Earlier this year, a few students at a Keller district high school heard a classmate mention a murder-suicide pact that involved killing several other students and his own parents before committing suicide.
The concerned students told campus officials who, along with the school resource officer, intervened and got a psychiatric referral for the student and support services for the family.
School security continues to evolve as a national issue and while Keller schools have not experienced a significant tragedy, they have seen an increase in serious threats of targeted violence made by students. In 2014-15, four threats were recorded and last year there were 10, said Kevin Kinley, director of safety and security for Keller schools.
The students who came forward were following the advice of a new Keller school district public service announcement for fifth- through 12th-grade students called “Break the Silence,” which includes the motto, “If you see it, if you hear it, don’t spread it. Report it.”
The PSA is part of a new threat assessment protocol in Keller schools designed to stop violence before it’s too late, provide help to the troubled student and keep track of the student as long as they are in the school system or no longer deemed a threat.
Previously, when students made a threat, district officials and law enforcement officers would identify them, and, if warranted, send them into the district alternative education disciplinary program or Tarrant County’s juvenile justice system. The problem was with the next step, Kinley said.
“Most of the time, these kids would go back onto our campuses, and there was no follow-up,” Kinley said.
Student resource officers would keep an eye on the students, but there wasn’t a comprehensive plan in place to track them.
“The whole purpose of the program is not a ‘gotcha.’ It’s about intervening and getting a child the help he or she needs,” Kinley said.
Research for the program, which went into effect this fall, included a trip to Salem, Ore., for training on the Student Threat Assessment System that is used by Salem-Keizer public schools.
Kinley, Marcene Weatherall, coordinator of counseling intervention services, and Cynthia Velasquez, program director for the nonprofit Stay on Track Keller, attended the training. The system implemented by Keller has many of the same features as that in Salem, including a community-based committee that deals with serious threats.
The multidisciplinary approach puts teams in place so they can address threats before students act, said John Van Dreal, director of safety and risk management for Salem-Keizer public schools.
“This is not just a K-12 problem, it’s a community problem,” Van Dreal said. “Once that is recognized, you can address it pretty quickly.
“People often think it’s a ‘gotcha,’ but if we’re that far down the continuum, that’s a very frightening level. This is early prevention. Kids are on these trajectories to make bad decisions when we move into that situation and help them stop that behavior,” he said.
How other districts react
Many local school districts take a team approach to assessing and monitoring threats, but Keller’s program includes a software tool that ensures procedures are followed.
The Fort Worth school district has a threat assessment plan that officials have been using and refining for the last decade, said Michael Steinert, assistant superintendent for student support services.
Fort Worth’s protocol includes a Violent Behavior Risk Assessment involving campus and district staff members. The assessment could include a central office hearing and disciplinary placement or arrest, based on the nature of the threat. Parents are notified and a team that includes administrators, counselors, school resource officers, nurses and community mental health services are involved in a “Student Support Plan” when a student returns or remains on a campus.
“Student Support Plans are completed for all parties with a continual feedback loop to ensure safety is not compromised,” Steinert said.
In the Hurst-Euless-Bedford district, where a Trinity High School senior was arrested last month for making an online threat to “shoot up the school,” officials rely on campus administrators and the student resource officer to identify threats and monitor any subsequent intervention plans, said Deanne Hullender, district spokeswoman. The district coordinator of safety and security also audits the process.
“If any criminal charges are made against the student, the law enforcement agency conducts an investigation with needed resources from the district,” Hullender said. “The school district will always conduct its own investigation into the incident to determine the correct consequence for the student according to the HEB ISD student code of conduct. If the student is sent to the district alternative education program ... the student will return to campus following a campus meeting for expectations upon return.”
‘Family piece is huge’
Keller’s system is used on every secondary campus and assistant principals, designated counselors and student resource officers are part of the threat assessment team. In the Keller district, student resource officers are either Fort Worth or Keller police officers assigned to the high schools. When officials learn of a possible threat, an assistant principal, a counselor and the student resource officer fill out an online form.
“All three have to complete the threat assessment together,” Kinley said.
The form includes the details of the threat, information on the student, eyewitness accounts, steps taken to address the threat and more.
“With a very serious threat, they would make an arrest and do the assessment afterward,” he said.
Once an assessment is completed, an automatic email is sent to Kinley and his security office, the campus principal, school support directors and Weatherall, the counseling intervention services coordinator.
Another part of the program is the intervention plan, which includes what will happen if the student remains on campus or eventually returns to campus. The plan could include the student resource officer checking the student’s backpack daily, the student seeing a school counselor multiple times a week and weekly updates on the student’s academic progress and activities.
The plan must include interaction with the family, Weatherall said.
“The family piece is huge because we want to make sure they’re getting help,” Weatherall said. “We don’t just offer services for the student; we make sure we fill in the gaps for the family and that finances are not a barrier to getting treatment or counseling for the family.”
Once a week, the district’s threat assessment team meets and reviews all active reports.
At a meeting earlier this month, 14 reports were active across the district. A brief conference call was conducted with a high school assistant principal, a counselor and a student resource officer about deactivating one of the reports because a student had made good progress and fulfilled all the intervention plan requirements.
‘Made great strides’
John Matthews, executive director of the Texas-based Community Safety Institute and author of “School Safety 101,” said comprehensive threat assessment protocols have been the standard for many years but not all school districts have implemented them.
“We’ve made great strides in school safety since Columbine,” Matthews said.
The 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School involved two teenage perpetrators who had given some indications of their intentions.
Matthews said that teenage shooters differ from adult shooters in that they often give clues about their plans to peers.
That’s why encouraging students to speak up and having early intervention plans in place is so important.
In the incident with the murder-suicide threat at the Keller district high school, authorities were able to track down an online friend in Maryland with whom the local student made a murder-suicide pact, Kinley said.
At the Nov. 9 school board meeting, Kinley recognized Fort Worth Police Officer Sara Straten for her role in finding the Maryland student.
“Officer Straten was not satisfied having a student outside of Keller ISD unidentified,” he said.
Straten contacted Maryland law enforcement officers, who were able to identify the student and provide intervention services.
It all started with students telling school officials.
Weatherall said that fostering a sense of community among students, parents, school officials, law enforcement and service providers builds an environment “that may prevent an incident from occurring.”
Staff writer Diane Smith contributed to this report, which includes information from Star-Telegram archives.