Threat assessment coordinator designed to detect, prevent

“There are three steps in threat assessment: detection, assessment and management,” said Dr. David Bernstein, forensic psychologist and threat assessment expert.

“Detection is the first and most important step of that process.”

Dr. Bernstein held two threat assessment information sessions for parents in the Wilton High School Little Theater on Tuesday, Feb. 4 — two days before the Board of Education decides on the 2014-15 budget.

Wilton’s Security Task Force proposed that a new school security position be adopted that would help detect potential school threats: a threat assessment coordinator.

Wilton Second Selectman and Security Task Force Chairman Harold Clark said the 187-day threat assessment coordinator position would not duplicate any of the other school staff’s roles or efforts, like the school psychologists. The cost to the school district would be approximately $100,000, according to Mr. Clark.

“We spent a lot of time on the Security Task Force debating whether or not there was any duplication, and the answer is there is not,” he said.

“A regular school psychologist works with social workers to try to figure out how to adjust the curriculum to give a child the best education experience,” said Mr. Clark. “The threat assessment coordinator is going to look at the climate of the school, the students, and try to identify those students who are most likely to become threats.”

The role of the school resource officer (SRO) may seem similar to the threat assessment coordinator’s, said Mr. Clark, but they’re not the same.

“They are going to work very closely together. They’ll both be in the detection business,” said Mr. Clark. “The threat assessment coordinator position, however, requires a different set of skills.”

According to the job description presented at the Jan. 27 Board of Selectmen meeting, the threat assessment coordinator’s goal would be to detect, assess and manage internal threats to the schools.

“This would be a pretty advanced person. We’re looking for someone with forensic psychology experience and preferably with an advanced degree,” said Mr. Clark.

The preferred qualifications for the coordinator position include:

• State of Connecticut certified clinical psychologist.

• Forensic-specific clinical experience.

• Minimum master’s degree in psychology or a related field.

• Experience with threat and risk assessments.

• Experience in creating and maintaining a positive school climate.

• Experience working with adolescents in an educational setting.

• Excellent written and oral communication.

• Ability to collaborate and work cooperatively with staff, students and parents.

• Ability to work independently with minimal supervision.

According to the job description, the coordinator would report to the principal and be responsible for “coordinating and gathering all threat assessment data for use by the school’s threat assessment teams.”

This includes:

• Being a liaison with the SRO, Board of Education personnel, threat assessment teams, and safe climate coordinators.

• Being the central contact point for all security and safety concerns related to a student posing a threat.

• Finding and implementing preventative programs for detection of school internal threats.

• Developing, implementing and monitoring threat assessment protocols.

• Participating as a member of the middle school and high school threat assessment teams.

• Working on proactive measures to promote a positive school community.

• Conducting parent and student workshops to promote detection strategies.

• Conducting individual student counseling.

• Maintaining confidentiality of information about students.

• Creating and maintaining a database for tracking all threat assessment information and “red flags.”

“The goal is to find and focus on the people that are likely to mess up their own lives or other people’s lives, and prevent them from doing that,” said Mr. Clark.

Dr. Bernstein was retained by the Wilton school district to  assess needed security improvements and train the Wilton school community.

During his presentations, Dr. Bernstein shared some potential warning signs in students that are looked for when assessing a threat, such as:

• Rumination on getting even for a real or perceived grudge.

• Unaccounted-for time alone.

• Identification with a violent figure or group.

• Stated or implied wishes or intent to damage, injure or kill someone or people associated with that person.

• Difficulty shrugging off slights.

Dr. Bernstein said the goal is to intervene before violent action takes place and that it’s important to be aware of any clues.

“This is about behavioral-based detection,” he said.

“If you’re not aware of the clues, then they don’t matter — they’re irrelevant, they’re neutral data.”

Dr. Bernstein said that according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, bullying has been cited as a motive in 75% of school shootings.

Dr. Bernstein said the bullied child’s perception is the only perception that ultimately matters.

“All rampage killers feel justified in their actions,” he said. “Kids who are bullied and commit mass shootings believe they are righting a perceived wrong.”

Dr. Bernstein said when kids are bullied and view themselves as victims, that’s when they may decide to take matters into their own hands, like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold in the 1999 Columbine High School shooting.

“It was horrifying how the kids [Eric and Dylan] were laughing and joking with each other as they were going through the school,” said Mr. Clark.

“They didn’t think they were doing evil — they thought they were righting a wrong for everybody. They were vigilantes.”

Mr. Clark said the threat assessment coordinator would try to identify kids who get into that mind-set and intervene before it’s too late.

He also said the security task force is pushing for one threat assessment coordinator for all Wilton schools at this time.