In February 2018, a few days after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting claimed 17 lives, a Verona Area High School student threatened to “shoot up the school.”
School and police officials secured and removed the student immediately but soon concluded the threat wasn’t credible.
Now, the district is working on a protocol to assess threats of violence toward the district or one of its students.
The threat assessment protocol, which is now in the hands of the district’s Policy and Personnel committee, was largely inspired by the Parkland shooting, director of human resources and Threat Assessment Team steering committee member Jason Olson told the Verona Area school board Monday night.
The threat assessment was created in partnership with the Verona and Fitchburg police departments. It involves having staff use a screener to determine the severity of the threat and implement safety plans for both the targets of violence and the person threatening to perpetrate it.
The threat assessment process starts by gathering information, whether it’s from students, staff or parents in person, through social media or the district’s new tip line. If death or serious injury are considered immediately imminent, calling law enforcement is the first step, Corey Saffold, district school security coordinator, said.
But if it’s a case where district staff can slow down a bit to take a more “holistic” look at the threat, he explained, that’s where the process comes into play.
Criteria for ranking the severity of the threat includes its potential impact, how it would be carried out, the viability it would happen, what prior threats had been made by the specific person and how that person has behaved.
The ranking system eliminates bias, said Verona Area High School associate principal and steering committee member Tamara Sutor.
“We’re following the process and not doing, ‘My gut is telling me this,’ or, ‘My gut’s telling me that,’” she said. “We are very clear about the steps that we need to follow.”
The threat is then categorized as either a transient or a substantive threat. A transient threat is one that can be chalked up to anger or frustration that is easily resolved, while a substantial threat is one thought to have “serious intent” and have detailed plans and means, Saffold said.
That’s when law enforcement and district security are brought into the conversation, and staff then turn to MOSAIC, an online violence prediction tool that again ranks the severity of the threat.
From there, safety plans are implemented – one for the targeted person or people, and another for the person making the threats.
There’s a core group of district staff on the threat assessment team, but staff at each school round out the team so a student’s behavior can be addressed by people who know them best, Sutor said.
While the threat assessment process is meant to address violence, district staff said they’ve also seen it turn into an intervention tool for students who need additional mental health services.
Often, students are “hurting” as a result of hardships in their day-to-day lives, and it manifests in ways that needs to be dealt with.
“What we’re finding is that it’s really an opportunity for us to get certain services and help to students who would otherwise fly under the radar,” Olson said.