Proactively identifying and addressing behavioral threats among students has long been a challenge for many school districts. If teachers, administrators, staff and fellow students can identify and safely report risky behavior, researchers hope that shooting tragedies like those that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School may be prevented.
Districts regularly update policies and practices to better identify risks, but for the U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) this is not an easy task. DoDEA is the entity that oversees preK-12 educational programming on behalf of the Department of Defense (DoD), and serves approximately 71,000 children of active-duty military service members as well as DoD civilian families. DoDEA operates eight districts, which comprise 164 schools across 11 countries, seven states and two U.S. territories.
"One of the things our military partners have consistently had trouble with is that they can't just take evidence-based programs off the shelf because they're typically designed for civilian K-12 schools here in the United States and thus are built upon implicit assumptions about the availability of community resources, hospitals and other infrastructure," said Cristin Hall, assistant professor of education (school psychology), who is working with DoDEA to refine its policies and procedures.
"Unfortunately, there is no recognition or understanding of the policy challenges DoDEA faces. There's nothing that specifically makes it relevant or responding to the needs of military children and personnel," she said.
Because of DoDEA's organizational structure and geographical positioning, finding programs to meet its needs is very difficult, Hall said. That is why she has teamed up with Timothy Mazer of the Clearinghouse for Military Family Readiness and graduate students Rebecca Bertuccio and Christieanna Tafur to make evidence-based recommendations and policy implementations that might address student behavioral threats. This is the second phase of a project that began in 2016 and provided online training plus other support for DoDEA's student support personnel, which focused on suicidal threat, including assessment, intervention and postvention in the event of suicidal behavior.
"After Parkland and other high-profile school shooting incidents, there was a real push to try and define language in terms of what schools are doing about looking for threats and what to do to mitigate risks that may be found. Yet these threats cannot necessarily be separated from assessing for other kinds of threat, like self-harm," Hall said.
"Because DoDEA has specific needs, we spent a lot of our efforts trying to create something that was very context-appropriate and very portable," she said.
During the fall semester, Hall and her team reviewed research related to active shooter situations and threat assessment, as well as findings on universal mental health screenings in schools. The idea was to explore the various programming options and identify gaps so that potentially effective recommendations could be provided to DoDEA, she said.
"There are reasons to be concerned about violence in schools in terms of school shootings, but ultimately shootings have been low base-rate occurrences," Hall said. From that perspective, she added, "it's important to acknowledge the dangers that exist on a day-to-day basis for students. Things like bullying, fights, sexual harassment and assault, different kinds of threats but ones that happen far more frequently."
"What we know is that in the retrospective study of school shootings, more often than not, there's knowledge of threats, there are warning signs that can be detected and we can possibly intervene but sometimes those warnings are overlooked, not reported out of fear, or mishandled due to communication problems or lack of resources," she said. "So, one of the things we worked on with our partners was to talk about ways to not silo risks of violence to others or to oneself."
To address these concerns, Hall and her team identified three strategies to detect risks for violence using a multi-tiered approach: school-wide training for students and staff to identify warning signs; universal mental health and risk screening; and follow-up threat assessment for students identified as being "at-risk." Hall’s team found that there are many existing programs designed for all of these areas that simply needed to be modified to fit the special needs of the DoDEA global context.
"In addition to training students and staff on how to identify warning signs, it also is important that schools offer multiple methods for allowing students and staff to notify the threat assessment or crisis team about a potential concern," Hall said. She also pointed out the importance of upstander training, in which individuals are properly trained on how to intervene when witnessing interactions such as bullying.
"It's important that school staff and administrators recognize and act on warning signs," she said. "The research clearly states that warning signs have been present in most active shooter incidents and as warning signs increase, so does the risk for carrying out a shooting as well as the number of fatalities."
In addition to acting on warning signs, Hall and her team recommended that DoDEA use a multi-tiered system of support, known as a MTSS approach, to implement universal mental health and risk screenings. The system, which focuses on reducing risk and promoting safety, includes the use of interviews and observations with students in addition to screening assessment tools.
"There is a stigma in regards to mental health help seeking, specifically in military populations," she said. "For example, there are certain military jobs that if you need to speak with a counselor then you are not fit to work and can be relieved, temporarily or otherwise, of duty. For active duty service members, if they have a child with a mental health issue or other disability and they can't get the services they need at the location they're working in, they may have to move in order to help their child, which also has career implications for the service member."
It's necessary to overcome this stigma, she said, so that children can receive the help they need.
Perhaps the most important recommendation is the need for school staff to continually follow-up with assessments and short-term supportive interventions for students who have been identified as "at-risk."
"Research tells us that there are common areas in threat assessment that are related to the person making the threat, things like access to weapons, mental health symptoms, drug use and history of behavior problems," Hall said. "However, what research doesn't tell us is what those things will necessarily lead to in all cases.
"Because we can't always know for sure, we need to continue with monitoring and support for students who need help."
DoDEA accepted many of the recommendations of Hall's research team and already have begun the process of changing their policies and procedures.
"They just wrote a draft of their new policy and we reviewed it for them and gave them feedback, and they incorporated a lot of the information that we had provided into the choices they made," Hall said.
The next step, she said, is to speak one-on-one with those individuals who work closest with students.
Hall and her team of researchers will continue to work with DoDEA through 2020. In that time, she said they hope to help DoDEA develop more training and intervention supports that may be adapted to any of their schools, regardless if they are located in the United States, Germany or Guam.
"The needs for DoDEA's schools tend to be overlooked by researchers because most research focuses on civilian K-12 schools," Hall said. "But it is our responsibility as researchers to make sure students in all schools are safe and that teachers, counselors, psychologists and other professionals are receiving the training and tools that they need."