2018 has been a landmark year for school safety. Following the tragic shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that resulted in the loss of 17 lives, school leaders across the country are reassessing their approach to school safety. These conversations have prompted the U.S. Department of Education to form the Federal Commission on School Safety in March 2018 as a reactive approach to better understand school violence. The Commission has been charged with quickly providing meaningful and actionable recommendations to keep students safe at school. These recommendations will include a range of issues, like social-emotional support, recommendation on effective school safety infrastructure, discussion on the minimum age for firearms purchases, and the impact that video games and the media have on violence.
There is no doubt the internet has changed the way students learn and communicate. While students once wrote in their private journals, they now have outlets to not only share their thoughts but also to find communities with like-minded peers. Bullying and self-harm have changed with time. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, homicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for young people ages 10-24, following the 2nd cause – suicide. Each day, approximately 12 young people are victims of homicide and almost 1,400 are treated in emergency departments. With nearly 50 percent of homicide perpetrators giving some type of warning signal, such as making a threat or leaving a note, prior to the event, it is critical for schools to take proactive action to prevent tragedies.
These are alarming statistics and the recent tragedies that have struck communities across the U.S. have prompted leaders to take a deeper look into the reasons behind the devastating numbers.
School violence is a subset of youth violence, a broader public health problem. Violence is the intentional use of physical force or power, against another person, group, or community, with the behavior likely to cause physical or psychological harm. Youth Violence typically includes persons between the ages of 10 and 24, although pathways to youth violence can begin in early childhood. Examples include fights, bullying, threats with weapons, and gang-related violence. A young person can be involved with youth violence as a victim, offender, or witness. Different forms of youth violence can also vary in the harm that results and can include physical harm, such as injuries or death, as well as psychological harm, increased medical and justice costs decreased property values and disruption of community services.
The internet and the widespread access to technology have been shown to have critical effects on school violence through increased widespread communication. Implications include the potential for triggering crises, increasing perceptions of threat and fear, or creating crisis contagion (e.g., 1–5% of suicides are believed to be due to a contagion effect where learning about crisis details leads to another crisis).
In the wake of tragedies that have impacted U.S. schools the past year, the U.S. Secret Service has redoubled their efforts to provide research and guidance to schools on measures to prevent future crises. In July 2018, the Secret Service Proactive Intelligence and Assessment Division, National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) published, Enhancing School Safety Using a Threat Assessment Model.
The guide lays out strategies to create a Threat Assessment Plan and is based on the findings from school violence studies conducted by the Secret Service and the Department of Education after the 1999 Columbine Shooting. The findings in what is known as the Bystander Study concluded that creating safe school climates are key to creating an environment where students feel safe in speaking up in order to prevent an attack.
The information obtained from these studies confirms the importance of establishing a threat assessment process in schools to enhance proactive targeted violence prevention efforts. The goal of a threat assessment is to identify students of concern, assess their risk for engaging in violence or other harmful activities and identify intervention strategies to manage that risk.
When establishing threat assessment capabilities within K-12 schools, it is critical to keep in mind that there is no profile of a student attacker. With the widespread access to the internet, it is easy for at-risk students to conceal their behavior and access information that may assist in their sinister plans. Assessment procedures emphasize monitoring and documenting a student’s thinking, behavior, and circumstances.
The U.S. Secret services emphasizes the importance of examining social media pages and reviewing class assignments. School safety teams may be able to draw on information gathered from computer activity including social media posts, web searches, forum memberships, and typed documents containing concerning or threatening themes.
It is also critical to corroborate the student’s states to determine that they are consistent with their actions and behaviors. Since it is difficult to confirm motives by questioning a student, school administrators and law enforcement must compare and analyze their statements against their actions and reported behavior.
Smoothwall has developed a solution to better understand the online actions and behavior of students with RADAR, digital active monitoring that alerts administrators of threatening behavior both online and offline through keystroke logging. Using AI, RADAR analyzes the context of student computer activity and creates heat maps and alerts when student activity is flagged as a high-risk threat. School administrators and school law enforcement will be able to identify troubled students as it happens and take a proactive approach to help the student and prevent incidents.
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