Article by Kenna Powell, Providence Day School
Creating a safe and secure school environment requires a multi-faceted, strategic approach. While changes to security technology and facilities may be one way to improve school safety, an equally if not more important strategy is behavioral threat assessment (BTA). BTA is a process in which a school identifies students of concern, assesses their risk for engaging in violence or other harmful activities, and identifies intervention strategies to manage that risk. The idea is that problems are identified and addressed before they become serious, mitigating the potential for school violence.
Making It Official
Many consider the close-knit communities of independent schools to be a protective factor that reduces risk. We know our students so well that it may seem easy to quickly recognize anyone or anything worrisome. We cannot rely on school culture and climate alone, however. Consider these three questions:
- Does your school have and consistently apply a formal, written process to recognize and report behaviors of concern?
- Does the process have a low threshold to identify students before they pose a risk to self or others?
- Does the process specify the point at which the school would engage local law enforcement to help mitigate and transfer part of that risk?
If your answer to any of these questions is no, consider this: in the aftermath of the unthinkable, what would your school’s position be? It’s a sobering thought.
An Established Process
BTA is not a new phenomenon but has moved into the national spotlight as school communities seek to reverse the trend of school shootings and other acts of violence. It is just one piece of a multidisciplinary approach to mitigating the potential for violence in schools.
A strong but non-traditional ally for independent schools is the Department of Homeland Security and, more specifically, the U.S. Secret Service. Following the tragic school shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and Santa Fe High School in Texas, the agency has increased efforts to help schools improve safety. Last year, it released “Enhancing School Safety Using a Threat Assessment Model: an Operational Guide for Preventing Targeted School Violence.”
Given that this model is considered best practice and even mandatory in some states for public schools, the liability for not implementing BTA in our schools could be significant. Plausible deniability is not a good defense.
Students will engage in concerning behaviors along a continuum. The vast majority are non-threatening and nonviolent but may still require intervention. The rare but serious behaviors definitely do. Embracing BTA will help us take our current assessment process to the next level and mitigate the risk posed by potential outliers. Independent schools begin assessment during the admissions process and continue the process until commencement.
While tradition is fundamental in independent schools, we continue to evolve to meet the needs of our community and ever-changing world. Enhancing the culture of school safety by implementing BTA bolsters our tradition of protecting students, implements relevant innovations and positions us well to continue to ensure safe and secure learning environments.
Kenna Powell, M.S., CPP, CSSP, CSSM, is director of safety, security and emergency management at Providence Day School, a 1,700-student, TK-grade 12 day school in Charlotte, North Carolina.