Every Utah school to conduct threat assessments

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HIGHLAND — In the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting in 2018, Utah lawmakers took action, creating the Utah Safe Schools Commission to look at ways to protect students.

The commission's recommendations included creating mental health teams at all schools to assess threats made by students.

That recommendation is now a mandate for every public school in Utah, part of the school safety legislation passed by state lawmakers in 2023.

Threat assessment is a method many Utah schools have already been voluntarily using for a few years, including in the Alpine School District.

Eric Woodhouse, director of operations with the district, said the district adopted and implemented a uniform threat assessment protocol at all schools last year.

"When a student does make a threat, then we look at the context and intent to determine what does the student mean by it?" Woodhouse explained, "and then based on that, we're able to take appropriate interventions to make sure that a future act of violence won't occur."

He said the district had just over 60 incidents reported through its virtual documentation platform last school year, the majority of which were determined to be not serious threats.

"We feel like it's going really well," said Woodhouse. "The thing I like about it is it's a multidisciplinary approach. We've got law enforcement, we've got school counselors, psychologists, social workers, administration, and we've also got teachers there."

All Utah schools will now use the same model Alpine is using, called the Comprehensive School Threat Assessment Guidelines, or CSTAG.

When a threat is made, designated school safety specialists will use the same flow chart to identify how serious it is, and what steps the team should take to help the students involved and keep everyone safe.

CSTAG was developed by Dewey Cornell, a professor at the University of Virginia. His research around school safety found zero tolerance discipline policies weren't effective in stopping violence.

"We found in studies of school shootings that suspending a student or removing them from school may actually facilitate their planning and preparation to carry out an attack," Cornell said.

We found in studies of school shootings that suspending a student or removing them from school may actually facilitate their planning and preparation to carry out an attack.

–Dewey Cornell, CSTAG developer

The one-size-fits-all discipline model was also keeping students out of the classroom for crimes that didn't necessarily fit the punishment.

Cornell's team conducted a massive study of threat assessment implementation using Florida public schools. That state mandated the CSTAG model for its schools a month after the Parkland shooting.

Across 60 school districts and 2.5 million students during the 2021-2022 school year, 22,929 threat assessments were performed.

Of those, 81.8% were determined to be not serious or not a threat, 13.4% were considered serious or substantial threats, and 4.7% were deemed very serious. That classification includes a threat to kill or inflict serious injury with a weapon.

"There, we did a more comprehensive mental health assessment," said Cornell. "About 1% were arrested, about 1.5% were expelled, but the others were basically able to continue their education, often with a variety of services."

In many other states, those services are not funded. That's not the case in Utah. HB61 made sure to put money with the mandates.

"There was $75 million that was allocated in one-time funding towards school safety," said Rhett Larsen, school safety specialist for the Utah State Board of Education.

His goal is to get that money in the hands of smaller districts.

"Those dedicated dollars are being prioritized towards schools with lower student count – schools who haven't had, not just the funding, they don't have the mechanism to get the funding," said Larsen.

Ongoing funds are also available for mandated school safety specialists. Each Utah public school is now required to designate a school safety specialist to spearhead the CSTAG program. That person will receive a stipend for those duties.

"We have hit the ground running, and we are working as fast as we can," said Larsen. "We hope that all school safety specialists will be designated by the end of October."

It comes at a time of growing violence in Utah schools.

According to the state's Incident and Discipline Report for the 2022 school year, reported threats and intimidation have more than doubled, from 1,094 cases in 2021 to 2,744 in 2022.

Incidents of fighting also reached a five-year high, with 4,641 cases across the state.

Teachers, administrators, and law enforcement are already back in the classroom getting training on the CSTAG model. Dozens participated in a training in Moab, practicing how to use the flow chart and how to determine if the student's threat is a serious one.

Many educators were encouraged to have more tools to help their students.

"I really feel that I could've used this throughout my whole career," said eighth grade math teacher Mike Estenson. "Not just for crisis intervention, but just so that we feel equipped and can support the students through these challenging things."

Threat assessment is just one cog in the wheel of school safety.

The Utah School Security Task Force was created from HB61 to identify multiple ways to boost security, including changes in criminal code and increased school resource officer training.

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