By Lesley Kennedy
Washington, D.C.—Columbine. Sandy Hook. Virginia Tech. Parkland. With more than 225 school shootings since the 1999 attack at Columbine High School in Colorado, many would argue there’s no end in sight to the violence facing today’s students.
But Marisa Randazzo, principal and co-founder of SIGMA Threat Management Associates, says prevention is possible.
Randazzo, who previously served as chief research psychologist for the U.S. Secret Service for 10 years, took part in a session at NCSL’s Capitol Forum on federal resources and tools to improve school safety.
One of the authors of the Safe School Initiative report released by the Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education in 2004 (an updated version is in the works), she says she has continued to see the same findings occur again and again as school shootings persist.
One of the most important takeaways from the study, she says, is that school shooters don’t just snap.
“No matter how they may be portrayed in the media, they think through these events beforehand,” she says. “And they do so in a way that is either known to other people or observable by other people. So, the fact that these are not impulsive is actually good news to us from a prevention standpoint, because we stand a chance at identifying someone who is thinking about, fantasizing about and even starting to plan a violent event before they get to the point of engaging in that violence.”
This is where the importance of school threat assessment comes into play.
“In a very brief nutshell, we’re trying to figure out is this person on a pathway to violence? Are they considering violence as a way to solve conflict? Do they feel like they have to resort to violence? Are they taking any steps toward researching previous attacks or figuring out how they want to engage in violence themselves?” she says. “If they are on a pathway, then a school threat assessment team would figure out how do we solve those problems? How do we get them off the pathway?”
In 2018 legislative sessions, according to moderator Joan Wodiska, NCSL’s senior federal affairs counsel for education, state legislatures considered just under 400 bills and resolutions related to school safety, and of those, almost 90 bills were enacted and adopted.
The state legislation ranges from topics such as school resource officers to how to better equip and secure facilities to threat assessments, the coordination of mental health services as well as the coordination of law enforcement. (Visit NCSL’s comprehensive school safety legislative tracking tool and school safety webpage for more information.)
Mitchell Zais, deputy director of Education for the U.S. Department of Education, told attendess that, post-Parkland, President Donald Trump charged his office with studying, identifying best practices, and making recommendations in 27 areas of focus.
The DOE’s report, expected to be presented this month and available to the public online, focuses on areas including the youth consumption of violent entertainment; ways to advance character development; mass press coverage of school shootings and how it motivates school shooters; rethinking school discipline policies; options for arming well-vetted and highly trained selected school personnel; improving mental health access; and best practices for building campus security.
“Recognizing that schools in this country vary enormously—from literally one-room school houses to huge research universities—it’s clear there are no one-size-fits-all policies,” he says. “And, ultimately, school safety is a state and local responsibility. The president also said, no directives, no policies, no standards, no requirement and no unfunded mandates. Identify best practices and make recommendations that will be helpful to our states and our local education agencies.”
Randazzo offers the following six strategies for school violence prevention and threat assessment:
- Start a school threat assessment team.
- Get school treat assessment training for the team.
- Identify resources in the school and community.
- Encourage people to report concerns.
- Assess and enhance school climate.
- Enhance connections with all students.
Lesley Kennedy is a web editor for NCSL.