Liberal Gun Owners: The Interview With John Van Dreal About Targeted Violence In Schools (Summarized)
(This is a heavily edited, summarized version of the LGO interview with John Van Dreal. Approved by Both LGO and John Van Dreal.)
In February of 2018, Liberal Gun Owners developed a think tank from our own organizational leadership and development core. The think tank’s first task was to contemplate, at a deeper level, our mission of supporting both: the unassailable aspect of modern firearms ownership (our view) and the mitigation of all forms of firearms violence. During this deeper contemplation, we determined that, on an annual basis, we would choose one aspect of firearms violence, research it, and produce a report on the deeper aspects of the issue. In addition to analysis, we decided to include recommendations for our community members, for the wider gun culture, and for the wider world.
Due to the fact that acts of targeted violence (school environments combined with other targeted public acts) are surging in an obvious and egregious fashion, we decided to make the school shooting the seminal focus of our efforts.
On November 7, 2018, during the attendance of a Threat Assessment Training at Willamette University, in Salem, Oregon, Liberal Gun Owners’ Executive Director, Randy Miyan, sat down with student threat assessment expert John Van Dreal to interview him on the realities of targeted violence and threat assessment in the school environment.
Randy: The very first speaker in your threat assessment seminar (local Chief of Police) stated the following:
“The world has changed.”
I observe that there are conflicting conclusions about the phenomenon of targeted shootings. I know that human violence and targeted violence are common throughout human history. However, I would like to ask you your view:
Is the presence of of targeted violence in schools new?
JVD: Newer. Historically. From the time of Pontiac’s rebellion (Enoch Brown School Massacre of 1764) to the Bath, Michigan Disaster (mass killing in 1927) we see these early iterations of the script. These are targeted acts, executed to terrorize a community. They are, historically, a way in which an actor gains the attention of the community — by attacking the epicenter where the children are.
But it really wasn’t until the mid 60's,with the University of Texas…and in the late 70's with the the Cleveland Elementary School Shooting…where you have the beginnings of the current algorithm. Fast forward that into the mid 90s you get: Paducah, Jonesboro, Springfield…you get attacks, that becomes the beginning of the modern, school shooting, cultural script. This script then gets combined with the American vigilante idea: the film Natural Born Killers and The Basketball Diaries that have those flavors to them. And that cultural phenomenon did evolve from this point into the spate of shootings that we saw through the late 90s — culminating with Columbine.
The contagion stops in 2001 and the number of K-12 school shootings remains a relative constant — if you measure in three-year increments within 2001 until today. Still, far too many. One is too many.
The modern school shooting is definitely a means by which someone can have their fifteen minutes of fame. That’s the new cultural script. It’s no longer the vigilante movie, the vigilante video game. It’s the shooting; the mass shooting; the body count…the mission oriented killing that acomplishes nothing more than killing people — and getting attention for it.
While it has stayed a constant in K-12, it has definitely escalated in Higher-Ed and community killings. There has definitely been an increase in these kinds of targeted acts. I believe they’ve probably tripled — I’m gonna guess, quadrupled.
Overall, while the world has become a safer place, these kinds of acts have increased or at least stayed constantly around us — which terrorizes us. And it has that impact on our collective psyche.
And so, while the world has become a safer place, these kinds of acts have increased or at least stayed constantly around us — which terrorizes us. And it has that impact on our collective psyche. And that’s another aspect of the changing world.
The additional piece is social media and 24-hour news has poured gasoline on these flame-it exacerbates the situation. And that’s also the changing world. People are very unnerved right now. Yet, most of the data suggests that we are far safer right now than we ever have been.
Randy: It’s one aspect of violence. But, the cultural scripts and social media have given birth to this thing.
JVD: The perception has increased, but also, the actual events also have. They are still very rare, statistically. That’s why there is a contradiction between the safer world that we live…the healthier world, the more nourished world that we actually live in now — and these events. Because they seem to contradict each other. The events are so few and so little compared to the data, because the world is safer. There’s still tens of thousands of bad dope deals happening. There’s domestic violence happening — where kids are getting hurt or killed. And that’s a very large number that is decreasing. And this (school shooting / targeted shooting occurrences) is a very small number that’s increasing — though it doesn’t affect that (overall) declining trajectory.
Randy: As someone who is in gun culture, the reason why I ask this question is that you see a lot of people in gun culture use the statistical trend of “downward”, (of overall violence in a safer world) to do nothing or to not care.
JVD: Or dismiss terrible events.
Randy: But you would definitely say, as I just heard in your words…you would say that the phenomenon is obviously, significant?
JVD: It is definitely significant. People experience the same kind of trauma whether they are there in the community or not. Now, those who are experiencing the violence are going to be the most traumatized. When these events occur, somebody went out of their way to study and prepare to attack innocent people and kill them for no other reason than killing — it’s very personal. The more personal it is, the more it hits the part of our brain that can be traumatized. Overall, the effects of school shootings or mass school shootings or shootings at concerts have on everyone is, “that so coulda been me!” “Man, those people look just like me!” And, “that guy that did it looks just like somebody I know!”
It can paralyze communities. It can paralyze schools. It turns teachers into hyper-vigilant people when, what they should be doing is teaching kids how to solve for “X.” That part of their brain isn’t working. They’re looking over their shoulder at what the latest look is. Is it a trench coat? Is it a person that wears or thinks or says certain things? And they start profiling. That’s a very negative thing.
Randy: What we come across: there needs to be the ability, psychologically, inside of people in American society, to be able to deal with that dual-nature of, “we are safer, but this is bad.” Because people are trying to go to one or the other. They are not balancing it out. They are either ignoring it or they are making the hugest fucking deal, ever, out of it — and that’s not the effective way to understand it or to deal with it.
JVD: Because hyperbole turns people off. So, you do get these contradictions, this dissonance that happens. Yet, it doesn’t have to be that. We need to focus on these issues. Not let go of the fact that we are decreasing crime, making schools safer, our architecture is better in terms of deterring crime. We’ve learned a lot. We want to keep that going.
Randy: And this is, in your opinion: a global phenomenon or an American phenomeon?
JVD: It’s a global phenomenon. Now, it may have kinda started here, probably did, but it’s been going on. Scotland had a terrible shooting. In China, they don’t use guns but they use sabers — and they get body counts. Germany has had its share. Norway: one of the worst ever. So, the idea of screaming your rage and your dissatisfaction with your life, from a theater, from a stage that is a school or a concert — which is just a perfect place to do it — its not new but it certainly has caught on. If you are a person who feels bad about your life, and you don’t really have much to live for, and you think, “this is as good as it’s going to get” and you go down that road of violence to solve your problems, it can be fairly appealing. It can also be fairly appealing if you are a sociopath or worse, a psychopath. Most sociopaths have stuff to live for.
Randy: What has happened with the impact of modern times that allows this impact to hit the human psyche in these, mostly, adolescent males, which then comes to fruition as this thing? Because, certainly, we’ve had difficult times before, as a race. There have been terrible things that have happened, perhaps, as a result. But this thing: modernity is hitting these kids in their psyche and they are turning it into this phenomenon. What has happened?
JVD: That’s a huge question. Awesome question. And, it’s not the perfect storm, but it is a really good storm of things coming together. I think access to other people, socially, who have done it. Ideas in their manifestos. There is, certainly, less supervision happening. There is an entitlement and I think everyone, secretly, would like to be famous. This could be a route for people who see that there will never be another way to establish themselves. And I don’t believe that is true about them, they believe that is true about them. There’s a means. There’s a cultural script.
I don’t know if this is going to come and go in the next 30 years or if we are going to be battling this for 100 years. But, I do know this, from a prevention standpoint, and from understanding those risk variables — I just listed a couple of them — schools and parents and communities can get in the way of far more of these events than we are. Are we going to get in the way of all of them? To be honest with you, I don’t think so. It’s out there now and everyone has instant access to information. There’s no way to really guard your kids from knowing that this happens. There is a way to help spin it, so they can understand it and you can protect them. That’s good parenting. But there’s no way to guard kids from this (psychologically) if they are living somewhere where there are other people — and electronics.
But, what I was saying was that, having provention systems in place — they are not expensive systems. Having those things in place will decrease these events. And, not just the number of the events — this is where I think our work is as important as eliminating or decreasing the event — we intervene in these kid’s lives, that are headed this way, whether or not they would get there to the event, they are making decisions that are negative — changing their trajectory in the way that they see life, or may get them arrested for a felony by conspiracy, and putting them in an institution for seven to ten years. If we can keep that from happening, that’s really a good thing. We really are about very early intervention. Our goal is to not get kids arrested — just turn them around, stop them from doing it.
Randy: Certainly, there is an obvious difference in what is going on right now, relative to what was going on before. When you look at it through the media, even if you are a calm person, it looks apeshit.
JVD: I think it is apeshit. It really is. Because they are still happening — every couple of weeks there’s some sort of event like that. Or somebody gets caught on the way to the event. It just scares the hell out of everybody. You know, we hear that two kids were caught with a backpack full of guns. We’ve already gone to what they were going to do. They don’t even have to do it anymore for it to get to us.
Randy: When I first started to research and study this stuff, within days of when I first emailed you, I got your book and I got a notebook. I was just going to take notes as I read. What I did was that I wrote down ten or eleven of the most prominent school shootings since the late 90s. I wrote them down on the front of the notebook, with the dates. And every time I’d put the notebook down, I’d see them. Well, within the first 6 weeks of reading your book (and reading some other things and taking notes), I had to put two more schools on the front cover. And so, that’s quite shocking. The other thing that makes it difficult is that, when I go to find the words of the people who are masters of this information, the first thing they are saying is, “calm down…don’t overreact.” But, what I am looking at, on the front of my notebook, seems like, just, hell or fucking crazy. Do you know what I mean?
JVD: Well, it’s just so personal. It’s so very personal. It’s right there on your TV or on your social media screen and it has an entirely different effect on your mind, and on your interior limbic system (where you react to stuff like this) than the kinds of events that are more arbitrary, or acts of god — that’s what I’ll call them. Things that just happen.
Randy: Is it preferable or critical that professional systems, aimed at targeted violence mitigation/prevention, be instituted into school culture? At this time in human history, do you see it as something that American society must do? Let me just say this, my opinion: it’s critical.
JVD: Well, let me say this: one might get stuck with “preferable” because there are so many other priorities as well. Like, teaching kids. Making sure they leave school with good educations as good citizens. It’s very expensive. The moment you say, “critical” you have to make room for it. It’s kinda like saying, “safety is our top priority.” Is it? As a school district? Are you putting comparable resources to safety as you are to other top priorities? Like teaching kids to read? If so, then you can say that. If not, then you can say “it is a top priority” or “one of our priorities.”
I think it is critical and I can say it’s critical because it is affordable. You can plug it in. And, having the system isn’t just about catching the kid. It’s about people knowing you have that system, so teachers in the public can relax, and knowing you are doing everything that you can, with the resources that you have, and the information you have, to keep that from happening in their community. Additionally, to catch kids before they go too far down that road. So, they are not ruining their lives or the next ten years of their lives with a jail sentence. And, to create a more psychologically sound environment. So, here is where it becomes critical: when teachers can relax and do their job, the forebrain works — that’s where we need them. We need them teaching kids to read — math, science, art, make paintings, make music, build relationships and maintain relationships. Be a good citizen. Know political issues and study them and vote on them. That’s what we are supposed to be doing in schools. You can only do that from your forebrain.
If you get into your middle brain, then you go to fight or flight, fear, exacerbation and hyperbole, that part of your brain — it’s that part of your brain’s job to do that. Because, historically, that’s how you got safe. Something is scary, you are like, “holy shit, I gotta get to high ground! Everything down there is bad right now!” And then you make sense of it when you get to the high ground. We don’t want our teachers and our kids in that part of our brain.
So, having a system in place, having them know that system is in place, so they can access it, and they can report — builds a more psychologically sound environment. So, your teachers do their job and your kids do their job. That’s also why it is critical. And I think it is as critical an argument as the violence prevention piece. Hey, if you have a school district where you have a thousand teachers that are terrified, they aren’t doing their job. You have a thousand teachers that are relaxed, they know you are doing your job, they know how to report, they are going to get a lot more out of their students.
Randy: And also, obviously, this is why you should not lead with, “we need to get into those schools, hard security!!!”
JVD: “More metal detectors!!!”
Randy: Yeah, you are taking the hive mind of the school, and you are putting it into the fight or flight, whether you recognize it or not. And the solution is to get everything in the hive mind to the forebrain. This is actually a more effective defense mechanism towards that end. More than “hardening.”
JVD: The forebrain can engage in analysis. The forebrain can do something called, “situational assessment.” It can walk into a room and look around and see where the risks are. And that’s where you catch these situations. It’s people who are taught to look for risk factors or patterns that are out of place. When you are in your middle brain you won’t do that. You’ll immediately categorize and stereotype. So, if the last kid who did a shooting had a trench coat, every kid with a trench coat is going to shoot your school up. Instead of: “that’s an item of clothing. I’m nervous right now, but let me stay in my forebrain. Let me stay in the part of my brain that will analyze that and will look at risk factors. And, by the way, oh yeah, that’s just a coat.”
Randy: Do you and your colleagues discuss scenarios where the rate of targeted shootings in schools increases significantly? Do you guys ever discuss: “what if this were to catch fire, even worse?”
JVD: We haven’t. What I do in the other part of my job is I do table-top exercises, where I discuss “what would happen if…in your school, at bus time?” I rarely use of an example of somebody coming in for a mass body count. I use examples that are far more likely, in our town. So, when I do table-tops, I do a lot of practical examples of violent examples in our schools. And those are my, “what ifs”. What would you do? Now, that’s not threat assessment. That’s violence mitigation. I call it violent intruder response. And that’s what I do. I’ve never proposed the question that you just asked. An it’s an interesting one: what would it take, and what would that look like, and what would be do?
Randy: Just out of curiosity, wondered if you guys had even considered that.
JVD: We have not.
Randy: Well, it might be good.
JVD: Yeah, that’s a great discussion to have.
Randy: If we assume that STAS and other systems are essential foundations to preventing / mitigating targeted violence in schools, do you think it would be helpful or harmful (towards proper development) to have them federally mandated?
JVD: Mandates are great if they are funded. So, I do think it would be quite helpful to have some sort of clear support if not a mandate with funding from the federal government. I’m not sure that will ever happen because they — every time they’ve ever gone down that road, (with threat assessment bills) they get watered down. There is some movement right now going in that direction. (John is referring to Rep. Babin’s bill: The TAPS Act / H.R. 6664) From a state level, I definitely think states should be looking at funded mandates. It’s not an expensive program. And most states aren’t so big that they can’t provide five to ten coordinators that could manage these teams and set these teams up in regions within the state.
Randy: Sometimes, in American society, whenever we have a mandate or whenever we have the government involved, they can take a gold-standard program, like yourself, and make a quick photocopy of it and then create a bunch of dogshit.
JVD: We run that risk.
Randy: That’s why I asked the question. It would be taking quality and then, perhaps, going quantity with it, and losing a bit.
JVD: It’s definitely a risk.
Randy: If a school system attempts to institute threat assessment:
Can they take a simple, “build as we go” approach or do they have to go “whole hog?” What would be the minimum line of implementation for a school in year-one? If a school comes to you, and asks you to guide them with STAS, you say to them: “Just get to the point where you are doing ‘X’. ”
JVD: Yeah, uh, Level 1. Bringing in site-based assessment training and site-based staff. And this is, I think, one of the draws to the Salem-Keiser model. I spent about 13 years working through Special-Ed systems. And I designed this so that it would be the opposite of a very bureaucratic system that requires extensive amount of time to get anything done. So, when I train school districts, the primary training is called “Level 1 Training.” And that’s for counselors, administrators and SROs (Student Resource Officers) — or people who have similar jobs. And I train them at being experts at following protocol, not experts at threat assessment.
They simply need to know the foundational elements and understand the risk factors. And then follow the protocol — because this system is protocol driven. The expertise is written into the protocol. So, if I can get a district up and running on Level 1 teams, to identify the serious risks, then the only thing I need to have available to them, in that first year, is some level of oversight and expertise to guide them to further resources, like law enforcement.
Phase 2 is a Level 2 team, which is a community organization, and structure, that supports the schools and resource hunts for them. And they are the community organizations that serve youth, provide resources — whether it is through leverage like juvenile justice or mental health. They know where the stuff is that will help these kids move off of these pathways — and that takes longer. These are collaborative relationships with in-kind donation — that’s what you’ve seen here today. That takes a couple of years to get going, to get people trained. You find that, within that community — your experts. So that’s where you find the lead, who takes care and coordinates. But you can start it, you can launch it, it’s a site-based system that is sufficient to identify the problems. Where it falls a little short is where the schools are resource poor. “Now what to we do?” That’s where you need at least one person that has some oversight, from a district or community level that can activate resources.
So, really, two phases and then some refinement as you go.
Randy: So, it would be helpful for a school to develop a Tier 1 structure even without without a an adequate Tier 2 structure — It would still be valuable to them?
JVD: Absolutely. The Level 1 structure is a completely sufficient and adequate threat assessment. The Level 2 assessements ask all of the same questions, they just dive deeper. And then some extra questions. Once somebody is indentified on that targeted trajectory, then help identify resources that keep the kid included in school. That’s why you, ultimately, want that. Most of the districts I work with are trying to do them both at the same time. And they get their Level 1 launched within a year, and their Level 2 kinda comes and goes. Level 2 is about pulling the resources together and getting the in-kind donations. It’s a really tough job to do that. You kind of have to have, kind of, a dedicated person with that as a job description to really get that done.
Randy: We observe obvious reticence in American culture in regards to a better understanding of targeted violence in schools. The same reticence with appropriate action. Have you come across this reticence during your time with STAS?
JVD: Yeah. There’s one district in the state, that shall not be named. It’s been awhile but has asked me to train them a couple times. About a decade ago — the folks that have asked me to train were gung-ho to go, but had the reticence (and I would say had the head-in-sand-attitudes) from authority figures in that district. I honestly believe it is because they believed at the time that it would just be better not to know than understand — so that they couldn’t be held accountable. It’s a true head-in-sand. That’s the only time I’ve experienced that. Most of the people that contact me are ready-to-go with this. So, I don’t market this. Obviously, I have a job that I do every day. And what I do for other districts is as a part of our district mission to export this to some degree, or from my own personal business. But I haven’t even thought about marketeing it. Someday, I might. But I don’t think I’ll run into that reticence because anybody that shows up in one of the rooms that I am teaching in, is there to do this. And has, at least, some authority, and permission to be there from somebody high-up in authority — probably executive leadership.
Randy: If you palpate or observe, lets say, on a platform like Twitter, and you type in: “school security” or “school shootings” or “threat assessment”, you will see, a lot of expressions from public school teachers and from people who are in the know about the mechanisms of public school, who say, “teachers already have enough shit to deal with as it is. Do I need to do this other thing too?” That is a very common reaction. So, in terms of the reticence, how reasonable is it to expect your average teacher to be in that position and then have to train their mind? Is it daunting?
JVD: It is. I don’t think that it’s reasonable to pile that on teachers. That, again, is why there is a draw to this system. Because It doesn’t pile all that on a school. It provides a protocol with the information, and key people who then work that assessment. Teachers simply need to know a couple of things: risk factors and where to go to talk about them.
The risk factors are easy. There’s a brochure that we put together a long time ago, based on chapter 5 of the book. But, I made it palatable, easy…8 items for parents and teachers to look at. And very common sense: “if these things are happening, please call us.” The system itself, within the school, gives the teachers a place to go when they have concerns. And that’s what we are heaping on them. Also, I am developing something called “Options-Based Decision Making.” That isn’t threat assessment. It’s, “what to do in the case of a crisis.” And there is some training of the mind that takes place there.
The way I do this is that I identify with the teachers how they already have a skill called, “situational awareness.” They already know how to walk into a classroom and read it — and notice where things are out of order. And they already have pre-prepared their options. They have already thought about what they would do if Billy, that new student, really starts escalating and throwing alphabet blocks — whatever it is. They’ve thought about it ahead of time.
Today, they are walking into the class, they are reading what is happening, all of the indicators are there. They go into their plan — it works. The next time, maybe it doesn’t — but that teacher has this bag of tricks. So, she looks at Billy, “uh oh, it’s not working today.” She reads the classroom again, situationally assesses, changes the options. So, teachers, custodians, bus drivers are already doing this. So, transfer that skill to a crisis. That’s the training I am adding to our staff.
Randy: You re taking their pre-existing psychological structure, that they’ve developed from being already there, as a professional. You are just kind of shifting it.
JVD: Yeah. And they get permission to use it. Instead of going, “well, what do I do now?” You know you have options. You’ve already thought about it. Nobody goes into a theater anymore without thinking about where they are going to sit. Everybody is thinking about that. Don’t let it paralyze you. Give yourself some time to think about your resources in a classroom: where you can go; where your exits are — for really terrible events, but any event. I am trying to move our staff in this district to think calmly through a security lens, even though they are not security trained. Basic security lens. And my argument is this:
This has been the first 100 years in humanity where people haven’t had to do that anyway. We are very lucky. We have police and a standing army. Your ancestors and my ancestors were constantly reading what was going on around their village or their town because they were the ones who had to protect themselves. So, they had that skill set. They did some terrible shit so we could be here today. They did some violent stuff.
Randy: Yeah, there was a lot of killing.
JVD: Yeah…or you and I wouldn’t be here today. And I move their minds to understand that they’ve already got this. And then I help them do the table-tops to practice thinking it through.
Randy: I think the perception is that you’ve got Mrs. Mary, the 8th grade teacher or the 9th grade teacher and she’s teaching art. She has a mindset: she’s very elaborative, and legato — her whole life. And then here comes John Van Dreal and he’s going to make her head go, “HUT, HUT, HUT, HUT!” Right? Like, she’s going to have to be a SWAT person.
JVD: That’s where they come into the discussion — thinking that. They never leave thinking that. I am keeping her indentity and there’s no way I am going to ask her to be a combat soldier, ever. I’m not a Run-Hide-Fight fan. Because it is never “Run-Hide-Fight”, my friend. It’s “Fight-Fight-Fight.” That’s all anybody hears from that presentation. No matter how well it’s put together. It tends to be taught with bravado. And that’s where you lose about half of your educators.
All of your art teachers, and your music teachers, and your math teachers that didn’t get into this business to get into combat, they tune out. But, when you capture what they do daily, and you identify the way their brain works, which is what I do, and I identify with their humanity and their biology, and where they come from historically, it’s a natural place to put them. In identifying a crisis ahead of time and avoiding it, first of all — risk factors — or, if I don’t avoid it, I am going to mitigate it. And I (the teacher) already have the ability to do that, I just didn’t know that.
Randy: One of the things that we deal with is the Self-Defense Spectrum. And, of course we deal with the firearm’s place in the spectrum also. However, essentially, the entirety of the spectrum includes your mind and situational awareness. And my view, there are two relationships with situational awareness: there’s Chuck Norris in the jungles of Vietnam and then there’s 007. Right? So, the art teacher would do very well with 007’s style of situational awareness. It’s very smooth, it’s very cool. He can stay in himself. But if you are Chuck Norris in the jungle, you are asking people for a lot — because only professional soldiers or people that have been in law enforcement…
JVD: VERY well trained…
Randy: Yeah…they know how to go to that place or they LIVE in that place but, that’s how many people in society? Is that 5%, even? In American society? That can be that way?
Randy: The overall societal approach inside of STAS and your team seems to be one of:
“Don’t over react, but don’t do nothing.”
Double negative on purpose. Fair assessment? Can you elaborate on the approach?
JVD: Be sober. Be prudent. Know what you are talking about.
Randy: So, anybody that’s approaching, seriously, the mitigation of school shootings, in school culture, in the school environment, should adopt that sort of an approach?
“Calm down, but don’t sit on your ass and pretend that this isn’t a big or a significant deal.”
JVD: Right. And the whole objective of the protocol is it helps guide that: like, “here’s what’s real about this and here’s what isn’t.” Now, “address what’s real.” That’s the way you should be solving all of your problems in life. Inflaming it in hyperbole, “this is the next school shooter”…I’ve heard that so many times. That’s never been the kid that even gets on my radar. The kids that end up on my radar are the kids that are identified by those who do know those risk factors.
Randy: Alright, let’s move on, I swear we’re almost done.
JVD: That’s alright. I can’t feel my fingers anymore.
Randy: I know! You said it was “beautiful out here”.
JVD: It was when the sun was shining on us!
Randy: If you had one opportunity to tell a room full of parents and teachers, with very little knowledge of these matters, why they need to look into Student Threat Assessment, what, simply, would you say to them?
JVD: Well I’d give the three reasons: to intervene in a potential school shooting or a violent act. To intervene early with kids that are about to make decisions which may not end up with people dead, but will end up being with those kids being excluded from school, expelled, or possibly in detention. And obviously change a life in that manner. And the third is to improve the psychological safety of the environment so that the kids can learn and the teachers can teach. We do all three of those things. And any one of those things is a reason why you would embrace the program. Any one of those three.
Randy: We talk a lot in gun culture about, “the cat’s already out of the bag”, relative to the kinds of people that want to take the number of guns and reduce it to zero. And that’s really just not reasonable…it’s plausible, but is that ever really going to happen? No.
Randy: So, I sort of see it as the same thing, which is: “the cat’s already out of the bag”. This is happening in society whether you want to do something or not about it. So, if you are going to have to do something about it, which is what I am hearing in your words, why not institute this thing that improves school culture anyway? In other ways: bullying, other kinds of violence, ah…domestic stuff, dating violence…
JVD: Yeah, it’s an overlay that works with anything. It’s a template that works with anything. It’s common sense. It’s inexpensive. It uses resources, mostly, that we already have. And it’s defensible because we are not profiling. We are not predicting the future at all. We are not making statements about people that we can’t defend by simply saying, “this”. In fact we are not identifying individuals in the situation, we are identifying the situation. Here’s the situation: it contains 1–2–3–4 people, and in that situation, these are the elements that are elevating it or escalating it. Let’s decrease those variables. Because our assumption is this: every human being has the capacity to act out violently, even kill people, if given the right motive. Right? And without anything to get in the way? Having the weaponry do so? So, we already assume that anybody who has been referred to us has that potential. We are just deciding whether the variables are there. Which is actually very obvious when we do the assessment. Because, you know what would cause you to become violent. I know what would cause me to be violent. And, we are pro-social about the way we view that: self-defense or protection of family and country. That’s not the same with the 14 year-old kid who has nothing to live for, or perceives it that way, and now he’s thinking of this act.
So, we get into that situation. That’s why it’s defensible. It’s the opposite of profiling.
Randy: If you were approached by a parent, who was not in your school system, who had no threat assessment system in their child’s school, who had an adolescent son who had behaviors tending towards a Tier 2 situation (needing extensive services), how would you guide that parent?
JVD: It’s definitely going to go law enforcement in a situation like that. And I would try to do some assessment, probably on my phone, looking at what kind of law enforcement resources the community has: do they have a threat assessment team, at least, for adults? Or trained people? In this region that’s fairly easy to do. I can just pull up our association of threat assessment professionals list and take a look to see if there are any police trained and members of our organization that exist in that community, and that’s a resource that I’m gonna give her.
Randy: Yeah, because you guys have a bomb (exceptional) area here for that.
JVD: Right, we do. We have an excellent membership.
Randy: Can you talk, briefly about the affects of student threat assessment on bullying in your time in the Salem-Kaiser School District?
JVD: Threat assessment doesn’t always get used on bullying. But bullying is a targeted behavior. It’s rarely ever a kid that is out of control: screaming, and yelling and reactive. He may act that way, but it’s usually fairly planned. So, a bully will catch the weaker kid, the victim, outside of school, at an opportune time, victimize that kid, almost always with some minor aggression, maybe a punch, but then a threat of terrible things. So, what you’ve learned today is that you look at communication and you match it with behavior. So, the bully is communicating, “I’m gonna kill you and all your family if you don’t give me your lunch money!” The behavior is really intimidating, minorly to moderately physical acts: a punch, push. So, it doesn’t always get assessed. But the template certainly will work for bullying. And it will identify what I just told you: the behavior doesn’t match communication. The intervention is to work with bullying curriculum to pull the two apart and then start focusing on the bully. Not the victim, but the bully, and why that’s occurring, and the opportunity where that’s occurring. And we’ve seen that through our protocols. But, it’s a fairly fast process when you use our protocols on something like that. And most schools won’t. They’ll just go after the bully and they’ll deal with it. Because you know, it’s somewhat textbook now. We haven’t measured it, though.
Randy: Salem-Keiser has it’s own separate kind of bullying protocols?
JVD: Yeah, it’s a couple, kind of, different bullying curriculums.
Randy: And those can be integrated relatively simply?
JVD: Yeah. They are already in the school.
Randy: What I am seeing, from a macro-view, is that you guys have made the decision to create a school culture that has an innovative, advanced approach to the school experience, the psychology of the students, the mental health of the students…the overall goal is to have this above average, at least, or exceptional architecture inside of the school culture that deals with all of the shit that can happen. Is that fair to say?
JVD: It is. We got a long ways to go. I mean, that’s been our focus. A lot of that is dollar-and-staff-driven and our counselors work all day long on a lot of that stuff, and suicide risk assessments and a lot of mental health issues. This is a community that is…we are a state capital. By Oregon law, at one time, you had to have all of your institutions in the state capital. I think we had seven at one time. I think we are down to six. There are institutions. There are families of those that are institutionalized. So, along with that comes all of the familial problems that would come along with having a dad or a mom in prison, or the mental health issues that can be inherited traits by children who would have mental health issues, so bad, that they would be institutionalized. So, our district has a slightly skewed population when it comes to need. We have a much higher need. So, delivering that service has always been something that we’ve wanted to do, because we have to do it.
And now we do have mechanisms and systems in place for moving forward. Threat assessment was one of them. There are many others, and getting more mental health counselors in the school — more access to mental health- those are changes and shifts that take years. So, we just started bringing more mental health professionals into the schools to do, you know, counseling (not therapy) but more than guidance counseling. We just started doing that a year ago. We won’t really start seeing the result of that for four or five years. We will really see great results in ten years because we will be catching problems when kids are between the ages of six and twelve at that point — which is really when you want to catch it. Now, we are scrambling to prevent — prevent when things are on their way to trouble. We want to get in and prevent it before it even becomes a thought.
Randy: So, I see, through what you are saying, that there’s a combination of: you guys are hip, because you’re in Oregon. And you’re innovative, but at the same time, the city’s history has forced, out of survival: you’ve got to handle the realities. You guys have combined being hip, and “holy shit! This is, I don’t know, a century into this and we are gonna be swimmin’ in it!” (unprecedented community issues) And then, nobody is gonna want to live here. Right?
JVD: Yeah. Absolutely. And if we are educators, our job is to do what I said: create better citizens who are better educated — and get along, play nice in the sandbox. That’s our mission — with every kid. No matter who that kid is. Whatever kinds of problems that kid brings, that’s our kid. We don’t get to say “no.”: documented; undocumented; mental health issues; criminal issues. We are taking that student. We are doing everything with the resources to make a citizen out of them. That’s the mission of this district. You can’t have that mission and not attend to these problems.
Randy: I saved the best question for last — the gun question.
A number of the people on your team(s) are gun owners. Firearms are an obvious part of the modern school shooting. Can you give me your opinion on the use of legislation to mitigate firearms access to those who should not have access? How would you weight the effectiveness of cultural / community / family protocols vs. legislative mechanisms vs. an integration of both?
JVD: The two come together with prudent, logical approaches. And to me, it’s really the mechanism that fails: a background search that doesn’t capture something that shoulda been captured. We have to keep in mind that, even if we really tightened up our gun control, there are still a number of these (targeted shootings) that would’ve happened — Los Vegas being one of them. Now, would he have been as efficient, without a bumpstock? No. So, the tool is pretty efficient in the United States. I mentioned China where the tool is a saber, far less efficient. The mindset is the same. But the brain is the greatest tool and it will make any other tool, if you use your brain efficiently, more efficient. And that’s what a gun is.
So, if legislation were to force more effective background searches, and I’m not even sure if I know, or if I could tell you what the mechanisms would be for that. But, if it could happen…and It would require legislative acts. I don’t think anybody is going to do that without being told they have to. Then, I do believe it decreases access to the tools. It might, on some occassions, stop the act. Because the person has such trouble getting the tool that they lose interest. Or the ideation changes or something happens in their life that is positive. I mean, we always want to leave room for that, right? Something good could actually have happened to these kids. And the ones that are still living, when they talk about it, they say that. They say, “if somebody woulda asked me, I woulda told them — this is where I’m at — but nobody asked me.” That’s why we always recommend that pro-social adult connection.
But, back to your question: I don’t have a good answer on that. I know there are guns everywhere. I know: burglarize one-in-every-three houses and you’re gonna get a gun. They are still pretty easy-to-get outside of regulated processes. And there are a number of people that have done these acts that wouldn’t have been picked up because they didn’t have felonies; they weren’t domestically violent; they didn’t have egregious enough mental health issues that they were on a radar. Remember, mental health is not the cause of this. It just makes it worse. So, that’s a tough question and there’s such a political aspect of that, that just gets in the way of civil discussion.
Randy: And that’s why I am asking you and I’m grateful that I came to know your work and came to know you a bit, because you do understand that. I myself am interested in looking at the truth beyond bias, and beyond political gravity and I come to the same place that you come to, and that is: we don’t know what the fucking answer is, and let’s, at least, be honest about that — before we upturn society and dive into personal rights vs public safety and get into a war with each other over it, can’t we just admit that nobody has the answer?
JVD: To that question, I don’t believe they do. I think the most important part is to recognize that, at least, half of this is a cultural issue. It’s not a gun issue. Part of it is a gun issue. But we know that people will continue to think of doing these acts. And if they can’t get guns, they drive cars through crowds. Trucks. They’ll make more bombs.
JVD: Acid in England. And that’s the cultural piece. Something is driving that that makes that appealing. And not all the people that do that are sociopaths or psychopaths. They are troubled people and they are solving their problems in ways that are harmful to the community.
Randy: Just a quick, last thing, and I don’t want to say who said it, I can’t remember if it’s one or two of the people that spoke at the seminar: brought up the point that behavior is not predictable. And that’s why student threat assessment is not in the business of prediction. So, that also means that abnormal behavior or violent behavior is not predictable either?
JVD: To some degree, yeah.
Randy: In terms of the role of guns, I think that it is important to understand, no matter what systems we put into place, we’re not going to be a pure predictive mechanism for human behavior and the outcomes. And some of the presumptions about what we can do about gun violence, some of the presumptions are just that: that we can absolutely reduce this to zero, and see it coming, and do these certain things with the guns, and slam people into this mental health program, and into this drug, and something like that. And some (the extreme gun legislation advocates) see the recognition of the truth, “hey we can mitigate” as copping out because we are saying “mitigation is where it’s at.” You can’t take the guns to zero. You can’t do this and it all goes away. You can’t see exactly how it’s gonna go.
JVD: It’s the argument between the Utopian thinker and the Pragmatist. We would all love to see a perfect world. There’s no way in hell. I know human behavior too well. It’s never gonna happen. We can mitigate, we can change, we can make things better. We have been doing that. And those are all sequential, logical, reason oriented ideas that start with fact. And then the capacity of us to act in way that makes the difference. We have to have the capacity to do it. And dollars and people have a lot to do with it.
Randy: John, I’m gonna let you go. Thank you very much!
JVD: Hey, my pleasure!
(This is John’s Warm-Up Question, placed at the end of the text version of the interview.)
Randy: It’s my understanding that, after Columbine, the state of Oregon mandated that schools do something. Is that correct?
JVD: Sort of. They passed a bill in ’98, that basically required a district to make a policy and an action for threats that listed people, students, for death — kill lists. These were well intended legislators. But, I mean, what is a “kill list?” Can that be a verbal list? Could it be a drawing with some names on it? So, we interpreted that more liberally, to include any kind of threat, that suggested severe lethal injury — which is kind of the definition of “violence”, as opposed to aggression like fighting. You know two kids punch it out, you have a fat lip…it isn’t a “violent” action. It is an aggressive act — they’re fighting. So we looked at it from possibilities of violent behavior and then, what we decided to do was get out in front of it. Because part of the legislation required a mental health evaluation or at least the consideration of one. And those are very expensive, plus, I knew enough at the time that a mental health evaluation didn’t determine whether or not someone is going to follow through or not. It really was very difficult to do anything predictive. And everything I was reading suggested, “no, you look at risk variables.” You look at the things that will elevate the risk and those that wil decrease it. And that’s how we built our system as a response to that legislation.
Randy: So, the action was definitely sparked by the state legislation?
Randy: Had that legislation not mandated and created that spark, would you have started the Salem-Keiser Threat Assessment System?
JVD: We would have. We were already pretty engaged in problem solving with a focus group. We had our school psychiatrists and our social workers sitting around and talking about this right after Columbine or right after Springfield — one of the early events. Whether we would’ve had the mandate from our superintendent or not is questionable, but we did have a very forward thinking superintendent and really had an assistant superintendent who was very forward thinking and she made it a mandate in the district that we build this system. And, she funded it. I actually think that she probably would’ve done that without the state mandate. I don’t even know how much she knew about that legislation. Then it showed up on that list of laws that are going to impact your school district, that comes through the mail…well, the email now. I kind of half think that we would have. If we had not had the dollars for the FTE, the “Full Time Equivalent”, the position, we would have had something. Because we, as a focus group, were building an early version of that protocol: a list of questions, that collaborative staffing process that became our system.
Randy: Certainly if, you guys had started that process without the push from the state, you would have been watching the news, and would have seen another event, and that would’ve probably pushed you guys because you were already on that path. So, it wasn’t like, “John Van Dreal is sitting on his ass, and he’s just doing his job, and oh, here comes the state…”
JVD: No, we were already talking about it and my interest has been violent behavior — not on my part of course, but on our youth…violent youth behavior — since the 80’s. I worked in an institution — worked with really aggressive kids.
Randy: So, you were in that wheelhouse?
JVD: I was in that wheelhouse. You know, you have to do professional development every year and all my professional development was on workshops and the publication of literature about kids being violent or aggressive — and warning signs. So, it was on my radar one way or another. I have to be honest, it wasn’t something that I wanted to do at first (student threat assessment) because I didn’t want to be the person by myself, who made a decision. So, I was able to collect these people and they were wonderful. These agencies, and you see them in there right now (in the seminar) and they all said, “yeah, we’ll help! ” Which means I get to share my decision making with them.
Randy: Are people getting paid to be a part of your teams? Are they volunteering? Is it both?
JVD: It’s called, “in-kind”. So, we have paid employees in the district like… (woman who is district coordinator) and she coordinates ALL OF IT. And she does the threat assessments. The members of the team that come in from the law enforcement agencies, the mental health agencies, the youth authority, juvenile justice — that has become a part of their job. So, it was just kind of added to their job description back in 1999, when they attended the focus groups with us. They helped build the system, the flow charts that you see today are the same flow charts and, with doing that, they are able to do the work, hit the meetings once a week, and the mental health agencies committed to one to two people available to go to the schools and do the assessments. Now, their amount of time is considerably less than the head coordinator. But it’s in-kind. In other words it’s a community effort to solve a problem. The district lead the way and committed some resources. With that our partner agencies said, “hey, we’re in!” It’s everyone’s “problem.”
Randy: Like I said a few minutes ago, it’s awesome to watch the collaboration, the amount of knowledge, the multi-disciplined approach…it’s just amazing. I’m used to, maybe, you know, looking at human beings not having their shit together…a lot…and it’s really nice to see the level of intelligence.
JVD: Yeah, I’m glad to hear that…but (at first) I was hesitant. It’s a heavy job.
Randy: Well, I mean..you can’t (do it alone)…it’s like one dude saving the world.
JVD: Imagine this, if it were just me doing the work in 2000, 2001: I go out to the school, they send me a referral, I go out to the school, sit down with “Billy”, talk to his parents, talk to his teacher, make a decision that I pass on to the principle that goes something like this: “Yeah, I think he’s okay.” And then I go home and try to relax, by myself, having no one to share that decision with. That’s not something I was gonna do.
Randy: Yeah, and then what if “Billy” goes off and does something in the school, it’s on John Van Dreal.
JVD: Or Billy…the decision to bring him back causes more stress, or I don’t attend to some of the aggravators, and now Billy hurts himself. However that plays out…even if Billy doesn’t do anything, I still have to, like, sit at home and wonder. And wonder the next day and the next day. With the process that we use (STAS) it’s all driven by risk variables. You count ’em up and attend to them. Then, I’ve got dozens of people sharing that responsibility — including the Safe Schools Initiative people and The FBI, who support this kind of process. It’s good company to be in.
Randy: Yeah, you can tell. Like I said, it’s robust. It’s thick with experience. It doesn’t feel flimsy.
©2018 Liberal Gun Owners ©2018 John Van Dreal