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Illustration by Eva Vázquez

Warning Signs of Violence Require Multidisciplinary Assessment

April 2020 marked the first month with no shootings on U.S. school grounds in nearly two decades, after schools in 43 U.S. states remained closed due to COVID-19. However, as many schools cautiously reopened in August, threats of school violence were not far behind.

In the first few weeks of the school year, the National Police Foundation’s Center for Mass Violence Response Studies already had multiple credible reports of planned school violence incidents. Fortunately, those incidents were disrupted by parents and peers who reported early warning signs, but the disruptions and climate of 2020 present ongoing challenges to violence prevention, says Frank Straub, director of the Center for Mass Violence Response Studies.

“COVID has created such a novel experience and it has changed the nature of education,” Straub says, considering the current blend of homeschooling, virtual education, hybrid models, and in-person schooling in the United States. “What the effects on school dynamics are long-term, we’re not sure.”

“Then we have this against the backdrop of civil unrest that is challenging the country, so there is this churning in the national and local environment, and our children are caught up in that environment,” he continues. “So what are the stressors that are now being placed on individuals? What challenges are they now facing that may exacerbate preexisting issues like mental health conditions and other factors? We’re in this tenuous spot right now of trying to figure out what this is going to look like.”

This means that the warning signs of potential violence are changing, he adds, especially because so many of the life changes students have faced during the pandemic—economic uncertainty, family instability, isolation, financial stress—mirror stressors that in normal times can herald a potentially dangerous shift in behavior.

“There really isn’t a profile that attaches to a potential school shooter,” Straub says. “We see a variety of factors and conditions that may influence an individual who is going to perpetrate an act of violence.”

Based on the Police Foundation’s Averted School Violence Database, which includes an analysis of averted and completed school violence, Straub says, the majority of school shootings are perpetrated by white males aged 20 to 27, most often working alone, at suburban high school or university settings.

However, Straub cautions against homing in on one particular group, because behavior and stressors are more valuable indicators that can give more opportunity for early intervention. Most commonly, he says, there is some evidence of a life-changing event prior to an attack, such as a divorce, move, loss of a job, or financial stress. Personally, the potential attacker may be depressed, have impaired social-emotional function, be isolated from peers, be overly sensitive to criticism, or be the victim or perpetrator of bullying.

“Part of what we try to stress is for teachers, school administrators, mental health professionals, law enforcement, and others to be particularly attentive to changes in individuals’ behavior,” he says. For example, school officials should note if a student who had been very involved with classmates, school activities, or sports starts to pull out of those groups, to withdraw, become isolated, and not involved in those activities; if a student’s previously high grades start to decline; or someone starts to develop movement towards extremist ideologies—a fascination with weapons or prior mass violence events at schools. “Those are all warning behaviors that we want folks to be aware of and to intercede,” Straub adds.

However, for school staff who have not interacted in person with students since March 2020, accurately detecting a change in behavior can be a challenge. This is why, Straub says, it’s essential to bring in a diverse group of partners who can watch students for troubling changes in behavior, evaluate the root cause, and provide resources to help the student get back on track.

Context is also needed for accurate evaluation and decision making, says Diana Concannon, associate provost at Alliant International University and dean of the California School of Forensic Sciences. She is also a special adviser to the ASIS Professional Development and School Safety and Security Councils.

In the early days of school resource officer programs, in which law enforcement personnel were embedded in school districts, Concannon says, a major challenge was administrators’ knee-jerk reaction to apply disciplinary action to minor behavioral infractions—outbursts in class or other disruptive behavior—instead of turning to dialog, counselors, or connecting students with resources. Administrators were worried that disruptive tendencies were potential precursors to violence. However, that is not always the case.

For example, some students relate to the world differently than others. A student on the autism spectrum might be exhibiting behavior that students and staff could deem close to stalking, but that particular student’s attentiveness, attachment, and following behaviors could be a way to engage and relate with the world, not an indicator of potential violence, Concannon says. By including multiple sources of information—students, educators, school resource officers (SROs), security personnel, and mental health professionals—behavioral assessment teams can get a more accurate picture of the student’s behavior and gauge appropriate next steps.

During the COVID-19 pandemic and related lockdowns, students are under significant stress. “Kids and youth tend to be very resilient, but any expression of stress and anxiety, I think, deserves intervention—not necessarily from a risk of violence perspective but simply to support the emotional well-being of the people in the community,” Concannon says. From a violent risk assessment perspective, she adds, the persistence or severity of disruptive behavior, anxiety, or stress is cause for immediate intervention and investigation.

“We have an added challenge right now with so many of our educational institutions remote,” she adds. “So information gathering is looking at nonverbal cues, looking at how students are showing up in a space, looking at the context in which they are showing up—the environments behind them, their technology—those types of things are now also part of the assessments. Going from the classroom to the virtual classroom, it becomes an essential part of information gathering.”

Concannon is currently working with Alliant University and law enforcement professionals, including Madera County, California, Sheriff’s Office Commander Bill Ward, to create a training and certificate program for SROs and school law enforcement personnel. Called Respond SRO, it will educate officers about developmental milestones and symptoms of mental illness, developmental disabilities, and at-risk states; risk reduction in schools; and effective collaboration with educators, administrators, counselors, mental health personnel, and social workers as part of a multidisciplinary team.

“In my experience, SROs and educators want this education and training,” Concannon says. “These people don’t go into these professions because they want to get involved in discipline. They go into these professions because they want to support children and their education. Any tools and training that go along with that tend to be welcome.”

Ward adds that SROs and law enforcement personnel—especially those with backgrounds and training in investigations, threat assessment, and community policing—are excellent facilitators of discussion. They can talk with parents, behavioral health professionals, probation officers, and administrators to collect more information. In addition, those SROs who build effective rapport with students are more likely to learn about early warning signs or leakage—veiled or direct statements to peers or others that hint at potential plans of violence or disruption—and they are more likely to recognize those clues.

For example, he says, one Madera County School Resource Deputy had built a rapport with students who, in casual conversation, started discussing a friend’s unusual activities—which sounded to the deputy like signs of a human trafficking operation. By virtue of her advanced training into human trafficking response and her relationship with the students, the deputy was able to gather information in multiple investigations that led to a human trafficking organization run by a street gang, which was putting students at risk.

“She had the recognition of what was going on when the school staff did not,” Ward says.

“Educators are not risk managers,” says Concannon. “They will get leaked risk information, and they don’t know what it is.” However, Ward says, if they know there is a trained and trusted SRO on campus, it’s easy for educators, administrators, or students to know where to take information and get the student in question the resources and support they need.

Straub recommends expanding the well-known “If you see something, say something” maxim to include a third step: “Do something.” Schools should give people the ability to report changes in student behavior or circumstances in a safe manner to enable an early intervention, he says.

“It’s a matter of, at some level, taking a risk,” Straub adds. “It’s uncomfortable to say to a student or an adult that they are exhibiting concerning behavior, to reach out, and intercede. It’s always easier to let someone else do it. But it’s important when those behaviors present themselves that we act quickly to evaluate what’s going on.”

However, despite the value of teachers’ input into these discussions, it’s critically important not to put the burden of reporting solely on educators, even though they are most directly in contact with students.

“We know that burnout will happen at a much higher level if educators feel like this is solely on them to identify and to manage,” Concannon says. Part of the beauty of an interdisciplinary behavioral threat assessment team is it should be a space where any stakeholder can bring forward anything to discuss, especially when school has gone remote.

“In a virtual classroom, seeing that students might be unengaged or there are a lot of distractions in the background or seeing a change in the quality of their submissions or in the content of their submissions—any changes like that may be insignificant, may be the result of the normal anxiety response to the current situation, or may be significant. But it shouldn’t be the burden of the educator to discern that on their own,” she says. The challenge remains to see how to loop other school personnel—including SROs, counselors, and administrators—into those environments to get alternative perspectives on student behavior.

“Our biggest challenge is when we allow things to become siloed,” Straub explains.

In multiple school violence events, including the 2018 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, multiple parties in the school had pertinent threat information, but they didn’t share it with stakeholders who could take action, leading to stalled responses. “The Secret Service and others highly recommend the formation of a behavioral threat assessment team, and it needs to be multidisciplinary,” Straub says. “The whole idea being to recognize as early as possible individuals or students who are in distress and to reach out to them to figure out what’s going on, and to put together a holistic plan that sets the individual up for success.”

“To get a full picture of the student, that information has to be shared,” Concannon says. “One of the barriers to behavioral risk assessment is not having all the information.”

Claire Meyer is managing editor of Security Management. Connect with her on LinkedIn or email her at [email protected].