been a focus of our department for more than 15 years, starting with our early work promoting Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports,” said County Superintendent Al Mijares. “In more recent years, we have added trainings on restorative practices, mindfulness, social-emotional learning and other proven strategies for enhancing school climates.”
“California schools are responsible for ensuring that all of California’s diverse students have access to a wide range of content, and the evidence indicates that attending to students’ social and emotional needs can help facilitate their access and success,” said CSBA Senior Director of Policy and Programs Julie Maxwell-Jolly. “In addition, attention to SEL helps educators focus on the rich diversity of cultural, linguistic and social backgrounds of the state’s students and the attendant variation in their needs. Finally, attention to SEL means that educators have a more constant awareness of the state of mind of their students and can address students’ struggles and highlight their strengths in an ongoing manner, all of which contribute to a healthier and safer school climate.”
Setting Clear and Consistent Expectations for Students
All students must have opportunities to build SEL skills and receive an educational experience that is personalized, culturally relevant and responsive, and intentionally addresses racism and implicit bias. This includes having a diverse and inclusive leadership team, providing students with opportunities to practice social and emotional skills throughout the school day, and instituting discipline polices that promote social and emotional growth. The guiding principles for improving school climate and safety emphasize the need for clear, appropriate and consistent expectations and consequences for every student. A school-wide — or districtwide — discipline policy that sets high expectations for student behavior and lays out clear and consistent consequences for misbehavior is a critical component of this principle.
This does not mean punitive measures, but rather a focus on an instructional approach to discipline that uses interventions to make behavioral expectations clear and help students develop new behavior skills and positive strategies to avoid conflict, redirect energy and refocus on learning.
Campie of the American Institutes for Research agrees that behavioral intervention is more effective than punitive consequences. “Research shows that cognitive behavioral interventions, across cultures, are universally effective for anyone from 10-year-olds to adults,” she explained. “CBI is a way to help an individual slow down their decision-making process in order to then behave in a way that is more appropriate for the context, the situation and the people involved.”
Partnering with families and community helps to build understanding between school and home, promote transparency and fairness for all students and improve school climate. “It takes a village” is a common mantra in child-rearing, and that thinking is reflected in creating school environments that are supportive of every child. Parent input should be considered when creating new policies and those policies should be communicated clearly. Student and family needs outside of what the school can provide can be addressed through partnerships with community-based organizations and other local stakeholders.
Equity and Continuous Improvement
Schools, districts and county offices of education should direct resources to training staff so they can apply SEL and school discipline policies fairly and equitably. It is also important to continuously evaluate learning and discipline practices to ensure they are achieving the desired outcomes. Evaluation can include data points and gathering feedback from families, students, teachers and other school staff. As mentioned earlier in this article, the California Healthy Kids Survey is a free tool available to every school in the state and can be used over multiple years to measure how student attitudes and perceptions are changing.
Chula Vista USD Superintendent Escobedo cites how his district’s schools work together with their county office to obtain data. “We’ve been working with our county and through our SELPA [Special Education Local Plan Area] since 2013 to capture the county’s total suspensions,” he said, “and whether it is a violent incident or nonviolent or if weapons or drugs were involved. In 2013, the district had 331 suspensions; in 2016–17, that went down to 256. We are happy to see that decrease and would like to see that go down even further.”
California will be the subject of a groundbreaking study on school safety in upcoming years. Working with Virginia Tech and Public Counsel, the American Institutes for Research will examine school-based risk and protective factors and readiness for school safety reforms among students, parents, schools and communities in three school districts in California: one rural, one urban and one large county.
“What we want to understand is how variations within community crime rates, in school practices and in concentrated disadvantage — which is a way to understand economic and social disparities using census data — impact the readiness of a school district to take a comprehensive approach to school safety,” explained AIR’s Campie, who will lead the five-year study. This magazine and CSBA’s newsletter, California School News, will provide our members with periodic updates of this study.
Threat Assessment Protocol: An Important Step to Prevent School Violence
Ona spring afternoon this year, school safety expert Amy Klinger sorted through online news stories and social media posts using such search terms as ‘gun threats’ and ‘bomb threats.’ On Instagram, she came across one gun violence threat against a school that had been shared more than 120,000 times.
For Klinger and other school safety professionals, that threat was just one of the many that spiked in the days and months following a deadly mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla. high school in February 2018. School leaders who are now facing an increase in such threats are grappling with how to best assess them and trying to stay ahead of a potentially serious incident.
“After Parkland, the perfect storm arrived for threats, including media attention, social media and copycat threats.”
Klinger’s organization, the Ohio-based Educator’s School Safety Network, is one of only a few that are tracking information related to threats of campus violence. As of May, the Educator’s School Safety Network found that, in the first four months of 2018, there were roughly 1,500 threats of violence impacting more than 1,800 schools across the United States.
“After Parkland, the perfect storm arrived for threats, including media attention, social media and copycat threats,” Klinger said by phone, as she drove to Columbus to speak to the state legislature about the issue. “It made for a contagious environment and one educators can’t just ignore.”
To help school officials assess these threats, experts have established guidelines and checklists with the uniform caveat that there is no one identifying factor.
“There is no predictor tool, as there is no consistent profile that can confidently predict human behavior,” said Melissa Reeves, an associate professor of psychology at Winthrop University in South Carolina and a former school psychologist. “However, there are patterns of behavior coupled with risk factors, warning signs and significant stressors which help determine if an individual may be on a pathway to violence.”
As part of efforts to prevent a violent incident from happening in schools, school leaders have drawn from academic research to develop tools and practices to better assess threats against schools. One of the most common approaches is known as behavioral threat assessment and management, or BTAM. BTAM involves the use of a multi-disciplinary team of school personnel to mitigate behavioral threats on campus through an integrated process of communication, education, prevention, problem identification, assessment, intervention and response to incidents. The group should include a district administrator, a building administrator, at least one teacher or member of the staff, school mental health staff and, if available, a school resource officer. If a student presents as a threat, makes a threat or indicates potential violence, the team begins the process and consultations. Warning signs can include verbal threats, anti-social behavior, hostile emotions and aggression toward others. Another useful tool is a seven-step process to evaluate school threats developed by researchers at the University of Virginia. The steps move from evaluation to response to safety planning.
At the local level, trustees have also developed their own protocols. In the Lammersville Unified School District in San Joaquin County, trustee Matthew Balzarini said a safety and crisis response committee plays an important role in evaluating risks. Consisting of school board members, school administrators, teachers and other staff, the committee meets each month to discuss new developments and holds a table top exercise to help prepare for any emergencies. The school board has created a school safety policy, school safety plan and holds emergency drills at the district’s schools.
These Lammersville USD safety procedures align with the recommended practice for local educational agencies to have a coordinated response, be cautious and informed, and to not overreact. As part of this approach, experts say not all school threats should be treated the same, and information gathered on individual students and school climate play an important role in determining the validity of the threat.
The Educator’s School Safety Network’s Klinger echoed this proactive strategy, saying it is critical to stay on top of early warning signs of Warning signs can include verbal threats, anti-social behavior, hostile emotions and aggression toward others. a troubled student. Reeves, co-author of the first national school crisis intervention and prevention curriculum, agreed. According to Reeves, “It is important to have a school threat assessment team in place if at all possible.”
In California however, staffing cuts in schools during the last recession reduced critical components of assessment teams. School counselors, for instance, have some of the highest student caseloads nationally. There are also severe shortages of nurses at schools statewide.
“One act of school violence is too many.”
Given this reality, Reeves said community partnerships can help bridge gaps in training and mental health services and interventions for students.
“Our struggle in schools is we can identify students in need of help and know what they need, but there are often not enough resources in schools and in communities to meet some of the emotional and behavioral challenges we see,” she said.
Some California school districts have already turned to local resources for support. The Mariposa County Unified School District near Yosemite National Park, for example, partnered with Mountain Crisis Services to implement an anti-bullying program, one that has since grown to include an initiative to address teen dating violence. The initiative includes peer support groups for students, relationships skills classes, training school staff to recognize warning signs and working with parents and other community groups.
In Southern California, the Murrieta Valley Unified School District established a safe schools program in response to a rise in gang activity. Since its launch, the program has stressed three criteria: communication, school and law enforcement partnerships and staff trainings. The district has also involved students by creating student focus groups and student-led forums to help create a culture of respect, trust and positive behavior to help prevent aggressive behavior. “One act of school violence is too many,” said Reeves.
Increasing Campus Security Measures To Prevent School Violence
On Feb. 14 of this year, an expelled male student arrived at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School at the end of the school day carrying a backpack and a duffel bag. He entered a school building filled with more than 900 students and 30 staff members, and pulled a fire alarm. As students exited classrooms, he began firing a semi-automatic rifle. Staff at the Parkland, Fla., school quickly invoked a code red lockdown. But within six minutes, 17 people had been killed and 17 people wounded. (The shooter, identified through security camera footage and witnesses, escaped but was quickly apprehended.)
The incident sparked widespread outcry, massive student walkouts across the United States in protest of current gun laws, counter walkouts in favor of gun rights, proposals to arm teachers and ongoing conversations among educators and school leaders about how to provide a safe, secure campus while also providing a welcoming environment in the hallways and on the playgrounds.
Several conflicting trends further complicate the issue. While crime on school campuses is down compared to recent decades, gun violence at schools, while rare, has risen. By the end of April 2018, schools and colleges had already experienced 20 campus shooting incidents involving an injury or fatality, or about one incident a week, according to CNN. Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported that more than 208,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since 1999.
In response, educators, mental health professionals, law enforcement officers and other stakeholders are now grappling with how best to prevent school gun violence, and how to do so in a way that does not alter the purpose and feel of school.
“The current dialog on school safety is well overdue,” CSBA CEO & Executive Director Vernon M. Billy said. “This country has long been in need of a comprehensive approach to school safety that focuses on positive school culture, prevention and intervention. It’s tragic that the security of our schoolchildren only seems to pique the national interest in the wake of a school shooting. From the school house, to the state house, to the White House, student safety should be a priority.”
Most recent considerations of school safety are pegged to 1999. In that year, a deadly rampage by two students at Columbine High School in Colorado moved school shootings to the forefront of national attention. Schools have since installed security cameras, limited entry to buildings, added metal detectors, installed alarm systems and developed active shooter drills.
School safety plans, including a plan for school shootings, have also grown in importance over the past 20 years. Campus readiness is now an important part of school safety training. Even so, in California, critical gaps leave some school sites vulnerable. A 2017 school violence survey by the Bureau of State Audits, for example, found that many of California’s public schools do not have a plan for an active shooter on campus and are unprepared for gun violence. The report also said the California Department of Education lagged in monitoring annual school safety plans, which districts are required by law to adopt. (CDE did not return requests for comment.) Another investigation by KCRA3 News in Sacramento found that many older California schools do not have classroom doors that can lock from the inside.
“As a district we want to be prepared for anything that might happen.”
Matthew Balzarini, a school board member in the Lammersville Unified School District near Tracy, said police can play an important role at schools. Balzarini formerly served as a school resource officer while a member of the San Francisco Police Department and is a featured speaker at CSBA’s 2018 Leadership Institute, which includes a panel on school safety. “It’s got to be a good fit; to make the school climate safe, the officer has to be a true resource,” he said.
Balzarini shared his experience working as a school resource officer in a San Francisco high school that had two competing gangs. To help keep the peace, Balzarini said he patrolled the halls, met daily with the principal, acted as a mentor to students, attended faculty meetings and made home visits. He also said he and other school resource officers in the district benefited from dedicated training ahead of being assigned to a campus.
“Police in schools works very well if the job is done right,” Balzarini said. “Under California case law, resource officers are considered school employees and for good reason.”
In San Diego County, Executive Director of Student Support Services for the San Diego County Office of Education Bob Mueller also sees an opportunity for common ground between the need for physical campus security and for a positive school climate.
“Many schools were built 35–40 years ago with an open design,” he said, citing a lack of fences or centralized entry points. “Schools are starting to rethink that and I see that as a common sense investment in people’s well-being.”
Such investments can be expensive. The Partner Alliance for Safer Schools estimates the cost for the highest level of security — bullet-resistant glass, gated parking, mobile applications for video surveillance, approved lists of visitors and emergency alerts — to be hundreds of thousands of dollars including upkeep. PASS said the average cost for all of these measures is $312,241 for K-8 campuses and $539,388 for a high school. However, the state says there are minimal upgrades that can be achieved for lesser costs, such as upgrading locks for classroom doors, which would cost between $500 and $1,500 per door. At the federal level, the U.S. Senate is considering the STOP School Violence Act. The measure would provide $100 million to pay for security infrastructure at schools through a competitive grant program.
One common sense strategy, Mueller stressed, is collaborating with multiple regional partners. In April, San Diego County held a school safety summit bringing together more than 200 school district leaders, the district attorney’s office and law enforcement officials. Participants discussed school violence prevention and response, and assessed gaps in training for school personnel and in threat assessment.
Other school districts statewide are also re-evaluating their school safety protocols and using more innovative strategies. In Orange County, for instance, Anaheim High School became the first school in the U.S. to digitally map campuses to provide first responders with information on classroom layouts and exit points in the case of an active shooter.
In the Beverly Hills Unified School District, the school board has been involved in a series of school safety discussions with the local parent–teacher association, the city council and the police department. In Silicon Valley, the Mountain View Whisman School District held a community town hall in April to discuss school safety and protocols for a school shooting. In addition, the school boards for the three school districts in Mountain View also approved resolutions condemning gun violence and calling for legislation aimed at curbing violence on school campuses, including calling for more research on gun violence and more support for mental health resources. Across the state, hundreds of school districts and county offices of education have approved CSBA’s sample resolution on school safety urging “the state of California and the United States Congress to implement commonsense measures that prioritize student safety and environments where all students have the opportunity to learn, grow and thrive.”
In Northern California, the rural Fall River Joint Unified School District school board in Burney coincidentally approved an Active Shooter Emergency Response Plan on the same day as the Parkland shooting. Months in development, the plan includes cooperating with the Shasta County Sheriff’s Department, email notifications of a crisis situation, and training students and staff on the principle of “run, hide, fight.”
“As a district we want to be prepared for anything that might happen,” Fall River USD Superintendent Greg Hawkins told the Mountain Echo newspaper, while pointing to a school shooting in the nearby community of Tehama in November 2017. “This policy offers additional measures as well as some structure to help us plan for the unthinkable.”
While bullying and violent behavior has long been an issue at American schools (California’s first school shooting took place in 1867), Ron Avi Astor, an expert on school violence at the University of Southern California, said the issue became a top concern in the education community after 1999.
“Schools and researchers started paying more attention to socioemotional issues on campus after Columbine, and looked for ways to improve school climate,” he explained, while noting his own fractious high school environment in the Los Angeles Unified School District in the 1980s before campus climate became a widely recognized issue. “Schools are a reflection of their environment. If they are calm and peaceful, students begin to feel that way too, and data shows violent and aggressive acts go down.”
“Schools are a reflection of their environment. If they are calm and peaceful, students begin to feel that way too.”
The focus on school climate has long included anti-bullying efforts and the promotion of positive school climate. As CSBA’s recently released sample resolution on school safety states, “safe schools provide an environment where teaching and learning can fl ourish; disruptions are minimized; violence, bullying and fear are absent; students are not discriminated against; expectations for behavior are clearly communicated and standards of behavior are maintained; and consequences for infractions are consistently and fairly applied; and the most effective approach to creating safe school environments is a comprehensive, coordinated effort including school-wide, districtwide and communitywide strategies supplemented with legislation, resources and support at the state and federal legislation level.”
The efforts to promote a positive school culture have led to progress in California. For students who may be troubled, school counselors and educators are now trained in identifying behavioral red flags and alerting authorities. (California, however, has one of the highest counselor caseloads per student nationally.) Suicidal thoughts, for example, are considered one sign of a potentially dangerous student; legislation is currently pending in the California Legislature to require a suicide prevention hotline number and/or text crisis phone number on student identification cards.
“It all starts with a positive school climate,” San Diego COE’s Mueller said. “If you care about each other, you will say something, but if you feel disconnected, you are less likely to reach out.”
In San Diego County, schools are now taking part in a “Know the Signs” program offered by the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation. Founded after a deadly school shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut in 2012, the organization provides training for educators, parents and students on recognizing at-risk individuals, relationship skills, warning signs, suicide awareness and threat assessment.
Such programs reflect the multi-tiered approach many schools are now using to tackle an increasingly common and vexing problem with many shapes and forms. As these issues continue to be hashed out, and schools confront multiple challenges to both protect and educate, there are few hard certainties on the right way to go. But, preparation, planning and awareness are all recommended.
Said Mueller, “Safety really comes from the people in a place — physical security is just the layers added to that.