A YouTube thumbnail image with the Safe and Sound Schools and Navigate360 logos, as well as the headshots of Thom Jones and Michele Gay.

From the Field: Ask an Expert With Safe and Sound Schools

Michele joins industry expert Thom Jones of Navigate 360 to take a look at how far we’ve come–and where we are headed–in school safety. 

The following conversation has been adapted from a previous interview and revised for clarity and readability. 

MG: Hello, Thom Jones. I’m excited to visit with you and catch up on all things school safety. It’s been a while.

TJ: It has been a while, Michele. We’ve all been moving non stop lately. There’s a lot happening in the world of school safety!

MG: Nonstop indeed.

TJ: As a former administrator, I used to say, “education is not a destination, it’s a journey.”  And after 10 years in school safety, I see the same path to progress– it’s “a journey” as well. 

MG: So true. Stepping into this field almost 10 years ago–about the time I met you for the first time–I was still in that mindset of “there’s a way that we can fix this.” I was looking for “a solution,”  a new approach or innovation. But I quickly learned that improvement is a process and real progress doesn’t happen overnight. There certainly have been great innovations in the field. However, it really all comes back to the fundamentals. Would you agree? Have the basics of school safety changed in the past decade?  

TJ: The fundamentals are still there, Michele. That is where I really applaud the efforts of  our schools and our school communities in school safety. Yes, we continue to see acts of violence occur in both our schools and our society. But, if you really study the data, schools are safer now than they have ever been. That is because our school leaders are working in partnership with law enforcement and mental health much more. I don’t think we give them enough credit. We don’t see these efforts portrayed in the media or on social media. Unfortunately, we will never rid the world of violence. That is why it is so important we do everything we can to prevent acts of violence from occurring and to be prepared as well. 

MG: Let’s talk more about that. Hard as it is to accept, the reality that we are not going to be able to “wave a wand” and make this world perfectly safe is something we have to remember to stay grounded in this work. It’s so easy to feel defeated when tragedies happen. We have to remind ourselves they have happened in the past, and unfortunately, we will continue to see tragedies and crises in our schools and our communities in the future. But the more of us that are dedicated to rising to these challenges – the better and safer our schools are becoming. It’s important that we stop to take stock of the progress our schools are making.   

MG: You and I have seen firsthand what happens when people do come together from all different disciplines. How do we get this message out to our communities that we are all working together to keep schools safe? 

TJ: One of the things I encourage when talking with school leaders is to share what you’re doing around school safety. This doesn’t mean you’re going to share security sensitive information, but you should be sharing all the positive things your school is doing around school safety. It builds confidence within your school community. If you have Safe and Sound Schools in for a presentation or training, share that with the community. By doing this, if an issue or incident occurs, your community has the confidence that you’ve prepared. There’s a plan in place. Also, share with your neighboring communities. Sometimes they are having the same issues your school district may be having. It’s great to know how they are handling the same situations and share resources.

MG: Exactly. Everyone should know all the good work that’s going on. Your community should know when your district has a student leadership program like our Safe and Sound Students or parent involvement like our Parents for Safer Schools. There are a lot of students and parents who want to be involved in school safety. Not everyone does, and that’s okay. But for the people who really do want a seat at the table, there are a lot of great ways to help. And it’s such a win when this happens. To gain student and parent insights and perspectives is invaluable.

TJ: It’s so important! Something I used to say as a principal when I walked the halls visiting with students was, “Hey Michele, how’s it going?” Then I’d ask, “whose responsibility is it for safety here?”  The students would point to themselves and say, “Wow, it’s mine. It’s yours. It’s everyone’s responsibility when it comes to safety.” I would have the same conversation with parents. On Parent Night, I would ask them, “whose responsibility is it for school safety?”  They knew school safety is everyone’s responsibility and that they were part of it. That’s how it should be. 

MG: Yes!  Too many times we see communities look at safety as someone else’s issue. It’s absolutely everyone’s responsibility. We really need to emphasize that it’s our shared responsibility. Again, back to the basics. Back to the fundamentals.

MG: I know we were just talking about how busy we all are in the field. You’re buzzing around the country just as much as I am. It has been a very busy time in our schools and communities. We’re seeing a lot of new thoughts and ideas trending in school safety. What are you hearing from schools and communities as you travel around?

TJ: It’s definitely been busy, Michele. In my role in Threat Detection and Prevention with Navigate 360, most of my work, which I love, focuses on the prevention piece. And there we are really seeing an increased interest in threat assessment. 

MG: Yes, our school communities are embracing this prevention and intervention process.

TJ: It’s a paradigm shift in school safety. It’s the understanding of the importance and power of a threat assessment process. It’s giving schools an additional tool they can put in their toolbox. I remember reaching out to you  in the fall of 2018 and asking what you thought about threat assessment. This was after [the] Parkland and Santa Fe [tragedies] and this shift was really beginning to take place. Texas was among the first states to pass legislation around it. It was at that time I began to understand just what an important piece of school safety threat assessments are. We are really seeing an increase in districts, communities and regional offices of education, reaching out to us, and asking about the various threat assessment trainings we offer. 

Another trend I see is ensuring that the threat assessment training gets to the building level teams. Those teams are the ones who are going to be on the ground dealing with these issues. What we see through our trainings is that we are able to provide an increase in confidence of these building level teams. There is also a realization that these threat assessments are not “one more thing I have to do” but they just fit in with what I am already doing. Educators are problem solvers. They are continually asking themselves “how can we help this youth who has a problem, who’s trying to solve the problem in a negative, potentially violent way? How can we help  get them on a  better path?”

Threat assessment interest is definitely something that just continues to climb.  It is so proactive.  “How can we catch these individuals earlier on when they pose that threat as opposed to when they make or carry out that threat? How can we look at this from a non-punitive perspective as well?”

The importance of early intervention is another “aha moment” for these districts I see.  When I share the findings from a recent study out of the University of Virginia  with Virginia Public Schools, folks are surprised to see that the peak grade level for threat assessments is the fourth grade, but those are low level threats that they’re dealing with. 

MG: That is what we want, right? We want to deal with low level threats in order to avoid high level threats. Why would we wait until it’s a burning building situation to address it?

TJ: No, we do not want a burning building. I typically ask, when I share that research with educators, “What do we know about reading and math intervention? Do we wait till they’re in middle school and high school to intervene? No, it’s important to intervene at the elementary grade level.” It’s the exact same thought when it comes to students who exhibit this type of behavior. We’ve got to identify and intervene. 

What I share when I am training is most of these students we identify at an early age, we can help. As a principal, working with staff and parents, we can get that student on a better path by providing support and addressing needs.

It’s so important though that we understand the key is that elementary level. It’s another aha moment. 

MG: I agree with you a hundred percent. I think for both of us as former educators, when we stumbled upon threat assessments as part of the solution, it was a big “a-ha” moment. For me it was around 2013. I began having conversations first with Gavin de Becker Associates and then developed a relationship with Gavin de Becker who wrote the, The Gift of Fear. I found this to be a great starting point for me. It was like a layman’s entry point to threat assessment and management. It’s learning to trust and listen to your gut when things don’t feel right. However, when the educator in me began to realize there is a process here. A kind of science behind prevention, it started clicking. This is what we do as educators all the time – we problem solve. When I began learning about threat assessment all those years ago, it was like a light bulb went off. It made sense. The assessment process runs parallel to what we do every day. As teachers we call it interventions. In this process, we are using interventions that we put in place to follow a child, or an individual in the community, to help them meet their needs and manage those issues so that they can be safe and everybody else can be too.

TJ: Exactly. Districts that implement threat assessment procedures are really increasing their standard of care, increasing safety, and decreasing liability as well. It also gives district leaders greater confidence.

One of the struggles we’re seeing with these teams is once they work through the process–the issue becomes how do we support students once we’ve identified needs? In order to help schools and districts, we provide a menu of options. About a month ago we brought a PBIS Rewards of Positive Behavior Intervention Supports program on board with us. I am super excited about this because we can offer districts PBIS opportunities. This will equip districts who are struggling with the management piece adding another powerful tool to the toolbelt for supporting students and managing their needs. I am super excited about it.

MG: I love that. It really is calling upon that comprehensive view of school safety that we advocate for at Safe and Sound Schools. Pulling in all of the disciplines, so to speak, of school safety. By bringing in initiatives like PBIS and anti-bullying campaigns together with our cyber safety and security teams along with school counselors, parents and peer support groups we are truly making a seat at the table for everyone. We never know who can hold the key piece of the puzzle that will make all the difference. 

I’m excited to learn more about that. And I’m all for more tools for our schools. Keep them coming, please! 

We know our schools continue to face a lot of the same challenges. And then every year–sometimes it seems like every month–new things come on the scene. Schools’ plates are full of challenges. In terms of challenges and solutions, what are some of the things you forecast on the horizon?

TJ: Yes, there are always a lot of challenges in the school safety world. One of those challenges we have seen is case management. Four years ago, you introduced me to Dr. Marisa Randazzo and her awesome team at Sigma. Working with her and her team, we built case management software for our schools. It has been great. Then our schools reached out and said, we love the behavioral threat assessment software, but what about suicide risk assessments? Since we know quite often there is a direct correlation between threat assessment and suicide risk, we partnered with Dr. Scott Poland and got permission from Columbia University to use their Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale. That’s become a powerful component of our case management software.

MG: How can we pull all the information we need together? So, we don’t have to say hold on let me look here or dig this file up. That’s certainly an issue for our busy teams. 

TJ: It’s one of the greatest challenges to the process. Whatever we can do to better support and equip our busy teams is imperative. Another trend we are seeing is districts wanting to bring in various data points from these assessments they are doing. Even though a school’s SIS (Student Information System) may house most of your student discipline, attendance, and academics, there is not a good way to really see a picture or trends of a student or group of students. 

One of the ideas we’re really looking at and investing a lot in now, is how can we assist districts when it comes to really analyzing data and identifying trends that can help us with early identification and interventions we can provide. In order to provide the interventions, we need to be able to identify as early as possible. If we can use the data to help use identify students earlier, then we can provide interventions earlier and get those students the help they need sooner. That’s one of the big projects that we’re taking on at this time. 

MG: I’m for better management of data! I think we’ve gotten pretty good as school communities in collecting a lot of data. However, if the data is not in a usable format from or coming from all these different sources, you’re drowning. You’re absolutely drowning.

TJ: Yes, you are. When I was a building principal. I always talked about being proactive. Reaching students before the issues became so big. My worst day as a principal is when I had to discipline a student. If I had to suspend a student or had to look at expulsion, it was a terrible day. I would always ask my staff, “How could we have prevented this? What could we have done differently?”

My staff knew I wanted to be proactive when it came to a student who was struggling. I encouraged them to let me know even if they felt a student wasn’t in “trouble” yet, but that things might be heading in the wrong direction. I would look at their grades, attendance and if I didn’t see any trends, I would ask different teachers and staff if they had any concerns. 

MG: Yes, teachers and staff, that’s another whole source. All those different people’s perspectives. It really is “next level” to be able to pull it all together to get and look at the big picture. We can save time and frustration. Most importantly, we’ll get to help kids a lot faster and a lot better! 

TJ: Exactly. And that’s the key. Helping kids a lot faster and a lot sooner! 

MG: I love it. Well, it is always a pleasure to catch up with you. We are really excited about what’s coming in the new year. Lots of new innovations, lots of new opportunities to serve. We are so grateful to be able to do it with you and our friends at Navigate 360. Thank you for joining me today. 

TJ: It’s always a pleasure. Thank you, Michele.