By Katherine Kuhlman, PsyD
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to do some training through Nicoletti-Flater Associates and the Jeffco/DeAngelis Foundation back in Grand Junction, Colorado. It was going to be two days of training folks from D51 School District, Colorado Mesa University, and Grand Junction Police Department. Plus, I got to train with some school safety experts who really know their stuff (John McDonald from the Jefferson County School District and Kevin Carroll from the Jeffco/DeAngelis Foundation). We were talking to these groups about why Threat Assessment and Threat Assessment Teams are so crucial in this day and age, and how they can all play a role in the prevention of school violence and school shootings. This was a training that I have done time and time again, and I love it every time. The fact is, anyone who is committed to helping solve the problem of school violence can be a part of the threat assessment process, whether they are reporting concerns or disrupting a problem by telling someone that what they are saying is inappropriate, or asking them to clarify whatever veiled threat they have made.
As part of the training, I spent a lot of time on case examples that I have worked on, with the caveat that by the time a referral gets to me, it usually means it’s either highly complex or highly concerning. I specifically chose to discuss a case that looked concerning on paper, but had some pretty significant mental health issues intertwined. When focusing strictly on threat assessment and management, we focus solely on the student’s behavior, not necessary who (i.e. mental health diagnosis) they are, to avoid under-reaction or over-reaction. However, there are a lot of agencies (especially schools) that have to recognize and respond to some of the nuances of a student’s behavior. It becomes a complicated balance of managing the safety of the school, and possibly intended victims, and supporting the student of concern if their needs are not being met. Sometimes this is in the form of academic resources/tutoring or socialization, and sometimes it’s supporting mental health needs. This can make the threat assessment and subsequent threat management process complicated and confusing. Most people believe that most people are good, and I think most people want to give students the benefit of the doubt. We feel bad for the kids that have unstable households, are victims of abuse, having a learning disability, or have trouble making friends. But we also want to protect other students (and staff!) at the school, because they are important too. Where do we find the happy medium?
Here is the answer: think about having two separate goals in your threat management plan. One is the safety and security of the school and everyone in it. Management can look like backpack checks, check-ins/monitoring, assigned seating, escorts to the restroom and between classes, suspension, expulsion, protection orders, and the list goes on. The second goal is support or de-escalation of the student of concern. This can look like meeting with the school counselor, providing resources for family therapy or anger management, allotted time-outs/quiet time, or a mentor. An effective threat management strategy when there are mental health or emotional needs will include both of these facets.
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