US Secret Service issues guidelines to help prevent school shootings

A school resource officer greeting elementary school students in Loachapoka, Ala, on March 1, 2018.
A school resource officer greeting elementary school students in Loachapoka, Ala, on March 1, 2018. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Mock-shooting drills. Metal detectors. Bulletproof classroom shelters.

As deadly school shootings continue to be a fixture in headlines and an everyday fear for districts and students, schools across the country have resorted to "hardening" their campuses.

But a federal report released on Thursday (July 12) backs another model that school safety experts have for years supported as a way to save lives: the formation of "threat assessment teams" that employ mental health, law enforcement and education professionals to help identify and support troubled youths.

The report, an eight-step guide prepared by the Secret Service's National Threat Assessment Centre, is one of the most explicit pieces of literature to come out of the Trump administration on how to prevent targeted attacks.

It stems from decades of research showing that in a majority of school attacks, students knew of the perpetrators' plans or had concerns about their behaviour, said the centre's chief, Ms Lina Alathari.

The guide encourages schools to not only build up reporting mechanisms such as an online tip form, a dedicated hotline or even a smartphone app, but also promote a positive campus climate so students can share concerns "without feeling ashamed or facing the stigma of being labelled a snitch".

There is no one-size-fits-all descriptor for a student attacker, Ms Alathari said, but there are certain things schools can be on alert for.

When a student sees a disturbing post on social media by a classmate, for example, or a teacher sees a student suddenly withdrawing from schoolwork, those behaviours can be reported to a threat assessment team.

If it is a transient threat, something said out of anger without the weapons to act on it, it can be handled with informal counselling or light disciplinary action, such as a notice to parents, said Ms Amanda Nickerson, the director of the Alberti Centre for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University at Buffalo.

For more serious cases, the report said, students can be directed to therapy, academic tutoring or life-skills classes. In instances where the threat assessment team deems a threat credible or imminent, law enforcement personnel can step in.

It is a system that has been successful since it was put in place in Los Angeles County in 2009, said Mr Tony Beliz, who developed the School Threat Assessment Response Team there. Part of assessing "high-risk" students includes maintaining positive relationships with them after initial contact.

"When we focus on the fact that we're trying to help them get on with their life versus drilling them every day about whether you have a weapon, are you going to shoot somebody today, and we talk about the issues beneath that, they get better, they see some hope," Mr Beliz said.

Work on the school safety blueprint comes as the national conversation over the role of the government in protecting students from violence - particularly gun violence - continues to play out in federal hearings and on city streets.

Ms Alathari said the threat assessment centre began compiling the guide after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead in February.

Described as a "troubled kid", Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old charged in the shooting, had an affinity for violence and bragged about killing animals. One student said that others would joke that if someone were to open fire on campus, it would be Cruz. Although his behaviour was reported to the FBI, no investigation was opened.

"Everybody knew he had problems, but no one picked up those pieces and connected those dots, and that's the sad part," Mr Beliz said.

But threat assessment models have their limits. In the case of a high school shooting in southern Maryland in March, where a 17-year-old shot and killed one student and injured another at Great Mills High School, the principal, Mr Jake Heibel, said there were "no signs" the gunman would attack.

 
 
 
 
 
 

"He was three months away from graduating," Mr Heibel said. "I pause on how to say this but, you got to follow up on everything. But can you follow up on everything?"

Although physical safety measures are common components of school security, research increasingly shows that students feel less safe in those schools, said Mr Mark Barden, a founder of the non-profit Sandy Hook Promise and the father of one of the 20 children killed at a Connecticut elementary school in 2012.

It is something that Lieutenant Troy Fergueson of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office in Florida is well aware of. Working with the county school district, he and school administrators are planning to put a threat assessment team in place by the end of the summer - one of the final steps in the district's yearlong effort to bolster its security measures.

"It's not practical to make, nor is it feasible, all schools look like a jail or a castle with a moat and a fire-breathing dragon trying to keep all the bad things away," Lieutenant Fergueson said.

Still, if the model is not carried out thoughtfully, especially in areas where crime and gangs are prevalent, the system might exacerbate the "school-to-prison" pipeline, where underprivileged students are pushed into the criminal justice system for bad behaviour in school, said Mr Ron Avi Astor, a school violence expert at the University of Southern California.

And while school safety experts stressed that the Secret Service's guide provides a solid road map for districts, most need additional federal dollars to put those recommendations into place. This year, Congress passed an appropriations bill setting aside US$100 million (S$136 million) a year in grants for programs dedicated to stopping school violence from the 2019 fiscal year through 2028.

"But it has to be a priority" just as much as mathematics and language arts curriculum, said Mr Alan Heisterkamp, the director of the Centre for Violence Prevention at the University of Northern Iowa. "Otherwise, we're just going to be putting out fires and chasing our tails."