Schools around the country have been setting up teams to assess threats posed by students who display signs of violence like the former student who compiled a “hit list” years ago in high school and went on to kill nine people in a weekend shooting in Dayton, Ohio.
Despite consensus on the approach’s benefits, school officials say they are limited in what they can do by privacy concerns, a lack of resources and limits on what they can communicate once a student leaves school.
The gunman, 24-year-old Connor Betts, was suspended for compiling a “hit list” and a “rape list” during his junior year at Bellbrook High School, former classmates told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity out of concern they might face harassment. Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Schools wouldn’t comment and refused to release information about Betts, citing legal protections for student records.
The goal of screening programs at a growing number of schools is to not only flag and address threats raised by students, but also to track and manage any risk they might pose to themselves and others. Under protocols endorsed by the Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education, school districts are encouraged to set up a threat assessment team including at least a school administrator, a mental health professional such as a school psychologist, and a school resource officer or another law enforcement representative.
The teams consider concerns raised by other students, school community members and even people commenting anonymously through tip lines in some cases.
At Hilliard City Schools in Ohio, the district uses a network of students trained to spot students who may be inclined to harm themselves or others, based on things they’ve said or posted on social media, Superintendent John Marschhausen said. After Hilliard Davidson High School student John Staley was arrested in 2016 for plotting to attack his school, the district began requiring a mental health evaluation before it allows any student who has exhibited concerning behavior to return to school.
Marschhausen said the district does whatever it can to get students help but said that privacy laws protecting health records can interfere with efforts to keep up the support beyond high school.
“One of our challenges as a society is — we have learned that with these young people who need support — it’s a journey,” Marschhausen said. “It’s not like you take an action and you’re cured. … What does the next step look like as young people graduate high school if they’ve been receiving assistance through high school? And I don’t have the answer. I think it’s a question that we need to be asking.”
Schools are coming under pressure to have threat assessment systems in place because of new state laws and court rulings that have held school systems liable, according to Stephen Brock, a professor at the School Psychology program at California State University, Sacramento.
Students who engage in threatening behaviors need to face consequences, but any disciplinary response must also be accompanied by intervention to address the root causes, Brock said.
“There are a number of different explanations for why someone might engage in an act of violence and what we need to do, if the person is not an immediate risk, is begin to figure out why,” said Brock, who is also the lead author of the National Association of School Psychologist’s school safety and crisis prevention and intervention curriculum. “‘What’s led them to begin to think about a violent act as a solution to their challenges?’ And then identify those challenges and address them head on.”
Success stories cannot be discussed because of student confidentiality, Brock said, but he said interventions have prevented far more tragedies than those that have occurred.
Still, it remains unclear how widely the protocols have been implemented in communities around the country.
Security is a top priority everywhere but cash-strapped schools need significant resources and commitment to set up effective prevention teams, said Joshua Starr, a former school superintendent and current CEO of PDK International, a professional organization for educators.
“Whether or not a school board or principal actually follows through, I don’t think anybody knows,” he said.
Schools are not completely responsible to follow up on treatment, but rather must assess the credibility of the threat and make referrals to professionals for more thorough evaluations, said Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services.
Superintendent Jennifer Hefner of Alexander County schools in North Carolina said the district will have a threat assessment team for the first time this school year with school representatives, law enforcement, counselors, social workers and others.
“We are ready to implement the team, but we hope it doesn’t happen,” Hefner said.
At Ohio’s West Liberty-Salem High School where a 17-year-old gunman wounded two in 2017, Assistant Principal Andy McGill said his district’s threat assessment team of administrators and school counselors is set up to work with outside agencies and law enforcement to address both the immediate and long-term consequences on students and the entire community.
“There are so many pieces to it,” McGill said. “It can be overwhelming trying to think about the entirety of the situation and the broad scope of the situation but it’s really something you have to do.”
Still, reading reports of Betts’ high school problems left McGill thinking about his own school’s gunman, someone he would never have suspected, as well as all of the students who did raise red flags over the years before going on to lead productive and positive lives.
McGill is happy to see more attention being paid to the mental health of young people, saying the more schools understand brain health, the better prepared they will be to usher kids to adulthood. “It’s something we’re figuring out,” he said. “We just need to figure it out faster.”