Some school districts turning to special teams to short-circuit violence

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There were so many questions after 17-year-old Ely Serna brought a shotgun to his Champaign County school and opened fire in 2017, wounding two.

Along with the whys, West Liberty-Salem High School assistant principal Andy McGill recalled thinking, “Is there something I missed?”

“I never would have thought in a million years that it would be that person,” he said.

The questions now focus on how to prevent anything like that from happening again. Many schools like McGill’s have been setting up teams to assess threats posed by students who display signs of violence, like another Ohio student, Connor Betts, who compiled a “hit list” years ago in high school and went on to kill nine people in a shooting in Dayton on Sunday.

In the 2017-2018 school year, 43.7% of public schools had threat-assessment teams and 49.3% had systems for anonymous reporting of threats, according to U.S. Education Department statistics. The teams consider concerns raised by other students, school community members and even people commenting anonymously through tip lines.

“They put the pieces together and look at all these moving parts together, put the puzzle together,” said Mac Hardy, operations director for the National Association of School Resource Officers.

“The parents are interviewed by a school counselor. Are there weapons inside the home? Where are they kept?” Hardy said. “There’s a whole list of questions that they discuss. The teachers have a list of questions that they respond to in writing. You get a lot of information when you do this correctly.”

The goal of screening programs is to not only flag and address threats raised by students, but also to track and manage any risk they might pose. School districts are encouraged to set up a threat-assessment team that includes at least a school administrator, a mental health professional and a law enforcement representative.

In central Ohio, several districts recently trained and implemented threat-assessment teams, including Dublin, Groveport Madison, New Albany, South-Western and Westerville.

Ohio’s more than 5,000 schools are required by law to submit an emergency management plan to Ohio Homeland Security every three years. Though threat-assessment teams aren’t required, many schools have them, Ohio Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Kristen Castle said. She didn’t have specific numbers, though, and said the department doesn’t track that information.

Last year, the Ohio Department of Education partnered with the nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise group to train students, educators and administrators on the topic in more than 3,500 schools.

As attorney general, Mike DeWine’s office also distributed $12 million in grants last year for school safety and security improvements, made possible by bipartisan legislation. All districts received funds, based on enrollment.

Gary Sigrist, a former South-Western teacher and Plain City police officer and now president of Safeguard Risk Solutions, which provides safety and security consulting in many central Ohio schools, said his top suggestion for the funding was implementing threat-assessment teams.

“We’re not doing this because we want to expel a child,” Sigrist told The Dispatch. “We want to help that child. But you can’t connect the dots if you don’t collect the dots.”

Hilliard City Schools started using a network of trained students called a Hope Squad last school year, 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 troubling behavior to return to school.

Marschhausen said the district does whatever it can to get students help, but he said privacy laws can make it difficult 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 (that) it’s a journey,” Marschhausen said.

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 rules on what they can communicate once a student leaves school.

Betts once 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. Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Schools wouldn’t release information about Betts, citing legal protections for student records.

Schools nationwide face pressure to have threat-assessment systems in place because of new state laws and court rulings that have held school systems liable in tragedies, 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 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,” Brock said.

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 across the country.

Schools are not completely responsible to follow up on treatment. Rather, they 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, based in Cleveland.

Though they haven’t officially assembled threat-assessment teams, administrators of Canal Winchester and Pickerington school buildings have such protocols in place, spokeswomen for those districts said.

In Grandview Heights, officials said they’ve embedded mental health supports at all grade levels, to help assess student well-being and respond as needed.

McGill said his Champaign County district’s threat-assessment team 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.

He said he’s 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,” McGill said. “We just need to figure it out faster.”

Information from The Associated Press and Dispatch Reporter Alissa Widman Neese was used in this story.