Crisis teams help protect students, staff from threats

Linda Kanan, director of the Colorado School Safety Resource Center, said 18-year-old Robert Dell Johnson’s arrest this week should serve as a reminder that school violence remains a real threat.

“I don’t think we have to look very far past the incident in Palisade, for those of you who’ve read the news lately, to see these incidents are continuing to go on,” she said.

Mesa County Sheriff’s Department deputies arrested District 51 student Johnson on Monday on suspicion of criminal solicitation and interference with an educational institution after staff members reported Johnson may have planned an attack on Palisade High School.

Colorado law requires each school to have a “crisis team,” an assemblage of select teachers, administrators and student resource officers, to handle situations like the one this week in Palisade.

Palisade High Principal Matt Diers said his crisis team proved this week that the system works.

“We had things shaking by 11 a.m.,” after receiving a report of Johnson’s alleged intentions to harm the school, Diers said.

A chain reaction begins the minute a person reports suspicions someone may harm students or staff at a District 51 school.

Reports slipped anonymously to law enforcement or school administrators, whispered to counselors or called in to the Colorado Safe2Tell hot line at 877-542-SAFE are quickly evaluated by a crisis team.

Crisis teams meet regularly and discuss possible threats. Students suspected of threatening their school are asked a list of questions to help crisis team members determine the severity of each reported threat.

A one-time comment that appears to be harmless does not often result in a student being taken out of school, according to District 51 Safety Coordinator Tim Leon.

“At minimum, they’re on the radar,” Leon said.

If statements, including a threat to bring a weapon to school, are repeated, the crisis team will check up on the student. Students can be cited for violating school policy or, on a larger scale, face criminal charges.

By coincidence, the Colorado School Safety Resource Center, created by Senate Bill 1 in 2008 to help schools prevent and plan for threat incidents, sponsored a safe schools training Wednesday in Grand Junction. The morning’s training by former U.S. Secret Service threat-assessment specialist Georgeann DiCaprio addressed:

The profile of a typical school attacker: There isn’t one.

Signs to look for in a potential perpetrator of school violence: Behavior is just as, if not more, important as direct threats.

Why it’s important to report suspicions: In 81 percent of school shooting incidents, others knew about the attack before it happened but chose not to tell. The reasons for keeping quiet included uncertainty about whether a teacher would help and not believing the attack would occur.

DiCaprio said staff members and students should keep an eye on students showing an inordinate amount of interest in weapons, mass violence or school shootings, posting violent messages on social networking sites, performing acts of violence on humans and animals, and showing signs of hopelessness or despair.

Most attackers have access to weapons, have been bullied, do not threaten their targets directly before the attack, and rarely act impulsively, meaning a planning stage can last more than a year before an attack, DiCaprio said.

Although students did not report Johnson’s supposed plan, school psychologist and District 51 crisis psychological support team coordinator Karen Loucks said counselors frequently discuss how and when students should tell someone they think a threat has been made on the school.

Diers said his door is always open to students who want to talk, before or after a scare like the one this week or even if they need the support so many school shooters felt they lacked at their schools.

“It’s always an open door policy. I’ve talked to kids today,” he said Wednesday. “Kids can walk in anytime.”


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