In the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook, President Obama charged Vice President Biden with leading a White House task force to evaluate sweeping new measures to curtail gun violence – an initiative that some reports say has expanded to include other matters, such as mental health and making it harder for the mentally ill to acquire firearms.
Those two issues – guns and mental health – now dominate media headlines and will spawn thundering, emotionally charged debates across the nation for months to come. These social and political weather fronts are crucial topics – and may be the most important. But in the eye of the storm – unnoticed, rarely championed and often poorly misunderstood – are many ideas, innovations and strategies that could significantly advance any comprehensive and integrated national-level approach to help prevent school violence. Ten of these, including guns and mental health are outlined briefly below.
Establish Threat Assessment Training for Police
This may come as a surprise to many, but the vast majority of our nation’s police officers are not trained in the nuances of behavioral threat assessment. In fact, for at least 10 years there has been little effort to formally educate those on our front line of defense. More often than not, police are not prepared to take action when someone’s suspicious activity or statements are reported – unless a crime has occurred.
Broaden the Mission of TAVISS
More than a decade ago, the U.S. Secret Service established its Targeted Violence Information Sharing System (TAVISS). One of its authors is on the Hillard Heintze team. TAVISS is a centralized database containing the names of subjects who have displayed an unusual direction of interest towards federal, state and local public officials. Can this be applied to schools? Perhaps – if we can broaden its mission to include the names and addresses of any individual who has demonstrated an unusual direction of interest toward students, teachers or school administrators or expressed statements of potential violence directed at these communities.
Build a National Database for Mentally Ill Subjects Who Have the Potential for Violence
Why should we not monitor those who profess their intention to commit acts of violence? We welcome a vigorous discussion on the feasibility of creating a national database to share information on subjects who pose a real potential for targeted violence. With such a database, we could improve our ability to monitor subjects. And we could capture early opportunities to intervene through outreach, counseling, support and prevention when these individuals begin escalating certain behaviors and start down a potential path to violence. Talk to any family who has a member of the family that is suffering from severe mental illness. Many will tell you that legislative reforms are necessary to ensure that their loved ones receive the treatment and monitoring they need and that in many cases must be accomplished through a court order. How can we coordinate and align 50 different state-specific approaches to balancing civil liberties and the right to life?
Commit to Research
Violence in our schools can only be eliminated when it is fully understood. Funding for research must be extended to national agencies – and sustained over time.
Increase Support for Federal Law Enforcement Behavioral Science Programs
We need to ensure that federal law enforcement agencies that have a behavioral science component – such as the U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center and the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit – can count on sustained support from legislators for strategic research, education and training programs for state and local law enforcement.
Expand Social Media and Open-Source Monitoring
In recent months, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has emphasized the benefits of monitoring these platforms in an effort to better protect our homeland. We need to invite global leaders in technology and information systems to help provide real solutions in open-source threat assessment that accommodate privacy rights, regulations and privileges.
Enhance School Security
Isn’t it time that we strongly considered the need to establish a national standard for school security? Why don’t we embrace a prevention-oriented methodology and have every school in the country reevaluate the protective countermeasures at their facilities?
Harden the Classroom
Before December 14th, I don’t believe the concept would have been welcomed in any conversation. Now, it may be the single best measure to take for saving lives in schools. What’s this mean? Make individual classrooms more secure while preserving the aesthetic learning environment. Install doors and windows, and locking systems and frames that cannot be comprised. Reinforce walls. Establish a national standard that will save lives.
Challenge Our Communities to Establish Grassroots “Care Teams”
What if we had “Care Teams” in every school community – composed of teachers, administrators, parents and grandparents? What if these Care Teams were charged with standing “heads up and eyes open”? What if we asked these teams to serve as our nation’s frontline of awareness with respect to school violence prevention? Remember: local participation, observation, and awareness are vital. Violence prevention and the primary factors associated with it, (e.g., bullying, domestic abuse, mental illness) must be an active and ongoing discussion. We need to help make school violence prevention an ongoing priority in every school – and not allow our mission to vary whenever changes in the wind shift the focus of our political, legislative and funding priorities.
Make Rational Decisions on Gun Policy – But Don’t Forget That Guns Are Only One of Many Different Drivers of School Safety
Both sides of our political spectrum – the left and the right – are defining the scope of the debate. What types of weapons should be subject to tighter controls? Who should and should not have access to guns? How do we wrap stricter controls, policy and laws around those who lawfully own weapons that end up in the hands of the mentally ill?
We believe that a national, media-fueled debate focused only on guns and mental health, as important as these issues are, completely misses the point: the only effective and sustainable solution to school violence prevention requires a comprehensive and integrated approach to many different factors. Don’t hold your breath. Our government is working hard to bring viable solutions to better protect our children. But as parents, community activists and concerned citizens, our individual engagement is paramount. Yes, we need public funding. And I am hopeful that we will secure it in various ways. But in its simplest form, responsibility for saving the next child’s life – the mission in the eye of the national policy storm – is a local imperative and a priority that will not be met unless we all join together in a collaborative and meaningful effort.