School Safety: Building and Maintaining a Threat-Resistant Culture

At school, a typical seventh grader might interact with 12 adults daily. Each of them might detect something a little different about that student over the course of a day, a week, or even an entire school year. Maybe the art teacher told the guidance counselor that the student’s recent work included some frightening images. After doing some digging, the guidance counselor informed the dean of students that he stopped showing up for college advisory meetings. Perhaps that same student has been to the health office eight times in the past 10 days, after only going to the health office twice earlier in the year.
This combination of unusual behaviors suggests that the student is in trouble. He might have something going on at home, or maybe he is calling out for help because he’s stressed about the next step in the college-admission process. When school leaders contemplate what threats their communities face, whether in safety-planning meetings or discussions with a safety consultant, the conversation often leads to talking about one of the most terrifying events—an armed assailant on campus—and not necessarily the threat that a parent’s divorce or a daunting college-admission journey poses.
Most school threats are commonplace and manageable. Regular concerns and challenges to student safety, such as stress, bullying, crime, and substance abuse, are serious, and need to be identified and resolved as best as possible. These types of threats provide schools with an opportunity to establish, define, and maintain a threat-resistant culture. At Joffe Emergency Services, we partner with schools to help them build this. The work ranges widely: Some days it’s on-site professional development training and planning; others it’s building and updating systems for emergency response. All of it, however, is connected—the best safety resource for every school is an empowered and confident community, able to deal with threats of any size or shape.

The Team and the Plan

A threat-assessment team—which comprises key school staff, including the dean of students, a school counselor, a member of the operations or security leadership, and a safety consultant or trusted partner in risk management—helps create consistent and effective responses to all threats. Changes in behavior, especially in adolescents, can be challenging to detect, but it becomes much easier when considering the whole individual, rather than scrutinizing a single part. Having a plan for threat assessment helps your school build a safer culture. Studies demonstrate that having clear structures and protocols to deal with threats is associated both with higher teacher perceptions of school safety and an increase in student perceptions of discipline that’s more fair. When the entire community understands the process and knows how to participate in it, everyone feels like they are being heard. Now, what should that process look like?
The first opportunity in building a threat-resistant culture is to develop a mechanism by which students, faculty, staff, parents, board members, and neighbors can alert the threat-assessment team when there is a concern. Why is this important? Well, on a macroscale, a review of 51 averted acts of violence against schools found that 27 incidents were avoided because the individual discussed plans in advance, in person or on social media. When that information was reported, action could be taken. Beyond this, a reporting process also allows for school leaders to gain a clearer picture of issues and concerns in the school community. A spike in bullying-related reports might contextualize other observations staff members make throughout the day.  
The mechanism for reporting can range from a suggestion box on the wall to apps or websites. Companies like P3 Campus and NaviGate Prepared offer software that collects anonymous reports through a phone or computer. It doesn't matter what tool schools use, so long as it fits a community’s culture and everyone on campus knows how to report threats of any kind, affecting a single student, a few students, or all students. It can be challenging to determine the most effective strategy for reporting, but in our experience, it is hard to beat the old-fashioned comment box. It takes a minimal amount of setup and monitoring, and it stands to reason that individuals are more likely to have school safety issues top-of-mind when they are on campus. It’s easy to communicate to your school where to find this system and why it’s been put in place. It also helps reporters stay anonymous, perhaps the most crucial element of any system. Of course, technological options may provide this function as well, but it may take more to set up anonymity protections. Again, the key here is that schools need to make the choice that makes the most sense for their community. If no one is going to use the comment box, or troublemakers are going to repeatedly knock it down, alternative options need to be considered.  
The second opportunity centers on what happens after school leaders become aware of a threat and decide it needs to be investigated. It can be helpful to break it down into three steps:
  1. How do we find out more? Starting a discussion with parents may help contextualize behaviors, as could engaging a student’s friend group. Someone in the community knows this student better than most and can help determine the most effective path to learning more. Depending on the severity of the potential threat and the threat-assessment team’s initial instinct, bringing the student into the guidance counselor’s office to start uncovering details might be appropriate.
  2. How do we respond? In our earlier hypothetical with the struggling seventh grader, our threat assessment could proceed a few ways. The counselor, or a trusted teacher, might make a soft approach and see if the student will share more. Depending on the seriousness of the threat, the student may be asked to take a leave of absence. While suspension is a severe step (and most threats won’t require it), it underscores what we need to answer at this part of the process—have we acted in a way that keeps our community safe?  
  3. How do we plan to smooth a student’s return to normalcy? Going through even a thoughtful threat assessment can be isolating, stressful, and scary for a teenager or child. One effective way to set a student up for a successful return to school is to reestablish a trusting relationship with an adult or facilitate emotional connections with other students.
Most threats do not appear suddenly or without buildup. They are the culmination of events that lead to one moment. Building a robust and interconnected mechanism to identify challenges and provide support for them is an essential aspect of protecting your community. To create a threat-resistant culture in schools, we must recognize that nothing happens in a vacuum.
For more information about how to prepare for crises of any size, check out “Prepare for a Crisis, Big or Small,” a recent NAIS webinar, with Chris Joffe and NAIS’s vice president of media, Myra McGovern.
Click here for a recent update on schools’ responsibility to prevent student suicide and other legal news you can use from NAIS.
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Bobby Decker

Bobby Decker is an operations specialist at Joffe Emergency Services Santa Monica, California. 

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Chris Joffe

Chris Joffe is the founder and CEO of Joffe Emergency Services in Santa Monica, California.