Each day, school leaders eye students for potential threats

State lawmakers have established a work group to help identify possible mass-shooters.

EVERETT — A day rarely passes on Washington school campuses without those in charge taking time to assess the potential threat of violence by one of their students.

Educators across the state, on their own and in concert with mental health professionals and law enforcement officers, are constantly seeking to identify and assist students at risk of harming themselves or others.

They are looking for signs, the timely discovery of which could prevent deadly shootings like those at a high school in Marysville in 2014, in Parkland, Florida, in February and in Santa Fe, Texas, on Friday.

Not all of their methods are identical. Earlier this month, members of a legislative work group gathered in a conference room at the Everett School District offices to learn about approaches used in elementary and secondary schools, community colleges and four-year universities, and the role of behavioral health professionals.

“There is no one way for threat assessment,” Larry Fleckenstein, assistant superintendent for Everett School District told the group.

State lawmakers established this work group and directed it to “develop strategies for identification and intervention against potential perpetrators of mass shootings, with an emphasis on school safety.”

A report with recommendations is due in December.

The panel is comprised of representatives of law enforcement, public schools, colleges, mental health professionals, victim organizations and the ACLU.

In the coming months, it will study how other states are tackling this same challenge. Members will be gathering data on deployment of school resource officers and use of extreme risk protection orders, which allow removal of weapons from the homes. They may eventually tackle thornier subjects of firearm storage and restricting access to firearms for those living with a mental illness.

The May 10 meeting in Everett was the panel’s second. It focused on methods for evaluating potential threats to school safety in Washington.

Deb Drandoff, director of prevention and youth services for Educational Services District 112, outlined the approach in Clark and Cowlitz counties.

It is based on a program developed in Oregon known as the Salem-Keizer Student Threat Assessment System and involves essentially two levels of assessments of a student’s behavior.

In a Level 1 assessment, teachers, counselors and behavioral health professionals meet to evaluate whether a particular act of misconduct is an isolated incident and if the discipline meted out is sufficient. Based on what they learn, they may steer the student to services.

In a Level 2 assessment, a team of school, mental health and law enforcement professionals convenes to assess the degree to which the student poses a threat to themself or others. This discussion will involve options for responding, including more intense counseling, relocating to a new campus and even restricting access to weapons. About 100 of these types of assessments are done a year, she said.

Fleckenstein followed, laying out the approach in Everett where building relationships with students and their families and keeping students connected with their campus is pivotal.

“It is how we avoid crises,” he said.

The district does follow a process similar to the Salem-Keizer methodology. In addition, he said, every six weeks teachers at each grade level meet to talk about every student’s development academically and personally.

Again, Fleckenstein said, the goal is constructing a solid support system for them and their families “well before an emergency occurs.”

School safety is not a new subject in Washington nor is this the first discussion panel.

In 2001, the Legislature created the School Safety Center within the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The following year, with events of September 11 on their mind, lawmakers enacted a bill to get districts to create a comprehensive safe school plan. The legislation said the plans “are of paramount importance and will help to assure students, parents, guardians, school employees, and school administrators that our schools provide the safest possible learning environment.”

In 2003, the Legislature required the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs to set up a statewide mapping system and by 2009 all elementary, middle and high school had been mapped. Updates are needed as existing schools are remodeled and new ones built.

In 2009, lawmakers overhauled how the state would distribute dollars for education. They established a model for a prototypical school and a new formula for allocating the money. The formula contains security measures and personnel.

Washington is one of five states to provide dedicated funding in this manner, according to a December 2017 report by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. The others are Florida, Kentucky, New Jersey and Ohio.

In the 2016 school year, it amounted to $24.9 million or $24.21 per student in Washington, according to OSPI data.

Recent laws have compelled school districts to work closely with their local law enforcement agencies on ways to improve the plans of first responders in emergency situations.

And a 2016 law required the school safety advisory committee, which operates under the auspices of the OSPI School Safety Center, to hold annual summits on a gamut of safety-related subjects, not just shootings.

The committee, in documents, says school safety “involves planning for the prevention, and mitigation of, protection from, response to, and recovery from the variety (of) natural, physical, social, biological, and technological threats.”

Mike Donlin is program supervisor for the School Safety Center and a member of the advisory committee. He also serves on the mass shooting work group.

On the subject of threat assessment, there’s overlap between the panels, he said.

It’s a good thing.

“What we’re trying to ensure is that all across the state we’re using the same vocabulary and the same language for threat assessment,” he said. “We want to make sure we all understand one another, that there is clarity on protocols and clarity on processes.”

Donlin said he’s carrying on similar conversations with his counterparts in other states.

Everyone seeks to make sure signs are not missed about any student, he said.

“Much as we want to, we can’t prevent everything,” he said.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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