Mass shootings have become much too common. School threat assessment teams have become a critical asset for K-12 facilities. Beyond the obvious capability of being able to detect and prevent a mass murder incident, these teams have a unique opportunity to identify and support students before a crisis occurs. Law enforcement officers offer a vital voice in the conversation. Officers provide information and insights that help school leaders paint a complete picture in facilitating individualized intervention strategies based on the totality of the circumstances. As a member of a school assessment team, officers have four primary responsibilities: identifying at-risk students, gathering information, delivering support and direct intervention.
Officers are in a special position to identify students who are experiencing stressors and trauma outside of school. In 2019, the U.S. Secret Service, through the National Threat Assessment Center, produced a report titled Protecting America’s Schools: A U.S. Secret Service Analysis of Targeted School Violence. This report analyzed 41 incidents of targeted school violence from 2008 to 2017. Of the 35 incidents where the information was available, half the attackers had contact with law enforcement, including welfare checks, prior arrests or other encounters. Some of these interactions were with the school resource officer (SRO) at the location of the attack.
This suggests law enforcement can proactively inform schools of an at-risk student allowing threat assessment teams to provide resources to both the student and their family if necessary. Some departments have standing policies with local school districts where they inform the principal if officers responded to a call at one of their student’s homes. These departments do not share specifics of the event; however, this allows school officials to check in with students that need extra support as well as provide context for why a student may be displaying certain behaviors.
The San Diego County Office of Education, located in Southern California, developed the Handle with Care app. This app allows local police departments to report when they have responded to a traumatic event at a student’s home. The only information provided by officers is the child’s name and their school. From there, school leaders receive a notification that the student experienced a traumatic event, allowing staff to reach out to the student, offering them much-needed grace during challenging times.
If a threat assessment is already in progress, law enforcement can provide information to help guide the team toward effective intervention strategies or bring to light additional concerns. Officers have access to information unavailable to educators or mental health professionals, such as prior interactions with law enforcement, criminal history of the student or individuals living at the child’s residence, and in some jurisdictions, whether or not firearms may be present in the home. Additionally, law enforcement officers may be able to view student social media accounts if school districts have policies that limit an employee’s ability to do so. Again, based on department policies or state laws, officers only share what is relevant and within legal parameters.
As an example, in California, residents must register their firearms with the California Department of Justice. For new firearm purchases or firearm transfers conducted with a federal firearms licensed dealer, registration happens automatically. An officer may take the initiative to determine if a firearm is registered to an adult where the student lives. The officer may then report back to the threat assessment team if there is a high, medium or low possibility of the student having access to firearms in the home. Based on the specifics of the situation, knowledge of firearms being present in the home may increase the threat level associated with the student.
The third role of law enforcement officers integrating with school threat assessment teams is to deliver support. The goal is to help students avoid the criminal justice system by providing support and resources based on their needs and risk level. This is referred to as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). The ability to play an active role in delivering PBIS strategies is even more relevant for SROs who interact with students on a daily basis. Officers may have a personal connection with a student in crisis or may be the one individual who a student trusts and is willing to open up to. This creates an opportunity for officers to become a mentor, role model or even counselor to students in need. This role is not always a smooth transition and may take multiple interactions before a student is willing to join the conversation. Officers should never overlook the incredible power of genuine interaction. Sometimes simply asking, “How are you and how can I help?” is enough to save a life.
The final primary role an officer may play as part of a threat assessment team is providing direct intervention. This is done when the threat assessment team as a whole, or an individual officer with additional knowledge, determines the situation is reaching critical mass, making the possibility of an incident extremely likely. Often, direct intervention by law enforcement is taken as a result of the student indicating they are planning to hurt themselves or others. This may manifest as a social media post warning fellow students not to come to school or by telling friends that they are in possession of a firearm or other type of weapon. In these cases, law enforcement may have the sole authority to make direct contact with the student and their family regarding circumstances surrounding the student’s actions.
In certain situations, law enforcement has the authority to place an individual on a 72-hour involuntary detainment at a psychiatric facility for observation. This is commonly referred to as a “5150,” which is a reference to the number of the section of the Welfare and Institutions Code. Officers should not overlook this option in extreme cases or when a student has explicitly stated their desire to harm themselves or others.
As a father of school-aged children and the husband of an educator, I want to embrace a personal voice in closing. I want to speak directly to SROs, officers who are currently part of school threat assessment teams and law enforcement leaders who have the power to influence their department’s relationship with schools in their community. You are a force multiplier in true crisis prevention. We are talking about supporting students before their thoughts manifest into actions, whether that be self-harm or harming others. You are in a position to collaborate with educators and mental health professionals to identify at-risk students, strategize on effective support programs and deliver personal interventions that will not only save the lives of potential victims, but save the lives of potential offenders.