The murder of 19 children and two adults at an elementary school last week in Uvalde, Texas, has renewed calls for gun control legislation at the state and federal level. But while passage of a national gun reform remains elusive, a school district in Oregon pioneered a student behavioral threat assessment program more than 20 years ago to prevent shootings on campus. It relies on a team of experts drawn from the school, community and law enforcement to quickly identify threatening behaviors and communications made by a student and respond with a range of interventions designed to support the student at home and at school. Courtenay McCarthy, a school psychologist at the Salem-Keizer school district, explains how the program works and the impact it’s having in Salem and beyond.
Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Despite the latest school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, new gun safety legislation at the federal level seems as stalled as ever. Meanwhile, a school safety program pioneered by the Salem-Keizer School District more than 20 years ago is getting some national attention. The Mid-Valley Student Threat Assessment Team aims to prevent things like school shootings from happening in the first place. Courtenay McCarthy is the lead school psychologist for the team. She joins us to talk about this team’s work. Welcome.
Courtenay McCarthy: Thank you so much for having me.
Miller: How might a student initially get on your radar?
McCarthy: Well, a student would come on our radar because of a report from someone in the community. So we rely on reports from other students, from school staff and from our community partners to give us reports about concerning behavior that they are observing in students.
Miller: What do you want them ‒ I mean, those are different groups ‒ but, say students, what do you want students to pay attention to, and then to actually tell somebody in authority?
McCarthy: The main thing that we want students really, and other people as well, to pay attention to is communications from a person that are communications of their intent to harm other people. So, those might be things that they’re saying in conversations, in written form, or in social media. Social media is certainly an avenue for communication among our youth. So they are hearing these messages before many of the adults in their lives. So we certainly want to report any concerns about threatening kinds of communications. But there are other things as well, like fixating on a person who someone believes has done them wrong, so for a perceived grievance or wrong against them. So that kind of fixation where they can’t stop thinking about that person and what they’ve done wrong. Other things might be just an unusual interest in violence, previous violent events, things like school shootings or an unusual interest in weapons.
Miller: Does this happen? Do students say to, for example, their teachers or to guidance counselors, ‘Hey, this kid in my class, he said he was going to bring a gun to school tomorrow.’ Do students report that?
McCarthy: Absolutely, it happens on a regular basis. I think we’ve been able to get out the word to students, but also our community members, that these are things that need to be reported. We understand that kids are going to hold some information about other kids to themselves. But when it comes to information that could really impact the safety of other people, it needs to be reported.
Miller: So what happens after something like that is reported? What are the next steps in this process?
McCarthy: So after information is reported, then we train our teams to start gathering information about the situation. So we want them talking to the people involved to get more information, talking to people like parents and other school staff that might be aware of the concerning situation. And then, if they have concerns about safety, they’re going to engage in some initial safety planning to make sure that we can make sure that everyone in this situation is safe.
From then, they determine if they should engage the behavioral threat assessment process. If they are engaging that process, what they’re gonna do is meet as a multidisciplinary team to assess the concerns that they’re seeing, using a standard protocol that addresses known risk factors and situational indicators that show us that somebody might be at risk for acting out in an extreme, aggressive way.
And from there, once they’ve determined what the risk factors are, kind of warning behaviors might be, then they engage in management planning. So when we do management planning. The first thing that we focus on is safety. So what are the kinds of processes and procedures we can get in place to make sure that we can keep everyone in the situation safe. And from there, we want to look at what kind of supports we can provide to that person that we’re concerned about, because when kids are considering acting out in an extremely aggressive way or they are acting out in an aggressive way, we know that they are in need of support. So we want to figure out all the ways that we can keep those kids supported so we can move them into a more positive path.
Miller: You just outlined a lot there and there’s a lot to each of those steps. So I want to go back to earlier on. First of all, who is a part of this team? If a case rises to a high enough level that the whole team is going to get involved, who is sitting around the table?
McCarthy: Sure. So there, our model, the Salem-Keizer-Cascade model is really a two-tiered model of assessment and intervention. So the first tier primarily is happening at a school site with school-based staff ‒ people that are aware of the concern, parents ‒ and then we include law enforcement as well. If the concerns rise above that level to where the school team or the community agency feels like they need more support, then we have what’s called a level-two team. So on that team, we’re bringing in public mental health, law enforcement, again, and then agencies like our juvenile departments, our district attorney’s offices, our higher education agencies that provide supports to students. So really, all of the youth serving agencies in our community.
Miller: And what are the risk factors or warning signs that you’re most worried about?
McCarthy: Well, I outlined some of those in terms of the things that we want reported. So the first is communication of the intent to harm other people. Other things that we’re looking for, things like fixation on a person or a group of people who the person believes has done them wrong. We’re looking at things like unusual interest in violence, weaponry, and then from there we’re also looking at things like, is this person experiencing suicidal ideation? Hopelessness? Are they withdrawing from other people? Are we seeing a change in behavior from this person? And ultimately the kinds of things we’re asking is is this a person who justifies using violence as a way to solve their problems? Is this a person who feels like they are out of options for solving their problems? And then do they have the actual ability to do the things that they’re talking about to carry out the act of violence that they might be communicating about?
Miller: For example, do they have access to guns?
Miller: How do you figure that out?
McCarthy: Well, first we ask, so we ask the student themselves. Then we ask parents if we have a degree of concern about the student having access to weapons. Then we’re going to also ask for law enforcement to assist us in things like going to the home and talking to parents and asking parents directly about access to weapons. And actually, in some cases, doing searches to see if there are weapons available.
Miller: So, students know from relatively early on that they are the subject of concern and the subject of these multi-team meetings, multi-member meetings?
McCarthy: In nearly every case, they will understand that they are the subject of a concern because we’re going to talk to them about what that concern is. It’s really important to get information from the student themselves about what our concern is, because we really want their perspective, it’s their perspective that helps us understand how to best navigate the management planning for that situation.
Miller: How do you navigate that? Because if I understand correctly, but by the time it’s gotten to this point, obviously, you are … you have concerns. And among those concerns are that this student is perhaps pulling away from their peers, from their friends, from their community. You fear that they may do something to harm themselves or others. How do you communicate to them that you’re concerned for their safety or that they might do something bad without pushing them further away?
McCarthy: Well, I think the important thing is to help that student understand that we want to support them. So we don’t want students making bad decisions, and we want to help them take accountability for their decisions, but also to let them know that they have many people in their lives who are willing to support it. So we just want to help kids kind of process through what some of the consequences of their actions might be and then how best we can support them. I think what we know from the research is that when people get to this place where they’re considering acting out in a violent way, they often are unsure if that’s something they really want to do or not, but at times are feeling like they are in a place of having no other options. So what we want to do is work with kids to help them understand that they do have other options and that people will help them to move in a more positive direction.
Miller: What are the variety of responses you’ve seen in terms of how students react when they get this news?
McCarthy: It’s certainly a spectrum. I think people would be surprised to hear that students are often much more honest than you might think they would be. So often students tell us quite a bit of information about what’s going on in their life, that really helps us understand how to better assist them. Now, that’s not always the case. Some students are clearly not willing to talk and that’s why it’s so important to get information from multiple sources. So we never rely on just one source of information. We are talking to many people and gathering as much information as possible.
Miller: What role do parents or caregivers play in all of these conversations?
McCarthy: Well, they play an extremely important role. So when we’re talking about the school setting, you know, we might have kids for six hours a day, but then parents are responsible for them for the rest of their day. So we really need to make sure that parents understand the concerns. So whenever we can, we try to have very open conversations with parents about what our concerns are, and the kinds of things that we are recommending that parents do to ensure safety when their students are out of school, but also the kinds of things that parents can do to get children the support that they need in the community.
Miller: When thinking about this conversation, I was reminded of the parents of the 15 year old boy from Michigan who has been accused of killing four of his classmates. This was back in November. The story pretty quickly emerged that his parents had ignored numerous serious warning signs and in fact had bought their son a gun. They have since been charged with involuntary manslaughter. What happens if parents don’t cooperate with everything you’re talking about or potentially, actually, are actively making the situation worse?
McCarthy: Well, number one, like I said, we want to make sure we give parents all of the information and concerns that we have. I think sometimes when parents push back, it’s because they don’t have the full picture. So it’s on us to make sure that parents have that information so they can make good decisions.
Miller: And that has happened in your experience, parents have pushed back saying, ‘No, my kid is fine or don’t…don’t needlessly psychologize my kid?’
McCarthy: That has happened. Yes.
Miller: So, how do you proceed?
McCarthy: Well, I think we just continue to keep the lines of communication open with parents. We can continue to give our messaging about what our concerns are, and what our recommendations are. But if we really have concerns and parents are not cooperating or engaging in the kind of things that we need in order to keep the situation safe, then we might engage law enforcement to be helpful in those conversations. There might be situations where that’s actually a mandatory report of child abuse or neglect as well. So different options, but typically situations do not get to that place.
Miller: I want to go back to the question of guns. Obviously, it’s a key one, if we’re talking about preventing school shootings. How often do you find that there are guns in a home or that a young person has access to guns in situations that have been called to your attention?
McCarthy: Well, I don’t have specific data in to answer that question, but you know when you think about our society, many people have access to firearms. So that is something that we encounter. Occasionally, when we do have concerns about a student’s access to firearms, then we are working diligently with parents to help them understand the concerns, and to give them real strategies for either securing firearms or getting them out of the home.
Miller: I’ve heard that the creator of this system, John Van Dreal, he has said in the past that exclusions and expulsions and other so-called ‘zero tolerance policies’ of getting kids who administrators see as threats, just removing them completely from the school situation, he has said that that is a failed policy, that actually makes schools less safe. Why is that?
McCarthy: It makes schools less safe because things like removing a student from the school due to something like expulsion reduces our ability to supervise the situation, reduces our ability to monitor the concerns. But then it can also do things like increase a student’s grievance against people. So if a student believes that everyone is out to get them, if they believe that they are marginalized in their community and then they’re pushed out of the school, you can imagine that that can increase their grievance, can increase motive to actually harm other people. So what we’re doing is trying to make a situation better for a person rather than making it worse. We know that when people are unsupervised in the community that can actually make the situation more dangerous.
Miller: So then what’s the opposite? What are ways ‒ if excluding people and pushing them away is a bad idea ‒ how do you draw them closer?
McCarthy: The ways we draw them closer, number one, is through relationships. So we know that all people need relationships and the kids that we’re talking about that we’re really concerned about the potential for extreme aggression for are often kids that don’t have close, trusting relationships with positive adults. So the first thing that we want to do is develop those relationships with adults. We want to find people within the school setting, within our community partners, who can really develop those relationships with kids to help them understand that they have a person in their corner who’s talking to them about their life, who’s helping them move in a more positive direction.
But from there we also do things like what we kind of consider wraparound support. So those would be things like helping students and families access mental health treatment, helping them access mentorship opportunities and then getting them involved in the things in their life that we call ‘inhibitors,’ so protective factors, things that are going well for them, things that make them feel good about themselves. So those would be things like getting involved in extracurricular activities, sports, music, art, helping them identify the people in their lives that are support. So we want to build up all of those positives in their life and try to reduce the stressors that they might be experiencing as well.
Miller: Can you point to a success story, obviously, without naming anybody’s identity?
McCarthy: I can. So Mark Follman has recently written a book called Trigger Points: Inside the Mission to Stop School Shootings in America, and he outlined a case of ours, and so I’ll summarize that. We had a student who was in high school who made a comment about bringing a gun to school. He had also made another comment about knowing how to access his father’s firearm and he made these comments to peers who reported them. When we started to gather information about the situation, we learned that he had made similar comments in the past, about bringing a gun to school, veiled comments about school shootings. So the first thing we did is engage law enforcement to go to the home, talk to the student, talk to his parents and inquire about access to firearms. We learned that the student did not have access to firearms at that point. But what we also learned is that the student was generally not doing well. So his behavior had changed. He started to withdraw from people, He looked depressed to other people. He stopped engaging in some activities that previously had been important to him. So we were worried about just how well the student was kind of functioning.
So from there, we engaged the threat assessment process. We ensured that we had safety planning in place, in terms of ongoing conversations with parents about access to firearms, checking his belongings at school on a regular basis to make sure that he couldn’t bring any concerning items to school. But then we engaged supportive services for that student. So we made sure there were multiple people in the school building who knew who he was, and we’re checking in with him on a regular basis to ask how he was doing, to help get him back involved in the activities that he was previously engaged in. We also helped parents get him involved in mental health counseling. So with all of those processes in place to support him, he ended up doing better, and he ended up graduating from high school, and by all accounts, he seems to be doing well at this point.
Miller: How do you think about the fact that this work you’re doing is even necessary in the first place?
McCarthy: Well, it’s unfortunate that violence prevention is necessary, but that’s also behavior that’s common in humans. So it’s behavior that we need to prevent, but also to understand where it’s coming from. But the reward of the work is doing the early intervention. So getting these situations before they become extremely concerning when we’re just seeing indications of risk factors and getting those early interventions in place so that kids never have the opportunity to get farther along on this process.
Miller: Courtenay McCarthy, thanks very much for joining us today. I appreciate your time.
McCarthy: Thank you for having me.
Miller: That’s Courtenay McCarthy, lead school psychologist of the Mid-Valley Student Threat Assessment Team, school psychologist in the Salem-Keizer School District.
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