Student Well-Being: Utilizing School Threat Assessment Teams During and Beyond the Pandemic
By Dr. Shane Conwell, Superintendent, DeKalb County Eastern Community School District, & Dr. Nick Elam, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Educational Leadership, Ball State University
While schools have rightfully shifted this year to keeping staff and students masked and socially distanced, school leaders must continue to build on the time, effort, and growth made over the last twenty years with strengthening the safety and security of our schools and improving the overall well-being of our students through collaborative efforts. For example, consider the growing partnership between schools and mental health agencies. Ironically, the Governor signed Indiana Senate Bill 246 last year, which now requires schools to have a memorandum of understanding in place with a community mental health center or provider before applying for a grant from Indiana’s secured school fund, the day prior to him closing all schools due to the pandemic. Fortunately, school leaders don’t have to depend entirely on outside entities, or wait for the passage of a legislative bill, to address their students’ health and well-being needs.
Without question, over the past year student mental, emotional, and social health, academic burdens, and even daily routines have been affected by the pandemic (Grubic et al., 2020). Even years prior to the coronavirus pandemic, it was reported that approximately three out of every 10 students in Indiana had reported feeling sad or hopeless (Indiana State Department of Health, 2016). Where should school leaders go next with addressing student health and well-being needs? One effective team-effort approach is the implementation and utilization of a school threat assessment team. Though the traditional purpose of a school threat assessment team may be to focus on deterring severe crime and violence like school shootings, the typical structure and individuals that comprise a school threat assessment team make it an excellent opportunity for supporting and steering students out of this pandemic for months and years to come.
Initially a concept derived from the United States Secret Service, school threat assessment teams may be defined as a group of people (e.g. school administrators, counselors, nurses, resource officers, mental health agencies, etc.) who meet on a regular basis that identify, assess, and manage individual student behaviors and threats who may be a potential risk for targeted violence (Padgett et al., 2020). In addition to violence towards others, school threat assessment teams may also follow the same approach for students exhibiting harmful behaviors toward themselves. What better time or need for a school threat assessment team than now?
As previously mentioned, school leaders must continue to focus on keeping schools COVID-safe while addressing student learning loss, but also need to be cognizant of student health and well-being by having the people and processes in place to effectively and efficiently identify, assess, and manage student threats and behaviors before it escalates to self-harm or targeted violence. Regarding targeted violence, research has shown those students who commit violent acts typically have multiple mental health symptoms and social stressors while exhibiting concerning behaviors (National Threat Assessment Center, 2019). Compound these pre-existing variables with increased anxiety or depression due to the loss of a family member because of COVID, social isolation from peers, increased screen time, e-Learning challenges, etc. and schools are at a greater demand for monitoring student well-being.
Of course, student behaviors and threats require different levels of assessment and management, but at the very least, threat assessment teams can start by breaking down information silos through identifying behaviors or threats and initiating conversations among team members. Depending on the level of behavior or threat, teams likely will not have to meet for every incident or even every week. Meeting regularly however, could produce critical information that reduces and/or deters student self-harm and violence and serves as a key barometer for understanding the climate of your school and improving navigation efforts proceeding forward.
Burton (2020) explains that aggregated threat assessment data help team members collaborate and pinpoint pre-incident indicators that can help prevent acts of violence, suicide, bullying, or depression before they manifest into crises. This is associated with quicker referrals, programs, counseling, or other proactive interventions within the school. Unlike other school security and safety measures which can be expensive, the core ingredient of a school threat assessment team are the individual members, which are more than likely already in your building. Whether your school has already established a team or you are considering doing so in the future, I challenge you to be proactive in your efforts. In the end, students learn better when proactive safeguards and norms are in place.
Burton, F. (2020, December 16). Preparing for Threats beyond COVID19. Campus Security & Life Safety. https://campuslifesecurity.com/articles/2020/12/16/preparing-for-threats-beyond-covid19.aspx
Grubic, N., Badovinac, S., & Johri, A. M. (2020). Student mental health in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic: A call for further research and immediate solutions. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 66(5), 517-518.
Indiana State Department of Health. (2016). 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey Results. https://www.in.gov/isdh/files/4_2015INH_Summary_Tables.pdf
National Threat Assessment Center. (2019). Protecting America’s Schools: A U.S. Secret Service Analysis of Targeted School Violence. U.S. Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security.
Padgett, Z., Jackson, M., Correa, S., Kemp, J., Gilary, A., Meier, A., Gbondo-Tugbawa, K., and McClure, T. (2020). School Survey on Crime and Safety: 2017–18 Public-Use Data File User’s Manual (NCES 2020- 054). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC. http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch.