LACEY — Can the state do more to identify and stop those contemplating a school shooting before they pull the trigger and cause mass casualties?
On Friday, a newly formed group of educators, law enforcement officers, mental health professionals and attorneys began the difficult search for an answer.
In the course of a nearly four-hour meeting, it became evident that there is already a constant effort in Washington to assess potential threats but more consistency is needed in how schools and law enforcement share information.
Participants viewed it as a solid point of departure.
“You’ve got to start somewhere,” Oak Harbor police Chief Kevin Dresker said. “People are seeking solutions. There’s no easy one. We’ve got to work to see if we can do better to identify the possibilities as best we can.”
State lawmakers established the 13-person work group in March through a proviso in the state supplemental budget.
They tapped the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs to facilitate. There are representatives of city and county law enforcement, the Washington State Patrol, and the offices of the attorney general and the superintendent of public instruction. There are also representatives from two- and four-year colleges, the ACLU, the Washington Coalition of Crime Victims Advocates and Frontier Behavioral Health.
The budget proviso directs the panel to “develop strategies for identification and intervention against potential perpetrators of mass shootings, with an emphasis on school safety.”
By December, the panel is to prepare a report with recommendations.
Lawmakers want the analysis to cover a lot of ground. It should contain data on available services in Washington for those in a mental health crisis. It also should catalog existing state and federal laws dealing with identifying potential perpetrators, and what other states are doing to address similar concerns.
The panel also is supposed to consider strategies such as increased promotion of extreme risk protection orders, which allow removal of weapons from those who might be a threat to themselves or others, and greater use of special teams of law enforcement and mental health professionals to respond to those in crisis.
And it also must consider the value of further restricting access to firearms for those living with a mental illness.
Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, the source of the proviso language, attended Friday’s meeting.
He told the group he was influenced by what occurred in Parkland, Florida, where it appears authorities missed warning signs about the 19-year-old shooter. O’Ban wanted to know if such gaps exist in Washington and, if so, how to bridge them.
“I think there was a recognition that there does need to be more coordination and communication,” O’Ban said outside the meeting. “There doesn’t appear to be anyone tasked (at schools) with the responsibility to coordinate with law enforcement.”
O’Ban said he’s encouraged by Friday’s untethered exchanges “because I think you’ve got the right expertise at the table. We could really make some progress here.”
Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, also attended Friday’s meeting. He authored a bill that sought to boost school safety programs and raise the age to purchase semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21. It failed to get a vote.
Frockt said he didn’t have expectations when he arrived but left a lot more optimistic.
“I think this has the possibility to be really helpful to us in addressing what systems are working and how do we make sure students, parents, teachers and the public know,” he said.
The work group’s next meeting is in May in Everett.
Members will learn how threat assessments are currently conducted in the K-12 and higher education systems, and the role of behavioral health professionals in those assessments. A future session will deal with school resource officers.