A proactive approach: Educators, counselors, administrators, Char-Em ISD staff gather for Threat Assessment Training

CHARLEVOIX – In late November, amid the rush and anticipation of the holiday season, nearly 70 local educational professionals gathered to strategize about a new approach for school safety in the new year ahead.

Charlevoix-Emmet Intermediate School District administrators convened a local Threat Assessment Training, which featured national trainer Frank Zenere, a school psychologist and crisis management specialist for Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Zenere has responded to dozens of crises, including the devastating Sandy Hook and Parkland school shootings.

“Char-Em ISD continues to respond to the needs of our 11 local public school districts and to help them in every way we can,” said Jeff Crouse, Char-Em ISD Superintendent. “School safety continues to be of paramount concern, understandably, for educators locally and throughout the country. Our team learned about Mr. Zenere’s training and this proactive approach to stemming school violence and handling threats. We knew it would benefit our local school leaders as well.”

Ben Hicks, Director of Special Education

Ben Hicks, Char-Em ISD’s Director of Special Education, coordinated the training, which took place at the Charlevoix Public Library on Nov. 30, 2018.

“The training was needed for a couple of reasons,” said Hicks. “There were certain situations last school year during which students made threats that required a comprehensive, consistent procedure for response be developed. We also all have a heightened awareness of school safety procedures and what we need to be doing to continue to keep our schools safe, and preventative school safety measures are an important tool in that toolbox.”

Educators represented all 11 local districts in the Char-Em service area and included superintendents, principals, counselors, school social workers, psychologists, behavioral therapists, North Country Community Mental Health staff, and local law enforcement. The training utilized the “School-Based Threat Assessment Guidelines” developed by Professor Dewey Cornell of the University of Virginia, recognized by the federal government’s National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices.

“School threat assessment is a more proactive and flexible violence prevention practice that is used when an individual threatens to commit a violent act or engages in threatening behavior,” according to the formal model. “Threat assessment includes the identification, assessment, and management of threats with the goal of resolving conflicts or problems before they escalate into violence.”

Several core areas were the focus for the day:

  • Preventative measures to reduce violence;
  • Consistency in procedure for responding to student threats;
  • Classification of threats as either transient or substantive;
  • Emphasis on coordination of services in response to threat.

The group utilized case study examples to prepare the participants for real-life scenarios and also tested their knowledge of appropriate responses to specific threats. They received documentation resources for consistency, such as a flow chart for threat response, interview forms and behavior support plans, Hicks noted.

Lenore Weaver, Superintendent of Central Lake Public Schools, noted Zenere’s first-hand experience. “He was realistic and down to earth. It was refreshing to hear from someone who seems to truly understand the reality of what schools need,” she said.

Weaver also said the training fits with her district’s ongoing school safety initiatives. “This fits in well with what we are already implementing. It is another level of intervention, skill and knowledge that we had not previously had in place,” she said.

Katie Frentz, a counselor at Petoskey High School, also attended the training and said that among the most important messages emphasized during the day, one in particular resonated strongly with her. “There are opportunities for prevention years before (an act of violence) occurs and leading up to the day that it happens,” she noted. “This validates how important it is to find a way to connect and build relationships with students. Creating a school environment where students feel supported and can identify a trustworthy adult is essential.”

New ways of thinking and advancing technology are also key for school districts to implement, Zenere recommended to the group. To that end, Frentz cited the example of added door security and buzzer systems at Petoskey schools in the past year, and the district’s close relationship with local police who assist in training staff in the event of an emergency.

“At Petoskey High School, we have implemented several new initiatives to help support students emotionally. Having a Behavioral Therapist, through Alcona Health Center, in our building to help support students has been a great addition to our school community,” Frentz said. “We also have worked hard to create safe spaces for students experiencing anxiety, implemented new processes for students who are re-entering our building after hospitalization, and we work hard to teach students to speak up if they need support or have concerns for others.”

Cynthia Pineda, Boyne Falls Public Schools Superintendent, said she appreciates Char-Em ISD staying aware and sensitive to the needs of local districts with this type of training. The tools provided, including a step-by-step guide, give school staff assistance when an unexpected threat arises.

“I wouldn’t say this is a newer line of thinking. However, this training does provide us with common practice or common protocols to follow,” said Pineda. “In that sense, it’s useful that we are speaking in the same terms and following the same guidelines.”

Central Lake’s Weaver added that one comment in particular will stay with her: “A powerful take-away for me was his point that there is no guarantee that anything we do will 100 percent prevent a student from committing acts of violence. The most effective tool we have is to be proactive, informed and aware.”

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