Safe Schools Initiative – Assessing Threats of Extremist Violence
by Emily Hammer, MSW 2018
I attended the 14th Annual Safe Schools Initiative Seminar Series, put on by the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University at Buffalo in April. It was very informative and relevant to my first year MSW field placement at Buffalo Public School 198, International Prep.
The first half of the morning consisted of a fascinating presentation by the FBI Office of Buffalo, discussing signs of students who may be lured into violent extremist practices. My key takeaway? There is no single profile. Any student can be enticed into various extremist practices, regardless of race, class, ethnicity, gender identity, etc. We should never judge a threat solely by outward appearance, because research shows that student profiles who fall prey to violent extremism are so diverse.
I realized that we often forget that these threats occur in our own backyards. We learned that the media make the threats seem far away– in a different city, state, or country, or in a group different from that of our normal day-to-day ones– until it happens at home. Then it becomes real. The FBI Buffalo Field Office cited examples of extremist incidents as recent as one week before the seminar presentation. These occurred in both the Buffalo and Rochester areas. The incidents involved teenagers and young adults who were preparing to fly to Syria to engage in warfare; these young people attempted to influence their friends to do the same.
This presentation was humbling. It prompted me to remember that there are school-aged students who are hurting and searching for acceptance. They are lonely and searching for company and companionship. Because these students are not finding community in their lives here in the United States, they become vulnerable to extremist online predators who are luring them into a “better” life elsewhere.
I am convinced that it is part of our job as social workers and helping professionals to meet these students where they are at, listen to their hurt, encourage them to move away from those that are luring them into a seemingly better life, and walk with them intentionally through whatever part of their lives we have a positive influence over.
The next presentation was by Cynthia Marble, formerly of the U.S. Secret Service, who now works for SIGMA Threat Assessment Services. She presented on how to assess threats to school and student safety, such as bomb threats, school shootings, violent extremist threats and even last fall’s creepy clown threats.
How to prevent tragic outcomes from these threats? Some primary prevention can be found in this quote, from a case cited by Ms. Marble:
“They want me to open up, express myself. Quite a funny notion, ironic!
If someone had helped me do that several years ago [emphasis added],
I probably would have turned out okay.”
–Comment in a diary by a 17-year-old student who attacked others at school, then killed himself.
Here are three basic steps to begin to create a climate of school safety, that in turn can help prevent violence of many kinds:
- Foster a culture of respect within your school: offer positive role models, provide a place for open discussion where diversity and differences are respected, and pay attention to students’ social and emotional needs as well as their academic needs.
- Create connections between adults and students: students should have a positive connection to at least one adult in authority. Each student should feel that there is an adult to whom he or she can turn for support and advice if things get tough, and with whom that student can share his or her concerns openly and without fear of shame or reprisal.
- Break the “Code of Silence”: Silence may be dangerous. The Safe Schools Initiative study (2002, U.S. Secret Service and US Dept of Education) found that most school shooters shared their potentially lethal plans with other students, but that students who knew of planned attacks rarely told adults.In a climate of safety, students are willing to break the code of silence. They are more likely to turn to trusted adults for help in resolving problems. Moreover, we need to teach students that it is not only OK, but essential to share concerns about another student with their teachers or other adults in positions of authority within the school. This is not “snitching” or “ratting” on a buddy or friend but is an action needed to keep everyone safe. As a result of responsible bystander behavior, serious problems come to adult attention earlier, before these problems lead to violence.
Ms. Marble walked us through the stages of recognizing and acting on a threat. She discussed mental health implications on micro, mezzo, and macro levels. She encouraged relationship building and intentional conversation with students. On a mezzo level, she encouraged interaction between the school administration, teachers, and families of students in order to foster open dialogue about school situations and safety concerns. And she encourages schools to develop and implement new or updated policies regarding students and school safety. Especially within the ever changing world of social media, there are ever-changing safety threats.
The afternoon agenda also included an interprofessional group activity. Ten attendees volunteered to sit on stage and discuss and assess a threat: teachers, a police officer, school counselors, mental health professionals from the private sector, and school administrators. It was incredible to see the different ways of thinking and to witness such diverse professionals working together to solve this case example. It became clear to me that depending on the individual’s professional training and worldview, threatening situations are approached differently. A police officer may view the situation from a standpoint of the justice system and law enforcement, whereas as a school counselor may be thinking about the child’s struggle and frustration with academics. A school social worker may be thinking about the child’s familial history and how that could contribute to the child’s actions. I learned how crucial it is to collaborate and put all perspectives on the table in order to truly lower the threat of school violence.
Photo: Emily Hammer
It was an exciting day of connection, growth, and new perspectives. I hope I will now be more aware of the students at my field placement site and in my future career who may be struggling with issues that could pose a threat to others.
I’m thankful that I now have new resources and information in how to handle threatening situations. This safe schools seminar, sponsored by the Alberti Center for Bullying Prevention, is an annual event, free of charge, and I encourage everyone to check it out next year! It was extremely relevant and did not disappoint!
What has been your experience with violent threats in a school setting? Do you have tips for promoting safe schools? A culture of respect? Please share in the “Leave a Comment” section below!
Emily Hammer is entering her advanced year in the MSW program at the University at Buffalo. Her first year field placement was at International Preparatory School at Grover Cleveland, an inner city Buffalo Public School for grades 5-12 on the west side of Buffalo, NY. There, she provided one-on-one and group counseling, as well as mentoring “lunch bunch” groups for at-risk youth. Hammer has a passion for at-risk youth and teenagers and hopes to work with at-risk youth in either a school or clinical setting.