June 27, 2022

Teachers and police join threat assessment training for consistent, cross-county procedures

Jasper County schools and law enforcement team up to prevent school violence

Teachers and members of law enforcement agencies from all across Jasper County gather June 9 for a threat assessment training session at E.J.H. Beard Administration Center in Newton.

School district staff and law enforcement agencies from all across Jasper County participated in training sessions last week to better assess potential threats and develop new policies and procedures in detecting, reporting and responding to those threats before they take a turn for the worse.

From morning until the afternoon, numerous teachers and school counselors and police officers took part in the training offered by the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Technical Assistance Center. The training was provided at no cost and was funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

Newton Police Chief Rob Burdess, who organized the sessions, said the purpose of the training was to get faculty and law enforcement more acquainted with school threat assessments, the role of a Threat Assessment Team, the different stages of a school threat assessment and how threats can be identified online.

By having all of the county schools and law enforcement agencies involved in the training, Newton Superintendent Tom Messinger said the districts now have a “cohort of people to collaborate with to build a much stronger framework” that can protect the safety of Jasper County schools.

“The meetings … have brought a lot of minds together to work through our individual policies and practices to improve our communication in emergency situations, increase the level of safety in our districts and to establish a strong team to assist one another should a crisis occur,” Messinger said.

Probably the most valuable information Messinger received from the meetings is that it is “another piece to our work on a school environment which is safe and supportive.” The focus of the training was knowing the students and the relationships with them.

Messinger said those relationships play a critical role in having a system to prevent catastrophic events in schools.

“Many times on the news you see reports of things leading up to terrible acts of violence in our schools and there is discussion about how they could have been prevented,” he said. “This training helps create a system which takes proactive steps to reduce the risk of threat.”

Members of the Jasper County Sheriff's Office talk amongst themselves June 9 before participating in a threat assessment training session at E.J.H. Beard Administration Center in Newton.

CONSISTENT RESPONSE ACROSS ALL AGENCIES

Although the training took place a little more than two weeks after the mass shooting of an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, Burdess said the training was scheduled in January and was not a direct response to that incident, but rather all school shootings. The training was also a response to a threat in October 2021.

When a school shooting threat against Jasper County High School in Illinois was obtained by the police department of Newton, Illinois, the threat was shared to all Jasper County/Newton law enforcement agencies in the United States out of an abundance of caution. The threat was vague and made online.

As a precaution, the Newton Police Department in Iowa and the Newton school district implemented additional security measures. But responses from law enforcement and schools in the county were different to each agency and district. Some schools closed. Others stayed open.

“As a resident and as a parent you’re asking, ‘Why? Why does this school in the county close? Why does this one stay open? Why are these schools taking some different measures by assigning officers to school and this one’s not?’ A lot of different questions,” Burdess said.

Jasper County’s superintendents and law enforcement executives met with each other to talk about this situation. Some looked at the threat as ambiguous and believed the district’s security measures and school resource officers were enough of a deterrent and decided to not close. Others decided the opposite.

“What we really found out was there was no structured approached that anybody was taking,” Burdess added. “Everybody was kind of assessing these threats based on the limited information they had and based on their school policies, and then making a decision. Sometimes this was a gut decision or gut reaction.”

Both schools and law enforcement agreed there needed to be some kind of consistency. Coupled with the 2021 report from the U.S. Secret Service (USSS) analyzing plots against schools and averting targeted school violence, Burdess suggested the training could lead to more proactive and preventative action, too.

DEVELOPING THREAT ASSESSMENT TEAMS

One of the major recommendations from the USSS report is to establish threat assessment teams in the school districts. Burdess describes the teams as a collaborative effort between law enforcement, counselors, superintendents, principals, teachers and mental health professionals.

When a threat occurs at a school, the team can look at all the evidence and make an educated response. Realistically, Burdess noted, there are threats in schools every week in Jasper County. Threats are not always targeted to mass shootings. They could be smaller interactions between students.

“It could be ‘I’m going to beat this kid up.’ That’s a threat of violence. History has shown in all these school shootings that there are signs that come about from students displaying different behaviors prior to a shooting,” Burdess said. “This could be years, this could be months, this could be weeks before a shooting.”

Which is where the threat assessment teams come in. Most teams are usually created for each building or each school district. Team members will evaluate those signs or behaviors early and find some kind of intervention. Identifying signs early could prevent the next mass shooting, Burdess suggested.

“This is what has been identified in all these mass shootings is there was an opportunity but nobody took it. There was an opportunity for somebody to intervene somewhere in this student’s life and nobody took that opportunity,” Burdess said. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Michelle Havenstrite, superintendent of the PCM Community School District, told Newton News 11 staff members attended the training and are now developing protocols and specific procedures to systematically assess potential threats that occur in the district and at any give time in any building.

“One important take away for me from the training was that in all school shooting cases — someone knew about the shooter’s intent,” Havenstrite said. “I need to stress to all: If you see something or hear something, say something. Do not be afraid to report your concerns.”

From left: Newton Superintendent Tom Messinger and Newton Police Chief Rob Burdess have a chat before guests arrive to the threat assessment training session June 9 at E.J.H. Beard Administration Center.

SCHOOL SAFETY AFFECTS ALL CITIZENS

Prior to the Texas shooting, PCM was developing an anonymous tip reporting system, which is now active on the district’s website. Even with this tool in place, Havenstrite stressed it is going to take “multi-faceted measures to protect our students and staff.” She hopes everyone is thinking about school safety issues.

“This is not just a school issue,” she said. “This is an issue of mental health, gun regulation, law enforcement response and school security, to name a few.”

Messinger said there have been many things done about school safety over the 29 years he has worked in education. The tragedy at Columbine High School “was really the first time that schools across the country took a much more serious look at safety and implemented measures” to create a safe environment.

Many of those measures looked at the physical characteristics of buildings, like secured entrances and surveillance cameras, in addition to well-developed plans and training events for crisis situations.

“The training from last week took a different course,” he said. “It focused almost entirely on prevention. The threat assessment training dealt with identifying situations posing a potential threat. I believe this really puts all the pieces in place to further strengthen the security and safety of our students and staff.”

Burdess said the threat assessment training has been effective in other cases across the country. From a law enforcement’s perspective, doing nothing in response to a school shooting “isn’t acceptable.” Doing something, even if it’s not perfect, is at least a step in the right direction, he said.

Acknowledging there many people demanding legislative change across the country, Burdess there has “to be a switch at some point to really prevent these in the future.” He does not know that that answer is, realistically. But what could help is people reporting suspicious behaviors and actions.

“You have an 18-year-old kid coming in buying weapons and such, that doesn’t really feel right and nothing is said. People around these kids see this and questions aren’t asked or no intervention is being done. That’s big,” Burdess said. “In some of these cases guns were legally obtained.”

Schools cannot take the brunt of the responsibility, Burdess suggested. Some school districts are strapped due to budget constraints, so affording physical security is not always an option nor is it proven to be a deterrent to violence. Nothing that school districts implement will 100 percent prevent shootings.

Still, the extra barriers couldn’t hurt.

Burdess said, “The more barriers we can put in to prevent or at least stop it before it occurs, the better we’re going to be.”

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or cbraunschweig@newtondailynews.com

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.