Stephen White, Ph.D.
Winter 2018 Newsletter
The Parkland, Florida school shooting has generated a new wave of outrage, controversy, and hopefully some encouraging movement. If you find this feature informative, please share it with your own school districts and law enforcement agencies where you live.
As a threat assessment professional, I find the media and public focus in the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida tragedy both frustrating and encouraging. The kids have been amazing and heart-wrenching. Politicians resisting gun control legislation are the most uncomfortable they’ve ever been. Some corporations are dropping their NRA affiliations. This is different, at least so far. We will see.
Reporting and commentary discuss the causes, remedies, and “holes in the system.” But, do you notice in identifying the “parts” of the problem, woefully demonstrated by the Parkland case (e.g., guns, mental illness, background checks, tactical responses, etc.), little is said about some innovative prevention programs that exist now? These protocols, hard-fought to establish, take into consideration that you can’t just deal with the individual parts, and that you are better off to work together to get good outcomes.
Three ingredients distinguish these programs. They are 1.) grounded in threat assessment principles and dynamic case management; 2.) multi-agency and multi-disciplinary; and, perhaps most importantly, 3.) they are collaborative and proactive. They essentially consist of professionals in public roles, representing governmental agencies and public schools. In a sense, these protocols were born out of necessity by officials who recognized the inefficiencies and lack of coordination in responding to everyday reports of concern. Three examples have led to positive results, not only with lives presumably saved, but by reducing over-reactions, and the mislabeling of some students who could otherwise benefit from help.
San Mateo County. Since August of 2017, the Student Threat Assessment Team of the San Mateo County Coalition for Safe Schools and Communities has been meeting weekly to review cases of students who have come to attention as possibly posing a risk for violence. Standing members include representatives from law enforcement, the County Office of Education, juvenile probation, and the County Behavioral Health Services. All have had training to assess and manage risk scenarios, and in turn the team has trained school administrators to identify the early and imminent signs of potential violence. The members, bound by confidentiality agreements, openly share risk-relevant information and consider various recommendations to assure safety. The team is advisory only, as the participants and their clientele maintain their authority and primary area of responsibility in investigating and managing cases. I had the pleasure of working with the Redwood City Police Department in 2013 when they began to incorporate threat assessment principles into their investigations, which then led to the department spearheading multi-agency efforts in San Mateo County.
Mid-Willamette Valley, Oregon. The first of such regional collaborations is the Willamette Valley Adult Threat Advisory Team and the Mid-Valley Student Threat Assessment System (STAS). Established in 1998 and 1999 respectively, and the model for San Mateo and other programs, team members include representatives from four major law enforcement agencies, the district attorney’s office, school districts, educational service district, county health departments, county risk management, the Oregon Youth Authority, and county juvenile departments. Other associate members attend when appropriate. Troubled students who may or may not have been contemplating violence can be re-directed to receive proper support, treatment, and educational resources, along with an appropriate level of monitoring. Formal risk assessments by professionals may be recommended. At times hospitalization or criminal prosecution is necessary. No one size fits all. “Red flags” can be communicated to the courts, and recommendations for probation conditions. Potential triggering events for violence are identified, communicated, and managed to the extent possible.
I was truly impressed when I first observed an Adult Threat Advisory Team meeting, and a STAS meeting in 2013, and witnessed how quickly information was exchanged and next steps articulated. The participants – professionals from different disciplines but who all shared a threat assessment perspective – were, by mandate, already working together. Plus, the upfront engagement of all potentially-involved authorities and entities in a given case helps to overcome the inherent problem in assessing risk of “information silos.” It was an honor for me later that year to join some of the members of Oregon’s Adult Threat Advisory Team in presenting the network model at ATAP’s national conference.
Los Angeles County. The Department of Mental Health in the County of Los Angeles, in collaboration with the L.A. Police Department and L.A. Unified School District, established the School Threat Assessment Response Team (START) in 2009, and has since responded to numerous incidents of potential violence. Students, teachers and parents are encouraged to report threats and any concerning behavior. Direct engagement with a student of concern by trained interveners is a key element in all these programs. Following the Sandy Hook school mass murder in 2014, Dr. Tony Beliz, a psychologist on L.A.’s START team at the time, actually reached out to the students on his case roster to see how they were reacting to the incident. This is still the practice at START in the aftermath of high-profile shootings. Such “aggressive care taking” stands in contrast to the passivity observed in the aftermath of school shootings where “the dots” were not connected and no one assumed responsibility for what could happen.
Firearms and weapons can be confiscated. Although not unique to these programs, law enforcement and mental health professionals on these teams may go to the home of a student, talk to him and his parents, and even ask to see the student’s bedroom. Many parents reveal they were not aware of their child’s alarming interest in firearms and violence. This is consistent with studies of school shooters which found that they had demanded an inordinate degree of privacy at home, and often “ruled the roost” (O’toole, 2000). It is possible, in many instances, to separate a student of concern from his or her firearms. Criminal convictions and any involuntary psychiatric hospitalizations prohibit possession in most states, but the laws vary widely and there are, to be sure, issues with the databases for background checks. But persuasion – sometimes “aggressive persuasion” – and obtaining consent for taking possession of firearms, or arranging for their safekeeping, are options for law enforcement officers working to assure public safety. If an individual is not able to give consent, or is acting in a manner deemed “dangerous,” consent is not needed. Owners can seek re-possession of their property, but such activity can be detected. There are work-arounds in some instances – the owner can turn over a key part of the firearm (e.g., the firing pin, barrel or slide), rendering it temporarily inoperable, and thus not constituting a “firearm.” The L.A. Times reported that in the week following the Florida shootings, tips to law enforcement of threats to schools resulted in two cases in the area where multiple firearms were seized (L.A. Times, Feb 21, 2018). Driven by the Isla Vista mass murder in 2014, California passed a Gun Violence Restraining Order (GVRO) law in 2016. It provides for concerned law enforcement and family members to petition a court to prohibit a subject from purchasing or possessing firearms or ammunition for 21 days (State of California, 2014). The evidence supporting a GVRO, which can be granted immediately, can include acts of violence and other overt transgressions, and may consist of no more than a “recent threat of violence” to others or to oneself. Of course, anyone with firm intent to commit a serious act of violence can find a way. But once someone is on the radar there are options to intervene, interrupt, divert or prosecute, and to monitor.
It takes effort to reap the rewards. These programs take a lot of work, to educate stakeholders, build buy-in and trust among them, and to create and maintain a coordinated effort out of a maze of jurisdictions, agencies and school districts. But ultimately the necessary allocated resources are rewarded, with lives likely saved and unnecessary worry relieved. An independent survey of Oregon’s STAS program found that 94% of school administrators saw a positive effect on school safety, and that it provided important information for support, placement, and disciplinary action. Similar reactions are coming from school officials in San Mateo, and previously less-engaged schools in the county are catching on.
In most school shootings, as we have seen again in the tragedy in Florida, the common-sense red flags were flashing and easily identifiable. Nothing is perfect. There is a huge “haystack” of false alarms requiring efficiencies in screening. Someone can still fall through the cracks. But how likely would the Florida school shooter have been ignored or missed if a prevention program, as described here, had been in place?
Although any opinions here are my own, I would like to thank and acknowledge the following individuals for their assistance with this feature: Acting Captain Ashley Osbourne of the Redwood City Police Dept., Nancy McGee, Associate Superintendent, San Mateo County Office of Education, Lt. Dave Okada of the Salem, Oregon Police Dept., and Dr. Maria Martinez of the L.A. County Dept. of Mental Health.
An abridged version of this feature has been submitted to the media as an op-ed piece.
Oregon program: studentthreatassessment.com
Association of Threat Assessment Professionals: atapworldwide.org
O’Toole , M. E. (2000). The school shooter: A threat assessment perspective. Quantico, VA: Critical Incident Response Group, FBI Academy, National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime.
Quelly, J., Serna, J., & Kohli, S. (2018). Days after Florida massacre, L.A. County authorities raced to thwart a school shooting plot in Whittier. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-whittier-school-shooting-plot-20180221-story.html
State of California. (2014). AB-1014 Gun violence restraining orders. Retrieved from https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id_20132014