Schools, law enforcement plan to prevent the worst

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CENTRAL ILLINOIS (WCIA) — The focus lately has been on training and preparing for school shootings. Instead, law enforcement and school districts in Champaign and Ford County focused Thursday on ways to prevent the trigger from ever being pulled.

Members of the US Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) spent three hours training county and city officials on decades of research that culminated in a plan to tackle concerning behavior before it happens. be too late.

School districts in Illinois must have a documented threat assessment protocol and update it annually. It’s been state law since the School Safety Drill Act was amended in 2019. NTAC, meanwhile, has been publishing reports on mass attacks and their aftermath since 1998.

In a sample of 41 school attacks between 2008 and 2017, researchers found that half of the shooters’ plans were visible to someone, and almost everyone who plotted an attack communicated their intention in advance.

Champaign County Sheriff Dustin Heuerman — who served on Lake Land College’s behavioral intervention team for several years as a faculty member — announced the training late last week.

“Champaign County law enforcement is training for the day we may have to go see a school shooter,” Sheriff Heuerman said.

A school shooting has not occurred to date in the districts (St. Joseph and Tolono) under the sheriff’s jurisdiction, but has occurred in central Illinois. Those in Mattoon, Coles County remember September 20, 2017, when a 15-year-old student fired a gun in the cafeteria, hitting a classmate.

“It probably didn’t happen in Columbine either, until it happened in Columbine. It probably didn’t happen in Uvalde until it happened in Uvalde,” Heuerman said.

“And so there’s kind of a balance between how many resources are we investing in something that may never happen?” How prepared are we whenever this actually happens? »

This happened in just about any size city, and in NTAC’s sample of 41 attacks, researchers found school resource officers were the force that stopped the shooter each time.

In most cases, perpetrators were caught within about a minute, a response time that would be impossible for most, if not all, local law enforcement agencies.

There is a school resource officer at both St. Joseph-Ogden High School and Unity High School (in Tolono), according to Heuerman. The Unity deputy also attended the NTAC training.

Other cities and towns in the county with school resource officer programs partner with city police departments.

Urbana has a program.

Champaign’s has been on hiatus since last summer due to police personnel issues. The neighborhood has since added five unarmed private security guards.

“Having this resource in school is, in my opinion, absolutely vital,” Heuerman said of resource officers.

NTAC training, however, was intended to pre-empt the need to respond to attacks in schools by recognizing threatening or disturbing student behavior and/or communication in advance.

Some can be overtly threatening, requiring an immediate response, as NTAC research specialist Ashley Smolinski explained, others are signs of distress, like falling grades or increased isolation.

Smolinski says the majority of students who have plotted attacks have experienced between two and eight defined stressors at home, primarily parental divorce/separation or family financial issues.

“One of those behavioral themes displayed in itself, mental health stressors, bullying is not a unique risk factor for a student to engage in active targeted violence,” said Smolinsky.

That’s why NTAC has developed a “multidisciplinary team” framework for schools to implement, made up of a mix of staff, counselors, and law enforcement with a protocol developed for responding to students. , conducting assessments and investigations, determining a threshold to bring in law enforcement and how to keep track of it all.

“Those who play a role in helping to support this student [who] shows us that they need some kind of intervention and support,” she added.

Smolinski emphasized assessing behaviors and other factors in context when asked about concerns of discrimination based on singular determinants.

Threat assessment teams, not necessarily the NTAC model, are required under Illinois law. The teams at St. Joseph-Ogden and Unity High Schools include School Resource Officers who, like teachers, are there every day to monitor behavior change.

“It could be a coincidence,” Sheriff Heuerman said. “But we really need to invest resources in preventing such behavior.”

At the very least, it is an investment in supporting students who are, or may be, in distress.

When the attacks were averted, “the majority of these plotters went on to lead successful lives,” Smolinski said.

“And that was portrayed through them pursuing higher education, or continuing their education to graduate from high school online and continuing to pursue careers, or having successful marriages, or being an important part of their community.”

The team approach relies primarily on reports from teachers, but also from students and community members. Tips can be shared directly with a team if a district has one, school administrators, or law enforcement.

Crime Stoppers provides an anonymous route to counseling in Champaign and several Illinois counties, much like the statewide Safe2HelpIL program.

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