NCDPI, SBI to collaborate in training schools on threat assessment and response

ROLESVILLE, N.C. (WTVD) -- As if COVID19 wasn't enough of a disruption, a series of threats made against schools continues to interrupt the return to full-time in person learning.

"When it comes to school safety, I know it's a disruption," Jay Jackson, State Safety Coordinator at the North Carolina Center for Safer Schools, told ABC11. "But we need to make sure we take protective steps to make sure our kids are safe."

Indeed, administrators can be forgiven if they're still experiencing PTSD from the likes of Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland, or any number of deadly shootings to plague schools across the United States during the past 25 years.

"Most of us, most our kids, aren't going to be a victim of targeted school violence or some type of active-shooter situation," Jackson added. "But they are more likely to be involved in an incident of lockdown for other type scenarios, whether it be some type of medical (emergency) at a school or these threatening calls."

The recent threats, according to officials and administrators, include text messages, voicemails and even online gaming chats. They also come from fake 911 calls to dispatchers.

"Your Internet-based type numbers make it really tough for us to be able to track where those things are coming from because sometimes the servers for the systems aren't even in America," Jackson explained. "We have to be prepared to respond to misinformation on social media as well. And react quickly to make sure whatever threat we've identified, we're taking steps to keep students safe."

Among the 115 public school districts in North Carolina, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction mandates some safety protocols, such as unanimous reporting and the submission of a comprehensive safety plan to NC Emergency Management. Schools must also conduct periodic safety drills and exercises.

There are no state mandates for threat assessments or definitions of lockdowns, however; the NCDPI, through its Center for Safer Schools (CFSS) instead strongly recommends districts and schools follow guidelines and best practices as laid out by CFSS staff and based on a report by the U.S. Secret Service.

The Secret Service, in fact, this year released the 64-page "Averting Targeted School Violence, A US Secret Service Analysis of Plots Against Schools" which spells out a threat-assessment process to both prevent and mitigate targeted school violence. In the report is a specific eight-step process:

1. Establish a multidisciplinary threat assessment team.

2. Define concerning and prohibited behaviors.

3.. Create a central reporting mechanism.

4. Determine the threshold for law enforcement intervention.

5. Establish assessment procedures.

6. Develop risk management options.

7. Create and promote safe school climates, and

8. Conduct training for stakeholders.

The training, in particular, is what NCDPI is prioritizing after securing funding to offer threat assessment training to school districts across the state. The training, moreover, will be a collaborative effort with the North Carolina SBI's Behavioral Threat Assessment Unit.

"Nobody can do this on their own," Jackson emphasized. "When we hear lockdown, there's an assumption that there's something bad taking place in school. It's extremely important for us to say what those protective actions are and communicate quickly."

Jackson, a former police chief, said all schools and districts can do a better job at communication, especially when it comes to lockdown procedures, which could include three main response types (some districts may combine the steps according to their emergency operation plans).

A level 1 lockdown also referred to as a "soft lockdown," and may be called when the danger exists outside of the school building. The lockdown, thus, is as simple as locking the doors and restricting access to the facility, and normal operations, including instruction, go on as scheduled.

In a level 2 lockdown, there could be a threat inside of the school building but students and staff are not in immediate danger. An example of this could be a fight or a medical emergency. In this scenario, the lockdown goes a step further in requiring people to shelter in place - remain in their classroom or office - but do not need to hunker down or hide.

That, instead, is reserved for level 3, which Jackson described as "extreme situations" and the threat is an "immediate danger" to everyone. This is when, in addition to everything in the first two levels of lockdown, staff should shut off lights, silence media devices, maintain silence and move into an interior lockable area is possible (bathroom, supply room, etc.) and/or barricade doorways using desks, drawers, furniture and other available items.

In all scenarios, Jackson and CFSS urge all stakeholders to use terminology that is "descriptive of the severity of the situation" and "easily understood" instead of "code works that do not adequately describe the severity of the situation."

"Part of the problem is we're fighting misinformation," he lamented.

Fortunately, all of the threats against schools have been unfounded, though earlier I-Team investigations have uncovered a significant rise in urgent tips on North Carolina's Say Something Anonymous Reporting System. Most of the tips are related to mental and behavioral health, bullying, drug use and suicide.

First introduced in North Carolina in 2019, Say Something is the flagship program of Sandy Hook Promise, the organization founded by the grieving parents from the 2012 massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. Across the state, nearly every student and educator in grades 6-12 have been trained to use the system.
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