That an expelled student with a lengthy school discipline record, a history of violent outbursts, disturbing social media posts, and run-ins with police was able to buy an assault weapon, walk into his former school, and kill 17 students and educators has been called a “multi-system failure.”
The attack last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, has revived and intensified the debate over gun control. But it also raises critical questions for education journalists to explore about the role of schools in dealing with troubled students who may pose a threat to campus safety.
Among them: How do schools identify and support students who show signs of potential violence? What training do staff receive to identify and report potentially dangerous behavior?
And, are districts making changes to their school safety and threat assessment systems in the wake of the school shooting?
While the gun control debate roils nationally and President Donald Trump calls for arming teachers, school districts are grappling with the immediate challenge of responding to a flurry of threats since the Florida violence, plus the long-term challenge of ensuring strong systems to identify and intervene with troubled students.
Here are a few things for reporters to keep in mind as they explore the ramifications in their own communities.
Start With the Basics
When covering threats to school safety, start with the basics—who are the people, at the district and school level, in charge of assessing, monitoring, and supporting students who may show signs of violence?
As The Wall Street Journal reported last week:
“For years now, many schools across the country have designated teams of school officials, mental-health workers and police who investigate threats of school violence. They find help for troubled students, discipline them when necessary and in some cases, turn them over to the authorities.”
In the wake of the Florida shooting, The Los Angeles Times reports that Los Angeles County may expand a similar program:
“Since the program was created in 2009, mental health professionals have worked with law enforcement to identity and provide help to students who show signs of potential violence.
Elaine Williams, school safety chief for the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District, said having a program that helps provide services early on to students showing warning signs will derail threats before they escalate.”
Is there a designated threat response team in the districts and schools you cover? If so, who is on the team? What training do they receive?
Give readers a sense of the scale of their work: How many referrals do they receive and how many students are typically on their caseload?
Reporting and Responding to Threats
It’s important to distinguish between systems in place for responding to immediate threats of violence versus systems for preventing situations from escalating to the point of violence in the first place.
The latter systems may include things like comprehensive behavioral and mental health services writes Evie Blad for Education Week:
“While it can be tempting to focus on costly visible measures, like adding more school police and installing metal detectors, some schools may achieve greater safety benefits in hiring an additional school counselors or launching new programs to support students with behavioral needs, school leaders say.”
Journalists can explore how those measures of support and prevention, if they exist, are set into motion.
What avenues do students, parents, and educators have to report concerns? For example, some school districts have created hotlines that students can email or call to report concerns.
Once a concern is reported, how is it evaluated?
In the Colorado school district that includes Columbine High School—where, in 1999, two students killed 13 students and educators—a team of school district and law enforcement personnel follow a protocol for assessing threats, The Wall Street Journal reports:
“The process begins when a student first makes a threat. [A threat assessment] team runs down a checklist, looking for attack-related behaviors, indicators of potential violence and past violent incidents.”
That process may include reviewing students’ social media activity and, with permission from the parents, establishing a line of communication with the student’s doctor or therapist.
That authorities apparently did not pick up on the disturbing, often violent, social media posts by the accused gunman in the Parkland shooting is considered one of many missed red flags.
In some cases, a threat assessment might also include a home visit, as Rick Myles, Superintendent of Scottsbluff Public Schools in Nebraska, told the Scottsbluff Star-Herald:
“Sometimes a home visit is required because we want to determine the student’s potential access to weapons in the home,” he said. “All of those are different potential responses depending on how the team ranks the severity of the threat.”
Punitive or Preventative?
The topic of school safety is deeply entwined with school discipline. As you cover how districts respond to threats and safety concerns, consider how it fits into the district’s approach to discipline.
How do schools distinguish between minor infractions and serious, credible threats? Are threat response policies applied evenhandedly, or, like zero-tolerance approaches to discipline, do they tend to disproportionately affect students of color?
The Chicago Tribune cited Dewey Cornell, a University of Virginia professor of education and forensic clinical psychologist, in stating:
The quick expulsion or suspension of a student who may be engaging in conduct that actually is very minor misbehavior or confusion — as can happen under zero tolerance — can have the exact opposite of the desired result, Cornell said. It ostracizes and alienates, cuts off the student from the school — and often serves to further enrage the student, he said.
Resources for Journalists
As school districts across the country reassess their safety and threat assessment plans, a number of resources are available for journalists covering these issues.
The Educator’s School Safety Network tracks school-based violent threats and incidents and includes a host of school safety experts.
Finally, since this topic intersects with issues of school discipline and civil rights, journalists should consider talking to groups such as the Dignity in Schools Campaign and the Center for Policing Equity.