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Threat assessment teams can prevent school violence, task force says

Dave Novotney, co-chair of the Oregon Task Force on School Safety, told a roomful of educators and law enforcement professionals Wednesday night at the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training that Oregon needs student threat assessment teams. Novotney is superintendent of the Willamette Education Service District. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)

The Oregon Task Force on School Safety made its case Wednesday night for a statewide threat assessment team.

The task force pushed legislation that led to a tip line launched last month, but it wants to do more to increase the safety of students.

Dave Novotney, task force co-chairman, said two important questions always arise when tragedy strikes: Could we have known? Could we have prevented it?

“The Oregon Task Force on School Safety says yes,” said Novotney, superintendent of the Willamette Education Service District.

Salam Noor, deputy superintendent of public education, and about 100 educators, law enforcement members and legislators listened to the task force’s plan.

The task force envisions a two-tier approach for when students are identified as a risk to themselves or others. A school-based team that includes an administrator, mental health professional and law enforcement member would assess the danger and the resources to address it. If the situation is high-risk or the school team doesn’t have the necessary resources, then a community-based multi-disciplinary team of education, mental health and law enforcement professionals could be called on.

Novotney said their plan calls for a 15-member statewide team with regional representatives to train and coordinate threat assessment teams. Senate Bill 414 would direct the Oregon Department of Education to establish a student threat assessment system to support schools. The estimated cost would be about $2 million a year.

By statute, the task force is made up of representatives from law enforcement, mental health and education. Peggy Holstedt, director of policy services, represents OSBA on the task force.

Presenters Wednesday night acknowledged that it is difficult to gauge the effectiveness of a threat assessment system because success is measured in events not happening.

Independence Police Department Sgt. Juventino Banuelos, one of the audience members, agreed.

“You want to announce to everyone, ‘Hey, we stopped one’ but you don’t want to stigmatize juveniles in that way,” he said.

He says he has seen the results, though. His department works closely with the Salem-Keizer School District, a national model for threat assessment teams.

“We’ve implemented it for years,” he said. “I do feel we’re making a difference.”

Sue Graves, safety coordinator for the Lincoln County School District and a task force member, urged educators and law enforcement members to at least check out Salem-Keizer.

“I think the threat assessment piece is critical to student safety,” she said.

The FBI, U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education all support the effectiveness of threat assessment systems.

William Modzeleski was the featured speaker at the Wednesday briefing at the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, and he explained the research that has gone into developing the threat assessment team model. Modzeleski was former associate assistant deputy secretary for the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools in the U.S. Department of Education.

The idea of threat assessment teams was built on the study of dozens of attacks, finding commonalities about the attackers and the situations. In almost all cases, there were warning signs and other people knew something was wrong before the event.

Modzeleski also praised the SafeOregon School Safety Tip Line, which gives students multiple ways to report bullying, violence, drugs, self-harm or any other potential threats.

“A tip line can be a phenomenal part of what we do,” he said.

Jodi Sherwood, project manager of the School Safety Tip Line, shared some positive outcomes the line has seen already. Schools have to sign up at safeoregon.com for students to use the line, and she said schools will often get tips the same day they sign up.

- Jake Arnold, OSBA
jarnold@osba.org