Highlights from the Final Report of the Federal Commission on School Safety
Don’t have time to read the 180-page Federal Commission on School Safety final report? Here’s what’s important for school security professionals to know.
Using Suspicious Activity Reporting and Threat Assessments to Enhance School Safety
Informed, alert communities play a critical role in keeping our nation safe. By reporting suspicious activities, individuals may be providing the information authorities need to stop an attack before it occurs. This is especially true in relation to school attacks. Studies have shown that, prior to the incident, most attackers engaged in behavior that caused others concern and that others knew about the attacker’s ideas or plan to attack. Indeed, before the Parkland shooting, multiple reports were allegedly received about the shooter’s concerning behavior. How they were processed, evaluated and acted upon remains under review. What is certain is that effective programs addressing suspicious activity reporting and threat assessment can significantly reduce—or prevent—violence.
The school threat assessment process essentially involves a three-step model in which a team identifies students of concern, gathers information about their behavior and circumstances to assess whether they pose a risk of harm to themselves or the school community, and develops a management plan to mitigate that risk. Threat assessment does not definitively predict whether someone will commit an act of violence. Rather, its goal is to evaluate the risk an individual may pose and implement intervention strategies to address concerns.
- The federal government should develop options to support the creation (in conjunction with federal and state partners) of guidance for state and local jurisdictions to implement a comprehensive early warning and reporting system modeled on programs like “If You See Something, Say Something®” and Safe2Tell.
- As numerous witnesses noted to the Commission, students themselves must be part of the solution and often can help identify the best ways to communicate to and educate their peers. In recognition of that, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the U.S. Department of Education should explore sponsoring a Peer-to-Peer Competition Challenge for high school students to develop school security campaigns.
- To assist schools and school districts in establishing threat assessment teams and targeted violence prevention programs, DHS, as warranted, should periodically update its Enhancing School Safety Using a Threat Assessment Model: An Operational Guide for Preventing Targeted School Violence. Additionally, DHS should develop options for supporting the development of a train-the-trainer program to facilitate consistent application of the recommended practices contained in the Guide.
States and local communities
- States, school districts, and individual schools should establish and provide training on a central suspicious activity reporting system that is continually monitored, allows anonymous reporting, and has procedures in place to ensure proper action is taken on each report. Funds may be available through the STOP School Violence Act of 2018 to assist in developing these systems. The reporting system could be supplemented by an education and awareness campaign that encourages students, teachers, and other members of the school community to report their concerns, provides guidance on what types of activities should be reported, and provides instructions on the various options for submitting a report.
- School districts and individual schools should establish threat assessment teams and develop comprehensive targeted violence prevention programs. States and localities should consider encouraging and supporting this activity in whatever manner they determine to be the most appropriate. This may include the enactment of legislation mandating that school districts or schools take these actions, the establishment of state or local teams to provide training to school administrators and staff on these activities, and/or the provision of grants or other funds to schools to support these activities.
- School districts and individual schools should establish comprehensive targeted violence prevention programs supported by multi-disciplinary threat assessment teams as outlined in the U.S. Secret Service guide Enhancing School Safety Using a Threat Assessment Model: An Operational Guide for Preventing Targeted School Violence. Schools may be able to receive funds through the STOP School Violence Act of 2018 to assist in establishing these programs. To establish a comprehensive violence prevention program, it is recommended that schools/school districts perform the following steps:
- Establish a multi-disciplinary threat assessment team consisting of highly trained school professionals from a variety of different disciplines (e.g., teachers, administrators, school resource officers, school psychologists, guidance counselors) who, among other things, will conduct threat assessments, assess a student’s potential for violence, and develop intervention and management strategies to mitigate that risk.
- Define concerning behaviors that initiate the need for a threat assessment (e.g., sudden or dramatic changes in mood, appearance, or behavior) and prohibited behaviors (e.g., harassment, bullying, carrying a weapon on school property) that initiate immediate intervention. There should be a low threshold for defining concerning behaviors so that protocols address a continuum of behaviors, not just direct threats or behaviors indicative of planning for an attack.
- Establish and provide training on a central reporting system.
- Determine the threshold for law enforcement intervention.
- Establish replicable threat assessment procedures to include practices for maintaining documentation, identifying sources of information, reviewing records, and conducting interviews with an emphasis on rapport building.
- Develop risk management options to enact once an assessment is complete and individualized management plans to mitigate identified risks and enhance positive outcomes for students of concern.
- Create and promote a safe school climate.
- Provide training for all stakeholders.
- As numerous witnesses noted to the Commission, students themselves must be part of the solution and often can help identify the best ways to communicate with and educate their peers. In recognition of that, school districts and schools should empower students by increasing engagement with students in the development of school security campaigns.
Effects of Press Coverage of Mass Shootings
Press coverage of school shootings is often sensational, which can exacerbate the trauma of those directly and indirectly affected and potentially incite successive events. Researchers have found that most shooters desire fame and wish to emulate other mass shooters.
Social media only amplifies this problem. In the absence of traditional journalistic tools—like editorial discretion—social media allows for the wide dissemination of information, where nearly every individual can be a contributor and a consumer (including would-be shooters).
The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics suggests a “heightened sensitivity” when it comes to the coverage of crime victims and families. It recommends that journalists “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm.” Survivors of the Parkland shooting have encouraged more journalists to adhere to this code.
- The White House and all federal departments and agencies should adopt the principles of the “No Notoriety” campaign. This helps keep the focus on the facts and the victims and does not mention the names or publish photos of perpetrators once they are apprehended.
States and local communities
- State, local, and school leaders play a critical role in developing any crisis preparedness, response and recovery plan. They should include a media plan as well. Those who have already done so should continually review and revise their plans. The media portion of these plans can cover a number of issues, including:
- who will talk to the press after a tragedy,
- what information should be released (including considerations for the level of detail, existing safety measures, and details about any forthcoming notifications to families),
- how to communicate through a variety of media vehicles (e.g., press conference, press release, social media), and
- when designated individuals should talk to the media, including if families should be contacted first and when media are permitted to enter school grounds.
- As they examine their media plans, schools should coordinate with local law enforcement and other community leaders on a regular basis to ensure consistent messaging and clear lines of authority. States and local communities can take advantage of support that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Healthy Students administers from the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) Technical Assistance Center. It provides some tools that school districts can use to assess the safety, security, accessibility, and emergency preparedness of school buildings and grounds. The Center also offers tips to help guide school officials in preparing, developing, and ultimately implementing high-quality school emergency operations plans along with other actionable resources. The Center’s website (https://rems.ed.gov/) is updated frequently.
- National and local media outlets should consider adopting the “No Notoriety” campaign. State and local authorities should consider employing the principles of “No Notoriety” when communicating the facts of a school safety incident to media outlets.