During the 1990s, several shootings at schools prompted efforts to create a “school shooter profile.” But lists of “warning signs” can lead to unfair labels for some students, including those with disabilities and disorders who receive special education. Ironically, because crisis management in education relies on threat assessments, some of our most vulnerable students face a threat: stigmatizing labels that cling to them long after they leave school. Administrators must walk a very fine line, protecting ALL students, including those at the center of the crisis.
Threat assessments can also unintentionally harm students who don’t need special education. If a student in crisis lashes out in a moment of anger, brings a weapon to school, or threatens to harm themselves, they’re often labeled “emotionally disturbed.” Many students in need of temporary counseling for a short-term mental health crisis find themselves pushed into special education when they don’t actually need it.
At Pediatric Therapeutic Services (PTS), we appreciate the need for and value of threat assessments. Threat assessments are a best practice. 42% of school districts used them in 2015-16 (the most recent data available), and several states have moved to mandate them. Last year, the legislature in Pennsylvania (where we’re based) passed Act 18, which not only requires threat assessment teams in all schools, but also mandates trauma-informed education.
We know trauma-informed approaches can help create schools where crisis management plans are driven less by labels and more by policies that peacefully resolve conflict and promote the well-being of students and staff alike.
What PA’s Act 18 Requires of Threat Assessment Teams
Act 18 requires at least one team per school entity (school district, intermediate unit, career and technical school, or charter school) “for the assessment of and intervention with students whose behavior may indicate a threat to the safety of the student, other students, school employees, school facilities, the community or others” (§ 1302-E(a)(1)).
The law spells out the team’s responsibilities:
- Providing information to students (in age-appropriate ways) and staff about recognizing threats.
- Familiarizing students and staff with how to report threatening or at-risk behavior.
- Helping assess and respond to reports received via Safe2Say (Pennsylvania’s school safety anonymous tip program), as well as reports of suicide risk factors and warning signs.
- Making appropriate referrals to a Student Assistance Program (SAP), law enforcement, or special education (informing a student’s existing IEP team or recommending a new evaluation under IDEA or Section 504).
- Providing information to the chief school administrator (or their designee) for a required annual report to the school entity’s board of directors on threat assessment.
How Threat Assessments Pose Challenges to School Administrators
While there is no doubt crisis management in education requires teamwork, Act 18 also makes clear how much work rests squarely on school administrators’ shoulders.
From appointing the threat assessment team and choosing its leader, to facilitating training in best practices and making that annual report to the board, chief school administrators (superintendents, executive directors, and charter school CEOs) must do a lot to implement and comply with the law.
Act 18 has ramifications for special education program administrators, too, even when the students involved are in regular education. Because of threat assessments’ tendency to yield behavioral and mental health referrals, special educators end up engaging early on to provide assessments and sometimes outplacements for these students. Program administrators are effectively “on call” 24/7 having to respond whenever a threatening incident occurs, even if no student in special education is involved.
And when students in special education are involved, administrators must try to manage the stigma students suffer. “The overwhelming majority of students with special needs represent no threat to others,” write special education attorneys Charles P. Fox and Marilyn Green-Rebnord. But out of “fear and anxiety… school staff are beginning to treat many… as potential shooters.”
One administrator in Albuquerque Public Schools told New Mexico Political Report that many students in special education “say things that… are scary to people… They just don’t know how to communicate in an appropriate way.” Threats from them often manifest from a specific disorder. “What these students need are more support and more services,” write Fox and Green-Rebnord, “not removal from or stigmatization in their school placements.”
How Trauma-Informed School Leaders Benefit Students and Staff
Act 18 isn’t solely about threat assessment. It also mandates training for school administrators and employees in trauma-informed approaches. These school-wide approaches recognize and respond to trauma’s adverse impact on students, resisting its reoccurrence “and promoting resiliency tailored to a school entity’s culture, climate and demographics and the community as a whole” (§ 102).
Trauma-informed care uses multi-tiered support systems (MTSS) and positive behavior interventions and supports to help students succeed by making the school environment more responsive to their needs. When confronted with problematic or challenging behaviors, a trauma-informed approach won’t ask, “What’s wrong with you?” It will ask, “What happened to you?”
Asking this question helps school leaders avoid resorting to labels. It encourages them to address and work with students as unique individuals. It can prevent further physical, mental, and emotional harm, and promote healing from harms already suffered.
School staff trained in trauma-informed approaches proactively notice signs of student distress. They avoid actions that would aggravate students’ “fight-or-flight” reaction. Instead, they form reliable, positive bonds with students, giving them the stability they need to learn and flourish.
When students experience school as a safe and nurturing environment, so does everyone else. Teachers and staff feel less stressed and find greater satisfaction in their work.
In short, the trauma-informed approach helps crisis management in education because it allows teachers and administrators to de-escalate conflicts before they become full-blown crises to manage!
Discover How Trauma-Informed Care Can Transform Your Program
Trauma-informed education isn’t an alternative to threat assessment. While threat assessment teams are vital to school safety, they can’t transform schools into places where conflict and crises occur less frequently. School leaders trained in trauma-informed approaches can and do.
If you’d like to find out more about trauma-informed education, click here to download our free eBook, Trauma-Informed Care: Key Principles and Best Practices for School Administrators.