Following the recent mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, reporters asked me if Sugarcreek-Bellbrook school officials and police handled the situation properly when addressing the shooter’s alleged threats made in high school approximately seven years prior. Did they do anything wrong? What did they do right? Did they do enough?
Hindsight is 20/20, but how to create a culture of fair reporting of concerns is still blurry
My answer was clear: We currently do not have a comprehensive insight into the details of the shooter’s high school experience with threats or any responses by school officials and police. (I prefer not to name the shooters in public statements.)
Hindsight by former fellow students and others who know mass shooters is usually 20/20. But at the time when the threats are actually made, when odd behaviors are displayed and gut feelings tells these individuals that a person may pose a risk to himself or others, there is a hesitancy for people to act.
We have to change the culture and mindsets to where reporting concerns is not viewed as snitching or being disloyal, but instead as possibly saving lives — including that of the person displaying concerning behaviors.
School administrators face many questions in student threat assessments, and sharing details with the public is balanced against privacy laws
At the time of this media inquiry, we did not know if school officials took the appropriate action with this shooter when the alleged incident occurred.
Were specific threats identified? Did school officials have threat assessment protocols in place? Were police notified? If the shooter actually was expelled from school for an extended period of time due to threats, was he referred for professional mental health evaluations and services — and did he receive them? Were there legal mandates requiring school officials to let him back in school if he was expelled? If he returned to school following an expulsion, under what conditions, monitoring, and support was he allowed to return?
These and other questions remain unanswered. It is likely that school officials understandably were seeking legal counsel to advise them on what they could and could not disclose under student privacy laws. Yet in today’s digital, the public demands information be produced almost immediately.
School threat assessments are best practices dating back to the Columbine High School post-attack era
Within the context of educational settings, schools are increasingly creating school threat assessment teams, trainings, and protocols. Some of the best results in improving school preparedness for assessing and managing threats has anecdotally been seen from facilitating school teams who work through hypothetical scenarios in facilitated tabletop exercises with school, police, mental health, and other community partners. It can be helpful for teams to work through these assessment conversations and processes before an actual incident occurs.
Threat assessment is really a best practice identified more than 20 years ago after the Columbine High School shootings. However, as time passed and new generations of school leaders have emerged, we have found less formalized approaches to threat assessment in schools. Attention to this area has been resurrected in recent years following the Sandy Hook and Parkland school shootings.
It is important to realize that threat assessment deals with human behavior and therefore is not a perfect science. School leaders also cannot blindly rush into creating threat assessment processes and checklists on a whim. Collaboratively reviewing best practices and evidence-based resources should be part of the process. Poorly designed and/or implemented processes can lead to unintended consequences.
Missing pieces of information heighten public anxiety and blame in a complex context extending beyond our schools
We also have to keep in mind that the time once a student leaves the purview of school officials, especially for the number of years this shooter had moved on from high school, there could be many gaps in services even if he had been forced to receive them due to the actions of high school officials seven years prior. Aside from family and friends, or some type of legal order, how does society monitor an adult once they leave school and are in their early 20’s? And how do we balance individual rights with societal protection? These are decade old questions and challenges.
It is challenging given what little we know immediately after a mass shooting. The public is increasingly looking for one cause, one ball dropped, and one person or organization to blame. Yes, we should hold people and organizations accountable. But we also have to examine the entire context and reasonable timeframes. School officials may be expected to handle their part at their point in time, but their role may be one piece in the much larger, more complex puzzle of a former student turned mass shooter.
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