Navigating a New Era in School Safety

Recently our Co-Founder, Michele Gay, caught up with Thom Jones, Senior Vice President of Threat Detection and Prevention for Navigate360, the Premier Partner for Safe and Sound School’s recent 2021 National Virtual Summit on School Safety. The following is an abridged version of their conversation.

Michele: First, thank you for joining me, Thom. We’re so thankful to have a partner, like Navigate360, who works with us in our common mission to make schools safe for every child every day.

Thom: It’s been an amazing journey with Safe and Sound Schools since we began our partnership in 2013. We’re very proud of the work we’ve been able to accomplish together and appreciate your work and advocacy across the nation, raising awareness of the comprehensive issues schools and communities must address for safer schools.

Michele: That has evolved over time, as we’ve been able to work with so many different school communities together, engaging not only administration and staff, but parents and students as well. It’s imperative that we’re all part of the crisis prevention conversation and understand the multitude of issues schools must address today.

Thom: Especially since we’ve entered a new era of school safety with the overlay of Covid and the challenges it brings, such as isolation, home-learning situations, being distanced from key support groups, and the communications barriers it has created. We were thrilled to support this year’s National Summit on School Safety to bring so many of these issues to light. To see more than 1,100 registered and investing time over three days speaks to the dedication of the school safety community you’ve built.

Michele: We know there are many practices and programs that will endure beyond the pandemic, but one area we see that’s only going to grow is virtual engagement. While it presented challenges early on, it has helped us keep our national community connected and reach more schools than ever before. We love teaching and training in-person and look forward to the day we can continue our more regional-focused summits onsite, but we can’t let this pandemic stop our mission. The need is more critical than ever.

Virtual technology has allowed us to reach counselors, teachers. School Resource Officers, and others who might not be able to attend a national gathering because of budget or time constraints. Learning to leverage that technology has been very eye opening and the conversations we’re having because of that are energizing and encouraging.

Thom: Exactly. It’s something that people are becoming much more comfortable with and seeing the value that it brings. Of course, it doesn’t replace live interaction, but it offers us unique opportunities for reaching people.

Michele: Let’s talk more about two key things you’ve mentioned we’re facing now and will continue to in the coming year: opportunities and challenges. It’s very much, as you said, a new era for school safety. We have many of the long-standing challenges, but they’ve been escalated a notch because of the current climate and all the issues coming to the forefront.

There are difficult and important conversations happening around social justice, around politics, around vaccination and mask mandates—all those things are ramping up the emotion and the passion, but good things are coming from these conversations. So, while we have tremendous challenges that push into our schools, we also have tremendous opportunities for solving them. There has been a lot of innovation and creativity. I’d like to visit a little bit about that.

Thom: It used to be a person going to a district for a day-long session, and we had to shift more to e-learning and virtual opportunities, only to find that in combination, we can have more impact. People can get training in their buildings or at home and not have to travel and it still has a high level of fidelity. We’ve noticed that we’re doing a lot of training sessions on self-harm, harm to others and suicide prevention and whether it’s behavioral threat assessment or other training, the feedback we’re getting suggests that blended learning opportunities are something our audiences want to keep.

Another learning–and one that I’ve known since I was a school administrator–is getting a sense of what’s on your students’ minds. That student voice is so important. I was a young principal after Columbine and what did we focus on? Physical safety, physical safety, physical safety. And while that’s still imperative, students are more concerned about their social-emotional safety than physical safety today. Whether that’s mental health specifically or simply broader social-emotional in general. That’s where we see more emphasis and movement in school safety conversations and solutions moving forward.

Michele: Isn’t it amazing that our students are coming forward with that? I feel like we’ve been pounding the pavement with the message of physical safety being critically important—it’s a cornerstone of school safety. But you’re missing the bigger picture if you’re not focusing on mental and behavioral health, culture and climate, health and wellness. And if you weren’t on board with that already, the past year really brough that forward. We can’t forget the foundational aspects that we learned in the beginning—the security and operations—we don’t want to see those go away. But we have an important balance to strike.

Our platform at Safe and Sound Schools has always been about comprehensive school safety– and that takes leadership. That’s often overlooked, yet it’s one of our core pillars to building comprehensive solutions. You need a strong understanding of the leadership skills it takes to build and sustain successful programs, understanding and adhering to law and code, and creating policies that make sense. The pandemic has really shined a light on the importance of strong leadership and policy. Having to determine vaccine mandates and masking policies has been especially challenging. We’ve found that school safety leadership can’t be singularly focused. They have to understand all these areas and how to manage them. So, when we find ourselves facing an epic challenge, we can make the best possible decisions for our school communities.

Thom: Definitely. Challenging times, like we’ve seen in the past year pushes leadership. How do we feed kids? How do we educate virtually? And it doesn’t stop there. It’s all the issues we’ve been discussing today. When it comes to school safety, it’s important that we not just react. It’s important to have leaders and professionals responsible for school safety in districts who are charged with school safety, creating policies and being ready. Whether it’s been masking or vaccinations, I think business and political leaders can learn a lot from our leaders in education and the response they’ve had over the past year and a half, soon to be two years.

Michele: Yes, it really wasn’t a choice. Our school leaders had to step up and figure it out. This all comes down to the wellness, safety, and development of our kids. And as you pointed to earlier, there must be that kind of Maslow’s-hierarchy-approach of focus on physical safety and security first. What we’ve seen is that schools have been able to build from there, focusing on some very high-level needs today, and now having conversations about comprehensive school safety.

We’re going to move through this year, hopefully as much in-person as possible, because that’s one of the things we learned painfully early on. With the pandemic, our kids pay a price in a big way by not experiencing that in-person learning, that social-emotional piece, and now they’re speaking up about it and that’s amazing to see.

Thom: Before kids can learn, we have to address basic needs. One of the conversations we had recently with Dr. Melissa Reeves [Senior Advisor at Safe and Sound Schools] is that we’ll never return to the way we were as a society. We now must respond to our new normal. And what does that new normal look like? A year from now, we’re still going to be dealing with the effects of the early pandemic. She mentioned that it’s trauma we must face, just as we do natural disasters or school shootings or suicide. There will be post-traumatic stress from this pandemic experience that we need to be prepared to deal with.

We’re going to see the need to deal with mental health needs escalate. As an educator, I always knew there were kids that needed mental health support. And now there’s an additional layer of kids who need support and it might not be noticeable. So how are we proactively dealing with that? How do we identify those who might be on a path of self-harm or harm to others and intervene in a positive way?

I had a conversation with the Chief of Safety for Boston Public Schools a couple of weeks ago and we were talking about this concept around individuals who pose a threat to themselves or to others and she commented that theirs is not a natural state of thought and we need to have our teams trained and systems in place to provide proper interventions for those who are on that path. Unfortunately, we’re just seeing more students that are falling into that category.

Michele: I think we’re only beginning to understand the depth of impact on our students and their social-emotional development and mental health. It doesn’t mean there’s a mental health disorder, but there has been significant mental health impact because of the pandemic.

I remember that conversation with Melissa Reeves.  Elizabeth Brown, one of our Florida principals was there and Elizabeth talked about what she termed “ghost cases,” the kids that were never on your radar. They’re your highfliers, your achievers, kids with good support systems and many protective factors around them, kids that may never have hit your radar of concern before. Yet here they are now in crisis. Schools now must be very proactive and check in with everyone.

This is creating a lot of opportunities for communication between students in different mediums. Reaching out and letting them know if they need anything, there’s an avenue of support. If you’re feeling this way, it’s okay, we can help you navigate. Without that focus on prevention and early interventions, we’re going to continue to see crises for years to come.

Thom: No doubt about that. And that’s where things like the National Summit on School Safety are so important. It pulls together the nation’s top experts addressing the full range of issues impacting safety like suicide prevention and behavioral threat assessments. We know from the extensive research done by the National Threat Assessment Center that is that violence directed towards oneself, or others is preventable, but that’s what we need to learn about. How do we properly train our staff to recognize and intervene? How do we put a comprehensive program together with solutions, that is this new thing – a behavioral threat assessment. It’s a foreign topic in many communities around the county. We must help people understand that it’s not punitive at all. Our mutual friend and colleague Cindy Marble, who had been a Secret Service Agent for 26 years has run hundreds of threat assessment cases for her bureau that resulted in a total of only 1 arrest. These assessments are meant to be positive interventions. But you must act early to catch someone who is on a path to violence and that’s where learning from experts like those featured at the Summit are indispensable. Providing understanding of how we can be proactive.

Michele: It’s a proven method that’s been around for decades. We do have quite a few schools who have developed very sophisticated assessments and management programs. But, as you also said, many are just now realizing that it can be an incredibly powerful tool for prevention and intervention. If it’s done well, we should see declining arrests. We should see declining disciplinary actions because it’s about intervention.

Thom: It really is–and you’re going to see schools being able to eliminate social and racial disparities and purely look at behaviors this way. Let’s find a proactive way to deal with student needs as opposed to being reactive to student crises.

Michele: It’s all about the behaviors. Obviously not every case, not every act of self-harm or harm to others can be stopped or prevented. But the data on this process is so promising, why wouldn’t we be devoting so much more time and energy to prevention?

Thom: What the Secret Service did was focus on behaviors, not profiles. How do we identify these behaviors and work with individuals to prevent harm? But the challenge there is you don’t hear about the successes.

Michele: That’s a problem. When schools are successful at being proactive and preventing harm, you don’t hear about that. Then it’s difficult to justify to the community because you’re spending so much time and energy on intervention protocols. But the danger is, without them, you’re always being reactionary.

Behavioral assessment programs allow us to move away from stereotypes of what an attacker should look like and focus on behaviors. It must be neutral in its approach to work.

What else are you seeing out there in terms of intervention technologies?

Thom: Nothing replaces the human element. One of the lessons learned by the Secret Service is the greatest gift we must stop violence is the human mind. Part intuition, but also how are you collecting data? Whether we’re talking suicide or harm to others, there’s leakage that occurs. Signs, discussions, writings – how are you collecting that leakage? There’s technology that can help you scan and filter information and monitor language. There’s a lot of technology today and much more coming out to help with this process. I always say to districts, if you don’t have a way to scan your own media, your Google docs, and those kinds of things, you really should. You’re creating liabilities if you aren’t. So, we’re seeing technologies that help you accomplish that.

Anonymous tip reporting is getting so much better. With that technology you’re making sure students have a vehicle to report because other students always know. You may know some pieces, they may have others and having technology that helps you connect the dots helps behavioral assessments.

Michele: I love how you pointed back to the human element. Making sure that there are many multidisciplinary eyes looking at information and data that’s coming in from all angles to be proactive in our approach.

Thom: And responding immediately. Some of what you see may appear less serious on the surface and those can be the most serious. You must treat them all with great care.

Michele: It’s like Gavin deBecker’s book, The Gift of Fear. If it popped up on someone’s radar, made you stop and think, or raised a couple of eyebrows, you really must pay attention.

We started our conversation talking about journeys and I want to wrap our discussion on the same topic. As we continue this journey and school safety continues to evolve positively and in terms of facing challenges, that journey uniquely unites us with some amazing people, like those at our Summit, all focused on our mission to create safe and sound schools.

It’s about this shared goal we all have. I would love for us, in this challenging time in our country and world, to really gather around our kids and communities and unite around our shared goal. Maybe take a break from the politics and drama and be reminded about the importance of this work, practicing what we are preaching to our kids and in our communities. We don’t have the luxury of finger pointing or blaming, or politics when it comes to our kids, it’s about pushing up your sleeves and getting down to the work.

Thom: Coming back to something I mentioned earlier, I’ve been so proud of our education leaders across the country in the work that they’ve done on this journey to school safety. There will be obstacles that continue to arise, and we will to find new ways around them. But the journey continues and there’s so many opportunities out there for individuals and companies, like us, to partner with Safe and Sound Schools and really make a difference in that journey.

As you mentioned, we’re hearing loudly from our kids that mental health issues must be addressed, and rightfully so. What they’re asking for is Safe and Sound Schools.

Michele: Well said, Thom. Thank you for catching up with me.

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