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How San Diego Schools Handle Threats Of Mass Violence

A makeshift memorial is seen outside the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School...

Credit: Associated Press

Above: A makeshift memorial is seen outside the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 students and faculty were killed in a mass shooting on Wednesday, in Parkland, Fla., Monday, Feb. 19, 2018.

In 1999, two armed teenagers opened fire at Columbine High School in Colorado, killing 13 people. The rampage left a stain on America’s consciousness, but also an important legacy. It inspired a forensic psychologist named Dewey Cornell to develop a threat assessment tool for schools.

Today that tool is widely used — especially in recent weeks. Since the school shooting in Florida last month, San Diego-area schools and law enforcement have fielded at least nine threats.

“The level of proof we’re looking for is 100 percent certainty,” said Bob Mueller, who heads student support services for the San Diego County Office of Education. “So based on the circumstances of the statement (made), based on the reactions of the people who heard it, based on my interview of the student, based on the student’s history, if I have absolutely no concern then we’re going to call that (threat) transient.

“If I have any doubt at all then I’m going to call it serious.”

Mueller is working with area schools to ensure each has a team trained in this kind of threat assessment. It calls for a multidisciplinary team with an administrator, school psychologist, counselor and law enforcement officer.

RELATED: Is There Any Way For Schools To Prevent Shootings?

When that team deems a threat serious, investigators would then look at whether the person has actively planned for an attack, has access to weapons, or has a history of mental illness or criminal behavior.

The series of inquiries in the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines — called that because it was developed at the University of Virginia for Virginia schools — has been tested and reviewed extensively since 2000.

Less reliable, said Mueller, is the county’s ability to track individuals who make threats against schools. Mueller points to the Florida shooter, who had raised red flags but was no longer attending school.

“If a threat assessment process was done earlier, it might be possible that law enforcement may have still been keeping tabs on him. It might be possible that the behavioral health services in that community were providing support and monitoring,” he said. “So those are the kind of opportunities we’re trying to create in San Diego.”

Interim District Attorney Summer Stephan prosecuted the last school shooting in the county, the 2010 attack on Kelly Elementary School in Carlsbad that wounded two girls. She said that incident led the DA to assign a special prosecutor to school threats.

Now, Stephan is working to encourage schools to involve her office in all threats — large and small — so that there is a central clearinghouse of information.

“I wouldn’t call it a database,” she explained. “It’s that we’re aware of all of the cases. It’s about good communication and not having someone being looked at as a first-timer in terms of making a threat, when they’re really someone we decided to have a more casual intervention for the first time, through working with the school or mental health.”

Stephan gave the example of a student who left a threatening note for his teacher but disguised his handwriting. She said her office was able to find the suspect quickly because it had knowledge of an earlier threat by the same person.

“Because in the first threat we were able to assess that this person had issues at home, that they had mental health issues, and that they had a real fascination with weapons and violence,” Stephan said. “So we were able to take the second threat very seriously and charge the case, and have more court control over that person.”

Stephan said in cases like that, when the threat is serious enough to warrant a criminal charge, the individual’s information may be added to an actual database. The San Diego Law Enforcement Coordination Center allows all public safety agencies to access criminal intelligence.

Stephan said this shouldn’t deter people from reporting something that can seem minor, like the photo of a LEGO gun that put West Hills High School on alert Wednesday and led to the arrest of a freshman at the school.

Stephan said the goal is not to criminalize youth.

“What we don’t want is to have the community want to protect the kid by not saying anything because then we can’t bring the resources to them,” she said. “And if something bad happens, if they carry out their intent and they do something, then it’s irreversible.”

Stephan said half of the threats reported in recent weeks have been handled through restorative justice efforts at school — usually a talk that helps the student reflect on how his or her joke was harmful to friends and teachers.

She added that more serious threats by minors would be handled through the juvenile justice system, meaning records are sealed. And a 48 percent drop in the juvenile hall population between 2012 and 2017 is proof, Stephan said, that the juvenile court system is focused on rehabilitation. During that time it emphasized restorative justice practices and beefed up mental health services.

Mueller, from the office of education, said there’s another key safeguard against unnecessarily criminalizing youth. Law enforcement is working hand in hand with school personnel.

“Because they know the people they’re working with, they’re better able to make good decisions than an outside team would be,” he said. “Implicit bias is something we always have to guard against, but focusing on the facts, and the fact that it’s a multidisciplinary team, it’s not a single individual making that decision, all of those things are good safeguards.”

Stephan said in the four years since fully implementing this protocol, her office has investigated 45 threats. She believes it stopped two planned school shootings.

In 1999, two armed teenagers opened fire at Columbine High School in Colorado, killing 13 people. It inspired a forensic psychologist named Dewey Cornell to develop a threat assessment tool for schools.

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