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New Spin on School Threat Assessment by State Legislatures

More than a year after Parkland, school safety continues to be top of mind for school leaders. Now a swath of state and federal bills aim to change how administrators perform and fund threat assessments.   

At the federal level, the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed two separate gun control bills–one extends the wait period for required background checks on firearm sales. A second extends background checks to all gun sales, including those made online or at gun shows.

Experts are calling the latter, the potentially most “sweeping” gun legislation in more than two decades, according to NPR. Though they admit the law faces an uphill battle in the Republican-held Senate.

At the state level, at least three legislatures passed or floated new school safety laws in recent weeks.

  • A comprehensive school safety bill recently passed both houses of Kentucky’s General Assembly. The bill, which is currently unfunded, establishes the position of school security marshal to coordinate school safety compliance, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. The legislation also includes provisions for active shooter training and suicide prevention.
  • The Georgia state senate passed a bill that would require schools to submit safety plans, provide annual active shooter drilling, and appoint a safety coordinator for each school, reports NBC 11 in Atlanta.
  • In Florida, a new legislative session brings with it proposed changes to a school safety law passed last year in the wake of the Parkland shooting, reports WCTV. One of the most controversial proposals in that bill would expand an armed teacher training program there.

Kentucky, Georgia, and Florida aren’t the only states currently considering new school safety legislation. Education Dive reports that more than 200 school safety related bills have been introduced in states throughout the country this year. It should also be noted that unlike the federal legislation, none of the proposals in Kentucky, Georgia, or Florida contain new gun control provisions.

But one trend is prominent in each of these latest school safety proposals: a focus on threat assessment.

Recognizing threats–both physical and emotional

Under the Kentucky bill, a newly established state school security marshal will be tasked with developing a school risk assessment tool for school districts to identify potential threats. School superintendents will be required to use the tool to address each school’s safety preparedness and submit their findings for state review.

Georgia’s bill calls for a similar approach, requiring districts to submit school safety plans. It also calls for the development of a new online app for students and community members to report potential threats.

Under the new Florida proposal, the state department of education would have until August 1 to develop a standardized threat assessment tool for every school in the state.

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While regular assessment of a school’s physical security is vital to keeping students safe, all three proposals also ask schools to pay closer attention to prevention, and the hidden mental and emotional factors that contribute to school violence.

The Florida proposal, for instance, uses a risk assessment framework first developed by the FBI and Secret Service to identify and intervene with potential attackers before they turn violent.

There’s a misconception that these people snap. They don’t snap. They decide,” Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen tells WCTV. “In almost all of these instances it’s been proven that they planned these attacks days, weeks, even months ahead of time. So, the further you can intercept them from that pathway to violence, the better chance you have of preventing a targeted violence attack.”

Georgia legislators hope the new bill will help school leaders more readily identify students in crisis and provide them with key social-emotional support.

“Our goal is to identify a problem before it happens, and put our arms around these young folks before they go down a dark path,” Sen. John Albers (R-Roswell)–a sponsor of the Georgia bill–tells NBC 11 in Atlanta.  

Students are ‘our eyes and ears’

The idea of a threat assessment isn’t new to most school leaders. But it has historically been associated with the physical security of a school building.

“Public schools have invested millions during the past two decades in risk assessments,” says Dr. Nora Carr, chief of staff for Guilford County Schools in Greensboro, NC, and an expert on school safety and community engagement issues. “Active shooter drills, armed police officers, door buzzers, panic alarms, shatter proof glass, video cameras, metal detectors and wands, bullet proof doors, unarmed security associates, and school redesign to improve safety and security. Still, parents remain afraid for their children while in our care.”

To understand the real threats facing their districts, Dr. Carr says school leaders need to focus on developing trusted relationships with students and their families:

“Students often have information adults need to know. When they trust adults, are encouraged to share information, have multiple methods for doing so, and believe adults will react positively and take appropriate action, they’re more likely to alert teachers and administrators about their concerns. The same is true for parents, volunteers, and other adults in the community, which is why the ‘see/hear something, say something’ message is so powerful.”

Carr says technology can play an important role in extending school leaders’ abilities to reach vulnerable students. She cites Klein Independent School District in Texas for its use of social media and technology to engage students and families around school safety and health concerns.

Klein ISD is one of a growing number of districts that is experimenting with new forms of threat assessment and communication.

The district’s Keep Klein Safe initiative, powered by Let’s Talk!, a cloud-based school communications and customer service tools from K12 Insight, aims to create a safe space online, where students, parents, teachers, and others can read up-to-date safety information, ask questions, and report concerns or potential threats directly to administrators.

This crowd-sourced approach to threat assessment and risk mitigation in schools is based on the belief that students and other community members are key to a safe school environment.

“Students are our eyes and ears” when it comes to safety, says Justin Elbert, community relations manager at Klein ISD.

As states and school districts continue to look for more effective ways of identifying potential threats and improving physical and emotional security, they need to understand the powerful role that students, parents, and staff can play.

Want to hear how school leaders at Klein ISD are working with students to recognize and address potential school safety risks? Don’t miss our exclusive on-demand webinar.