In the wake of the latest deadly school shooting, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., school officials, law enforcement and parents across the country are asking what can be done to prevent the next one. That’s true in Alabama and Birmingham, as elsewhere.
In Alabama, there isn’t one standard set of practices used by schools to identify and monitor students, like the shooter Nikolas Cruz in Parkland, who might be prone to violence.
“Alabama State Department of Education does not have policies on identifying/monitoring troubled youth in schools,” said Michael Sibley, director of communications for the department.
That doesn’t mean the department leaves systems all on their own. It provides schools with guidance and resources for incorporating any new laws into school policy. For example, The Jason Flatt Act, signed into law in 2016, directed that schools establish suicide prevention policies. Rather than dictating those policies, the department suggested steps school systems take as part of the process of drafting their own.
The Alabama Association of School Boards also helps guide local school boards in adopting new policies. For the Jason Flatt Act, a representative from the association served on a task force to create a model policy that schools could use.
Jane Williams, general counsel for the association, said it’s important to keep a model policy as general as possible so schools can create what they need specifically based on the school’s particular DNA.
“You don’t want to tie the hands of the people who have their boots on the ground,” said Williams.
While school systems share the goal of avoiding violent attacks on their campuses, administrators consider a wide range of strategies and resources to determine what will work best for their districts. Experts at three Jefferson County School systems discussed some of the approaches they employ to meet the challenge to keep their students, faculty and administrators safe.
Quantifying Soft Data and Early Intervention
After spending a year researching, training and ultimately designing customized plans for each of its schools, the Homewood City School District launched a systemwide program called Safe and Healthy Homewood to identify students who need help with social, emotional and behavioral issues.
The program, based on a model called Comprehensive Integrated 3-Tiered Model of Prevention (CI3T), is designed to mirror and work in concert with the district’s already established academic assessment program. Dr. Patrick Chappell, director of instructional support, spearheads the effort, which measures students behavioral, social and emotional performance using a set of core standards to determine proficiency.
Chappell explains what makes this new effort different: “We tried a couple of things in the past. We had a couple general programs that kind of crudely identified students and put them in a computer, but it didn’t seem to work well. The teachers didn’t like it and we didn’t get access to it the way we should,” he said.
With the CI3T model, Chappell said teachers have access to user-friendly screening tools and rate the class as a whole. The teacher then can identify any students whose behavior falls outside the norm. Chappell cited the class clown, bullies, or extremely quiet students as those who might be identified for intervention.
“About 80 to 85 percent of students can be expected to master the assessments, that’s Tier One in the model and no intervention is required,” Chappell said.
He explained that Tier Two interventions might include small group counseling sessions held in the classroom by the teacher, or choices for improving behavior to give the student a sense of empowerment.
Tier Three targets a smaller subset who need further, more in-depth intervention such as one-on-one time with a behavioral interventionist.
Chappell said the program is administered at every grade level, including high school, but the key is to start screening when students are young and intervene early.
“This is something that, in our minds, didn’t have anything to do with violence,” said Chappell, “but I feel good that we take our students’ and our families’ mental health seriously. A student who is hungry is not going to be able to learn and a student who is struggling mentally or emotionally is also not going to be able to learn. So schools have to respond to those needs.”
Homewood also has a school resource officer assigned at every school, and a second officer has been added at the middle and high schools, according to a statement issued by the school system.
Law Enforcement and Resource Officers
In Jefferson County Schools, Athletic and Safety Director Kenneth Storie said, the district relies on the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and its resource officers in the schools.
“Anytime we have a school personnel who detects suspicious behavior or we receive information that someone has posted something on social media, we turn that information immediately over to the authorities to investigate. They are trained investigators and we follow their lead.” Storie said.
It was the Sheriff’s Office that investigated after parents of children at Shades Valley High School last week reported rumors that someone had threatened to shoot up the school. The student who made the comments was identified, and “the proper actions” were taken, according to a school spokeswoman.
Extra school resource officers were assigned to several schools after those rumors surfaced.
Storie said any tracking or monitoring of students who may show signs of struggling socially is handled by school counselors. He also said that he and several of the district’s administrators participate in TAASRO, the Alabama Association of School Resource Officers, and attend their annual conferences for professional development.
“They bring in experts from all over,” said Storie. “I’ve attended about five conferences. I’ve met the principal from Columbine, a survivor from Virginia Tech, and last year we focused on how to perceive and identity kids who are struggling socially,” he said.
Discipline, but Treat the Whole Child
Linda Ruppert Richardson is director of attendance, safety and security for Bessemer City Schools. As a hearing officer, she works closely with the district’s Office of Student Services staff to make sure that any student referred for a disciplinary hearing has been screened to ensure they don’t need a mental health evaluation.
“We give them help and we keep everything documented that we have given them help. And we watch to see if maybe there are new issues that we didn’t notice last year. Documentation is key,” she said.
Richardson said she closely follows any disciplinary policies set out by the state department through website to make certain the district is in compliance.
Arming the Teacher?
Alabama Rep. Will Ainsworth, R-Guntersville, recently introduced a bill to allow certain teachers and administrators to carry concealed firearms in public schools.
Storie said he didn’t see arming teachers as a good approach to preventing school violence.
“I think there are other avenues that are better. I am a big proponent of school resource officers,” Storie said. “I would rather see that money devoted to getting more school resource officers.”
Jefferson County School Superintendent Craig Pouncey agreed. “I would rather the state help local systems pay for SRO’s if they want to do something to enhance the safety of our children,” he said. “I don’t believe arming teachers would be nearly as effective,” he said.