Hauling bodyguards along with her to Ben Reifel Middle School last Friday isn’t Kristi Noem’s only demonstration of concern about safety in schools. On Thursday, the state announced it has grant funds (likely federal) available for schools to “increase school safety through threat assessment training.”
The program will not include training in avoiding the Governor’s use of students as photo opps for her campaign to stay in power and undermine public education, which campaign I would contend is a greater threat to the security of our schools than any young knucklehead with a BB gun. The program administered by Navigate 360—”the leader in holistic safety and wellness solutions and South Dakota’s “Partner in Proactive School Safety“—will train School Threat Assessment teams to better prevent suicide and targeted violence using Dr. Dewey Cornell’s Comprehensive School Threat Assessment Guidelines. At no cost to themselves, South Dakota school districts can get four to six hours of asynchronous online training in CSTAG Level 1. Participants who pass the Level 1 exam can then take the synchronous Level 2 training, which Dr. Cornell or one of his trainers conducts in-person or live online.
Dr. Cornell’s website on school threat assessment indicates that CSTAG is an evidence-based alternative to zero-tolerance policies that recognizes the best way to keep schools safe is to stop violence from occurring (rather than South Dakota’s nutty and non-evidence-based approach of arming teachers and training for shoot-outs):
School shootings have generated a widespread misconception that schools are not safe. On the contrary, national crime statistics show that school-age children are safer from shootings at school than almost any other location. However, there are many situations where students threaten to commit a violent act, and educators must make every effort to keep students and staff safe. Educators do not want to over-react to student threats that are not serious, yet they must recognize and take action in response to a serious threat. This is why leading authorities in education, law enforcement, and mental health recommend that schools use a systematic approach called threat assessment.
Since the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, schools have spent billions of dollars in security measures to make their schools “hard targets” against shootings. However, prevention must start before there is a gunman at the school door. Prevention means building a supportive school climate, helping students in distress, and taking appropriate protective action before a conflict or problem escalates into violence. Schools do not need to predict who is going to commit a violent act if they focus on identifying and helping students in need of assistance. Our model of threat assessment is a problem-solving approach that involves both assessment and intervention to prevent violence [Dewey G. Cornell, “Training in School-Based Threat Assessment,” School Threat Assessment website, retrieved 2021.11.22].
Dr. Cornell and his team of practicing psychologists say their Comprehensive School Threat Assessment Guidelines do more than prevent outbreaks of gun violence:
Our research, conducted through the University of Virginia and published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, shows that schools using threat assessment have resolved thousands of threats without serious injury. Moreover, schools using our model of threat assessment have substantial reductions in the use of school suspension and lower rates of bullying. On school climate surveys, students and teachers report feeling safer than in schools not using threat assessment. Finally, school staff representing administration, instruction, mental health, and law enforcement all report high levels of satisfaction, knowledge, and motivation regarding the use of threat assessment after attending our workshops [Cornell, 2021.11.22].
The CSTAG start with a triage process that distinguishes transient threats from substantive threats:
A threat assessment begins when a threat is reported to the principal or any other member of the school’s threat assessment team. The assessment begins with a triage process to determine whether the threat can be quickly and easily resolved as a transient threat that does not pose a serious threat of violence (most cases) or will require more extensive assessment and intervention as a substantive threat. Transient threats are often statements that do not express a serious intent to harm someone, and can range from joking comments to momentary expressions of frustration. Transient threats are usually resolved when a student calms down and apologizes. The manual contains a chapter on transient threats with numerous examples of how these kinds of cases are resolved. Equally important, we have extensive research showing that these cases ARE resolved without violence and without disciplinary over-reaction to the student’s misbehavior.
Substantive threats are by definition threats where there is a serious intent to harm someone. Substantive threats are divided into serious substantive threats involving a fight or assault and very serious substantive threats that involve a threat to kill, rape, or use a weapon to inflict severe injury. In cases of very serious substantive threats, the team will want to conduct a mental health assessment of the student and consult with law enforcement. Fewer than 10% of threats rise to this level. The manual spells out the kinds of protective actions that schools should take, including the notification of threatened individuals. There is also a detailed description of how a safety plan can be formulated, documented, and implemented to prevent violence. The manual includes numerous case examples and explains the actions that school teams should consider. Our research shows that school teams can reliably distinguish substantive threats from transient threats and take appropriate action to prevent violence from taking place [“Threat Assessment Manual,” SchoolTA.com, retrieved 2021.11.22].
Cornell boils the CSTAG into this five-step decision tree:
Obviously there’s more to the program than just reading this worksheet and following the steps, and that more is what schools should get from this grant-funded training. But Cornell’s team notes that Steps 1 and 2 will suffice for 99% of school threats:
In summary, across hundreds of cases in multiple studies we have found that 99% of threats made by students who receive a threat assessment are not carried out. The small number of threats that were carried out involved fights that resulted in no serious injury. We have also found that only about 1% of these students are expelled from school and only about 1% are arrested. Most threats are resolved without school suspension and the overwhelming majority of students are able to continue in their original school [“Evidence,” SchoolTA.com, retrieved 2021.11.22].
And—don’t let Kristi hear about this—training in and application of CSTAG appears to help schools reduce systemic racism:
Across multiple studies, schools have seen a decrease in their use of suspension out of school, both for the students who receive a threat assessment AND for the general student population. We have also seen reductions in the racial disparities in school suspension, especially the higher rate of suspension for Black students compared to White students [“Evidence,” SchoolTA.com, retrieved 2021.11.22].
All that without any school official or political candidate’s bodyguard having to fire a single shot. Put down your guns, teachers and janitors, and sign up for some training that works against real threats to school safety.