After numerous visits and interviews around the country, the Federal Commission for School Safety released its final report on improving school safety.
The report suggests methods of preventing, protecting and mitigating school violence. It also advises how to respond to an active threat. It assessed existing policies and practices, spoke with individuals involved with education, law enforcement and psychology and made recommendations based on those findings.
The Commission was established by the Trump administration after the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. It comprised of four members: U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Secretary Kirstjen Nielson from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar II and Matthew Whitaker, acting Attorney General for the U.S. Department of Justice.
Character building, the establishment of a positive school climate, mental health and threat assessment are listed as key aspects of preventing school violence.
“This is where it all starts. In the Roseburg schools, we’re fortunate to have Child Development Specialists (CDS) in all of our elementary schools,” said Lee Paterson, interim superindent for Roseburg School District. “The emphasis of CDS is precisely this: character development. The purpose of CDS programming is to enable every child to ‘acquire and master critical skills that enable them to learn, work, interact with others, and contribute to their community.’”
The goal is to better school safety by improving school culture as a whole. Character development, or the promotion of core ethical values such as fairness, respect and personal responsibility, is considered essential to a healthy school environment. Building those characteristics help all students feel included and is believed to help improve mental illness.
According to the report, multiple people noted years of isolation and depression in the alleged Parkland shooter. One of the Columbine shooters, the Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook shooters were similarly described. Their detachment and isolation were believed to exacerbate other factors that led to violence.
According to the report, focus on mental illness as a factor in school shootings was not considered by previous administrations. However, an overarching theme throughout the assessment was the lack of mental health assistance for school-age youth.
In August, the Roseburg School Board contracted Adapt to provide mental health services. Rick Burton, the director of student services for Roseburg Public Schools, saidthe district added 1.5 full-time equivilant therapists at Roseburg High School and five part-time assigned to various elementary schools.
The district, with assistance from Adapt, has been able to add two more full-time providers since the beginning of the school year.
“The feedback I have been receiving is that there has been an improvement in student moral for some of those kids that have been struggling because they are able to have opportunities to meet consistently with a known person,” Burton said. “I received feedback from staff in the schools and from the community that we have some really, really strong therapists working in the schools.”
Included in mental health complications is cyberbullying. According to the report, 34 percent of youth reported being cyberbullied in their lifetime. Bullying is considered a contributing factor in quite a few cases of violence, including school shootings.
Paterson said the district has adopted the Oregon School Board Association’s policy on cyberbullying. Oregon law mandates that school districts adopt policies prohibiting harassment, intimidation or bullying and acts of cyberbullying.
The report said reporting suspicious activities may provide information authorities need to stop attacks before they happen.
“This is especially true in relation to school attacks. Studies have shown that, prior to the incident, most attackers engaged in behavior that caused others concern and that others knew about the attacker’s ideas or plan to attack” the report says.
The Commission says reporting suspicious or concerning behavior alone will not necessarily prevent acts of violence. The information must be evaluated in the form of a threat assessment with the goal of evaluating the risk those actions pose and the implementation of strategies to handle the outcome.
Protecting and Mitigating
Training is critical. All school personnel play a vital role in school safety training that prepares them to respond to incidents of school violence. Those with specialized training act as the first line of defense, but all staff should be trained to respond to incidents of school violence with a good safety plan.
“All schools submit, annually updated crisis response plans which include evacuation and reunification instruction. Because we must be prepared for all manner of potential crises, we are supplying and equipping schools with ‘go bags’ containing emergency supplies in case of evacuation or ‘shelter in place’ following a natural disaster,” Paterson said.
According to the report, a review found 43 states require emergency drills and training for teachers and other school staff. In 2016, some 57 percent of public schools reported the presence of security staff at least once a week, but this means almost half of America’s public schools are without regular school security staff. Roseburg High lists three security personnel.
“We’re sending a small team to a federally funded and supported FEMA mass casualty, Incident Command Structure and School Crisis Response training in Emmitsburg, Maryland this spring to bring back the most current best practices to be implemented here district-wide,” Paterson said.
Respond and Recover
In March, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office held active-shooter training as part of its annual in-service training for patrol and corrections deputies. Tactical response team members helped with training, and each instructor brought a different type of expertise to the table. The Roseburg School District allowed the training to take place at Winchester Elementary.
“By bringing them to this school, they’re being exposed to some of the challenges that this campus may present,” Brad O’Dell, a sheriff’s spokesman, said in an interview earlier this year.
While being familiar with the difficulties of school construction during a crisis helps, every school is different. There is no blanket policy that can apply to every school, even in Roseburg. Paterson said the district has an active safe schools committee to evaluate each school and develop strategies and advances to increase safety.
This committee has just authorized a pilot program and tools for immediate emergency communication.
All staff equipped with the devices can alert law enforcement and administration immediately if a threat occurs. This program will begin at the high school.
“Roseburg Schools have taken school safety and security very seriously for quite some time. While we recognize that we’re not perfect, we strive to be,” Paterson said.