Rather than debating whether or not teachers should be armed, what if we instead identified solutions to prevent heinous violent attacks from occurring in the first place? And what if, instead of believing all persons living with serious mental illness are violent loners who should be hospitalized, we learned how to recognize and respond to signs of mental illness in a way that provides effective support and intervention without increasing stigma? Students can’t learn if they don’t feel safe, and mental health problems are leading impediments to student retention and academic success. Together, safety and mental health should be a concern for all K-12 and college educators.
Responding to the Shooting in Parkland, Florida
Since the tragic shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, it has been reported that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of admissions of children to mental health treatment centers in Florida. Recent studies have also shown that the number of college students with mental health problems is growing, and there is an increase in the severity of the psychological issues that these students face.
I taught psychology to college students for almost 20 years and one of the most important principles my students learned was that correlation does not imply causation. When we read statements that most of the assailants in recent active shooting incidents in the U.S. have shown signs of or been diagnosed with serious mental illness (but didn’t seek or receive treatment), it’s tempting to come to the conclusion that mental illness caused these attacks. The truth is, the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent. And conversely, most individuals who are violent are not mentally ill. Also, given the low base rates of mass shootings and the complex nature of mental illness, we are unable to predict who will become the next violent assailant just from their mental health diagnosis.
Nevertheless, in today’s environment, when teachers are confronted with concerning student behavior, especially when it includes signs of mental illness, they typically want to know if a student will be the next school assailant. Contrary to common belief, offenders do not just “snap.” Targeted violence is premeditated, and planning and preparation can take place over many days, weeks, months, or even years. Because of this, very often other people know about the assailant’s idea or plan to attack and they exhibit concerning warning behavior prior to the attack. Consequently, third-party observers including family members and bystanders are in an excellent position to recognize the warning signs that someone is moving towards an act of targeted violence—if they know what to look for and what to do about it.
Making Violence Prevention a Reality
In November 2016, the US Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation published a 100+ page monograph called, Making Prevention a Reality: Identifying, Assessing, and Managing the Threat of Targeted Attacks. The experts agreed that the best strategy to prevent targeted acts of violence such as the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, is the threat assessment and management team. Threat assessment and management is a consistent and standardized process of identifying situations and persons of concern, gathering and assessing multiple sources of information in context—including information about mental health, determining if those persons are moving toward an attack, mitigating risk of targeted violence, and intervening before an attack occurs.
The reality is that a threat assessment and management team can only work effectively to prevent acts of targeted violence if third parties report threats and concerning warning behaviors. These third-party reports are the fuel on which the threat assessment engine runs. Despite the breakdown of the FBI’s response to the multiple reports that were made regarding the Stoneman Douglas High School assailant, third-party reporting still plays a vital role in prevention of acts of targeted violence.
The Role of a Behavioral Intervention Team
While a threat assessment and management team is critical in mitigating the risk of violence, in many cases of targeted violence, a direct threat is never made and it must be determined if certain behaviors pose a threat. A more holistic and proactive approach to identifying, assessing, and managing threats and warning behaviors is the use of behavioral intervention teams. A behavioral intervention team (BIT) is a multidisciplinary, collaborative, cross-functional team that meets regularly and serves as a centralized point of contact to receive reports of threats of violence as well as disruptive or concerning behavior.
BITs are most often found at institutions of higher education and the number of them is growing. However, a behavioral intervention team model is applicable and should also be considered in K-12 schools, workplaces, faith-based institutions, and community organizations.
The emphasis of a BIT is on preventing a threat before it occurs, and it is intended to be proactive, caring, and preventive, but not punitive. Once a report is received, the BIT is charged with investigating, assessing, and responding to the concern, which may include conducting a threat assessment to determine and mitigate risk of violence, initiating necessary interventions—including counseling—to manage the behavior, and coordinating resources and follow-up. The goal at an educational institution is to ensure that everyone is safe and has the opportunity to learn and succeed.
Because of the wide variety of concerns that are addressed by a BIT, members of a BIT are well-trained. In order to be most effective, members receive highly specialized, regular training and professional development on principles of threat assessment and threat management, the use of data-driven rubrics, case management, high risk behaviors and warning signs, suicide prevention and intervention, recognizing and responding to mental health problems, and more.
Common types of reports made to a BIT are mental health related, but a mental health diagnosis alone does not necessarily warrant a referral to a BIT. That being said, in the majority of the incidents studied by The US Secret Service and Department of Education’s Safe School Initiative, the motives of most assailants were related to their psychological well-being, such as having trouble dealing with a significant loss or personal failure and feeling bullied, persecuted, or injured by others prior to the attack.
Information about mental health problems assists a BIT in assessing a concern or threat and is one of the many important elements used in identifying appropriate, effective interventions, counseling, other resources, follow up, and management. When assessing the risk of targeted violence, however, it is more important to know the person of concern’s actual behavior and determine if that behavior is progressing down a “pathway to violence” than to focus too much on the fact that they have a mental health diagnosis.
Next Steps: Education and Empowerment
While mental health professionals cannot predict violent attacks by knowing a person’s diagnosis, it would be reasonable and beneficial for all of us, including educators and the general public to gain an understanding of how to recognize and respond to signs of a mental health problem and at the very least, reduce the extent to which mental health problems impede learning. Moreover, students should be taught life skills to effectively deal with bullying and cope with significant losses and personal failures. Social emotional learning (SEL) competencies such as anger management, conflict resolution, and decision making are a vital part of a 21st century safe school environment.
Educating and empowering teachers and school administrators to learn more about the mental health needs of their students and to create or access a threat assessment team or BIT in their schools seems to be a more viable solution to preventing school shootings than arming teachers.
Dr. Peggy Mitchell Clarke
Dr. Peggy Mitchell Clarke is a clinical psychologist and retired psychology professor who has lived in Denver, Colorado for almost two decades. In the aftermath of the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, Dr. Clarke was instrumental in developing and facilitating active shooter response and violence prevention training for all faculty and staff at Community College of Aurora (CCA).
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