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A Multidisciplinary Approach to School Safety

By John Van Dreal | October 10, 2019


John Van Dreal
John Van Dreal is the former director of Safety and Risk Management Services at Salem-Keizer Public Schools. A school psychologist by training, he retired in 2019 after over 30 years of work in education. He is currently consulting with education systems throughout the country.

Note: REL Northwest has used some of the elements of the Salem-Keizer Model described below in our training and coaching activities, so we invited John Van Dreal to write a guest blog about school safety.

Creating environments that are safe and welcoming is critical for protecting the physical and psychological well-being of all members of a school community: students, educators, administrators, and families.

To that end, earlier this year, the Oregon Legislature passed the Student Success Act, which includes important guidance regarding school safety.

One directive is that all districts in the state shall establish a multidisciplinary student safety assessment system to identify, assess, and support students who present a potential risk for violence to others.

Specifically, the law requires multidisciplinary school safety assessment teams (commonly known as behavioral threat assessment teams) to:

  • Assess potential danger, as well as identify circumstances and risk factors that may increase the likelihood of potential violence
  • Develop management and intervention plans in collaboration with community partners
  • Connect students and families to community resources and supports

This is work Salem-Keizer Public Schools and its community partners have been doing for the last two decades—and work that is being implemented in many other school districts in Oregon, Washington, and other states across the country.

With this boost from the Legislature, the remainder of Oregon schools will now be able to engage in more effective violence prevention and improve school safety.

Sharing the Responsibility

In 1999, Salem-Keizer Public Schools asked me to lead the development of a behavioral threat assessment system, now known as the Salem-Keizer Model.

The system was designed from the perspective of public education practitioners (teachers, administrators, counselors, school psychologists, and social workers) but developed with the input of multiple youth-serving community stakeholders—representatives from law enforcement, juvenile justice, public mental health, and behavioral health—as well as recognized experts in the field of threat assessment.

The model is now considered a national standard, and it is known as a user-friendly, expeditious, and methodical process that identifies risk factors for student violence and uses evidence-based prevention and inclusion strategies to deter students from acting out.

The expertise and amount of time required to assess potential threats—and, if needed, develop an intervention plan—would be an unfair burden to place solely on school administrators, counselors, or law enforcement.

Therefore, the model uses a district-level oversight and centralized reporting structure combined with multidisciplinary, multi-agency assessment to maximize professional participation and use available resources.

Key Tenets Of Salem-Keizer Public Schools' Behavioral Threat Assessment System

Encourage individuals to communicate concerns early

It is important to share a feeling that "something is not right" rather than wait for a problem to arise. Along those lines, make sure educators and students know that all concerns will be taken seriously, treated confidentially, addressed respectfully, and managed according to facts and analysis.

Focus on the situation

The cornerstone of this work is a protocol that emphasizes fact-finding and takes anxiety and other strong emotions out of the equation so teams can focus on identifying evidence-based, culturally responsive solutions that match the risk factors. This perspective is based on the belief that potential problems can be prevented and that with the right interventions, students can learn to make safe behavioral choices.

Ensure the assessment and intervention-planning processes are free of bias, prevention focused, trauma informed, and equity focused

  • Incorporate equity perspectives and culturally responsive practices throughout all processes and training. Salem-Keizer's system is designed to eliminate profiling during identification of potentially unsafe situations. It also ensures cultural factors, among others, are considered when engaging students and families in planning and implementing the intervention, determining services, and removing barriers to accessing these services.
  • Use trauma-informed practices and language throughout all processes and training. Situations that threaten school safety are stressful for individuals who are directly involved in preventing potentially violent events and for bystanders who are aware of the situation. Incorporating strategies to support students and educators as they cope with these events is important for protecting their psychological safety.

Establish district-level oversight and support for schools, students, and families

  • Create multidisciplinary school teams comprising administrators, counselors, and school resource officers who are trained in behavioral threat assessment and management, as well as the use of district protocols. These teams gather information about the concern and conduct school-based, multidisciplinary assessments with input from parents or guardians, teachers, and other school personnel. After that, they determine whether the concern can be managed at the school level or needs to be referred to the community partners team.
  • Create a centralized consortium of community partners who will support schools with their expertise about threat assessment and management. These partners are key to the comprehensive threat assessment process. They are also essential in identifying appropriate school and community-based services for students who present a risk to others—and in protecting students who are potential targets of the aggression. In addition, the community team plays an important role in developing culturally responsive interventions and removing barriers to accessing them.

Part of a Broader Issue

The Salem-Keizer Model aligns with the work of REL Northwest's Equity in School Discipline Collaborative to establish welcoming and safe school climates that promote equity for all students.

In addition, like the Salem-Keizer Model, the collaborative has developed resources—including this video—that focus on preventing disciplinary problems, keeping students in class as much as possible, and building positive relationships between educators and students from diverse backgrounds.

All this work dovetails with school safety and contributes to success for students, educators, and the community.

Bottom line: When educators feel safe, they can do their job effectively. When students feel safe, they can learn and concentrate on their goals.