School Leaders Work to Prevent Tragedy

March 22, 2018

How can teachers, guidance counselors, school resource officers and others identify students at risk of becoming violent? That was the topic of a workshop Thursday at Putnam | Northern Westchester BOCES attended by about 100 school leaders from across the region.

Led by Sgt. Amery Bernhardt of the Westchester County Police Department and Frank Guglieri, coordinator of regional safety services at PNW BOCES, the workshop focused on how to conduct a comprehensive, systematic threat assessment on an individual student.
“If we put a big enough net out there, we should be able to catch and hopefully prevent these things,” said Bernhardt, adding that 80 percent of the time, prior to a firearm attack, the shooter told someone. In addition, he said, 70 percent of the time a person who committed suicide told someone of his or her intention or exhibited warning signs.

Bernhardt discussed ways to distinguish low risk behavior from moderate risk and high risk behavior. For example, he said, if a teacher or other school official notices that a student seems depressed and learns that his or her dog has died, that would be a low risk. If however, the student fails to come out of the depression and starts to say that no one should have pets, you might categorize the student as higher risk.

Some behaviors that teachers might notice, for example, include social detachment, obsession with media violence, a perceived sense of injustice and radicalization. These things might come to a teacher or student’s attention via school assignments or social media posts or through conversation. It is important that schools have ways for students to report concerning behaviors such as a drop box or an electronic anonymous alerts system.

Bernhardt and Guglieri outlined a complete system for assessing the threat and intervening when necessary. Interventions might involve contacting the family, recommending mental health services or involving law enforcement. Guglieri stressed that the Threat Assessment model being presented was “one way, not the only way” of dealing with school safety threats.

“As uncomfortable as these topics are to discuss, we have to be prepared so we can help everyone in the school community address them,” said Jason Kane, Putnam Valley Middle School psychologist.

Dr. George Stone, superintendent of Lakeland Central School District, said “We would like to express our gratitude to Putnam | Northern Westchester BOCES for all they do in the area of safety with regard to both sides of the issue, how we deal with safety and how we prevent events through mental health services. The partnership with PNW BOCES is the strongest I’ve encountered.”

Mahopac Assistant Superintendent Greg Stowell called the training “extremely beneficial,” adding that it confirms that New York State and many area school districts are ahead of the rest of the nation in addressing this issue. “The support that PNW BOCES has provided to Mahopac shepherding us through revisions and improvements in emergency preparedness in the past couple of years has been amazing.”

Katonah-Lewisboro Superintendent Andrew Selesnick said “It is really helpful to hear what the experts suggest and to hear from other districts about how they handle these difficult situations.”