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Real Solutions for School Safety

As the school safety debate continues, parents, teachers and law enforcement are left watching the endless fight for “solutions” and wondering, “How is this helping keep our kids safe right now?” In a letter to members of the Jordan (MN) school board, Jordan Police Department Chief Bob Malz states, “A national debate ensues on what increased (if any) level of security is needed in our schools, what types of firearms should be banned, and how to predict which individuals with mental illness in our community will commit mass murder.” He wrote this letter soon after the tragedy in Newtown when once again the sanctity of our centers of education, a place where we are required to send our children, was shattered by violence.  Communities sat in stunned silence as they mulled over the fact that once again someone, anyone, everyone had failed to protect the lives of innocent children grouped together in a perfect location to slaughter dozens with virtually no way to protect themselves. In response, Malz wrote, “These attacks have been going on for years and still no one has provided any hope of relief.” Not satisfied with sitting around waiting for a national solution, he set in motion several changes. “Sometimes the best answers come when we stop listening to everyone else and take it upon ourselves to make common sense decisions based on what is right for the safety of our children in our own community,” he explains. “It’s time for a change.”

Officers at School

The first change Malz implemented in the town of 5,800 was to work with the local school district, make some structural changes to the school buildings and move officers inside. Malz knew whatever changes he made could not be “budget busters” and they needed to “think outside the box and utilize our current resources to their fullest.” After all appropriate approvals, including the school superintendant, school principals, school counselors, the City Administrators Office and the City Council, modifications to bring the officers into Jordan High School (JHS), Jordan Middle School (JMS) and Jordan Elementary School (JES) began. The officers’ offices all look out at the main entrance to each of the schools so officers can see who is coming and going. The chief himself is housed at JHS. All the officers have administrative functions allowing them to easily complete their duties at the school. Their presence, as well as, the patrol car in the parking lot has a deterrent effect on any would-be attacker, reduces response time if an incident were to occur and increases the feelings of safety for students, staff and parents. “Three statistics weighed heavily when I debated proposing this plan,” Malz states in an interview. “There has never been a school shooting initiated when an armed police officer has been present. Most school shootings are over in three to five minutes. Almost all school shooting events ended before there was law enforcement intervention.”

Everyone is pleased with the arrangement. “I was very fortunate to be able to work with several individuals in key positions that were able to make the safety of the children in our community their number one priority,” Malz says. “We have just finished the implementation stage. Now comes evaluation. We will need time to ascertain what is effective and what needs to be tweaked or eliminated.” In the end, the school district ended up covering all the costs associated with the change.

Assessing School Threats

Although Malz’ second change was not implemented the first time he proposed it, the school district has since come on board. “An adolescent comes to school with a collective life experience, both positive and negative, shaped by the environments of family, school, peers, community, and culture,” Malz writes. “Out of that collective experience comes values, prejudices, biases, emotions, and the student’s responses to training, stress, and authority. His or her behavior at school is affected by the entire range of experiences and influences. No one factor is decisive.” His statement reminds us that the person who decides to commit an act of violence acts out of his experience. He continues by reminding us these killers had prep time with the potential for warning signs to be picked up by others.  “By the same token, however, no one factor is completely without effect, which means that when a student has shown signs of potential violent behavior, schools, law enforcement and other stakeholders have the capacity and the responsibility to keep that potential violent behavior from materializing,” Malz states.

In collaboration, the Jordan School District and Jordan Police Department enacted a School Threat Assessment Policy and Procedures. This community recognized the potential “to categorize the seriousness of a specific threat and to provide appropriate and effective response adhering to the fundamental rational that the safety of the students and staff is primary yet common sense dispositions based on the threat level need to be utilized.” All the individuals involved recognize that zero tolerance policies often stigmatize children and many students face extreme consequences for a poor choice in words or conduct. On the other hand, ignoring the signs or statements of a potential murderer would be dereliction of duty for both law enforcement and school personnel. Nobody wants to be the one who saw potential for violence and remained silent.

Although there isn’t enough space in this column to outline Jordan’s policy in detail it has several key points. First, it establishes a Threat Assessment Team made up of the School Superintendant, Chief of  Police (or designee), the Principal of the school involved, the Dean of Students (JHS) or the assigned Homeroom teacher (JMS or JES), the school counselor, a member of the juvenile division of the County Attorney’s Office and a mental health professional if available. Second, it defines the threat including assessing motivation and any precipitating incidents. The policy identifies types of threats, factors including specific, plausible details, the emotional content of a threat and precipitating stressors and levels of risk. The team assesses characteristics of the student’s life that might add to the possibility of them acting out their threat. Although designed for use with students, the assessment can be utilized when any person makes a threat against the school, students, or staff members. All of these factors cannot guarantee a school shooting will be prevented, but these are real-time, immediate actions taken to improve school safety in Jordan.

“The community expects that the school district and the Police Department will do everything in their power to assure the safety of their children,” Malz writes. By moving officers into the schools and implementing a School Threat Assessment, Jordan School District and Jordan Police Department show they aren’t going to wait for the rest of the country to determine solutions for them. They’re willing to devise and implement their own.