MORRISTOWN, NJ – About 75 members of the law enforcement, mental health and education fields in Morris County attended two days of training at the Morris County Fire and Police Academy Nov. 27 and 28 to learn about assessing the behaviors of potential threats with the intention of preventing school shootings.
At a press conference, Morris County Sheriff James Gannon called the two-day training session “total immersion” in an “intense” curriculum in behavioral threat assessment and management, and he said it was a “tremendous experience.”
The threat assessment training, led by the Chief Research Psychologist and Research Coordinator at the U.S. Secret Service’s Threat Assessment Center, Marissa Randazzo, Ph.D., “is designed to give tools and resources to law enforcement and mental health professionals and educators in the county to help prevent violence in schools, colleges and communities.”
The threat assessment training was the direct response to the Parkland, Florida shootings. Gannon said he met with the Morris County Police Chiefs Association the next day, along with his executive Board of Officers, to discuss how prepared county law enforcement was for school violence.
“The answer was, we’re very prepared – we know the layouts, we have a great relationship with the schools, we have long guns in the cars…That’s great,” he said. “But don’t we want to be ‘left of bang’ and look at behavior and try to return that young person to being a productive member of society? We want to return kids to being kids. Maybe there’s victimization there. There’s a HIB – harassment, intimidation and bullying – component to this. There’s conflict. That’s how this program started.”
Gannon said the program also transcends into businesses and houses of worship, because they have their doors open and are “vulnerable populations.”
“This program is considered ‘best practice’ for preventing violence and it’s a support-based process,” Randazzo said. “We are giving strategies to look into behavior that has raised some concern, figure out if anything needs to be done to reduce risk, and then implement strategies that keep our schools and communities safe.”
Randazzo said the curriculum is based off of empirical research conducted on acts of violence. The research was conducted by the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education and is called the Safe School Initiative. It’s the largest study of school shootings across the country, she said.
Gene Deisinger, Ph.D., who designed a threat assessment program for Virginia Tech University, Melissa A. Louvar Reeves, Ph.D., NCSP, LPC, the immediate past President of the National Association of School Psychologists and Michelle Gay, co-founder and Executive Director of Safe and Sound Schools, whose daughter was killed in the Sandy Hook School shooting also consulted on the curriculum. It was funded by the Morris County Board of Freeholders and the Urban Area Security Initiative. The curriculum on which the training is based is 100 pages long, Gannon said.
Undersheriff Mark Spitzer explained the new threat assessment program by saying it involves taking a set of facts, rating a person, and having a different course of action dictated by the threat level.
“A more serious threat would have a more serious course of action,” he said. “Such as sending the police to their house, getting them the mental health help they need, interviewing them, that kind of thing. A lower level threat may just need parental guidance. The next step will be to train staff, students, and teachers in what to look for and what to ‘feed in.’
The training also worked to dispel myths about shooters.
Randazzo said it’s a misconception that the people who carry out acts of violence are unnoticed beforehand.
“There’s actually a lot of behavior that has raised concern among multiple people, but often times those friends, classmates, or teachers don’t know what to do with the information,” she said. “So we’re training these educators, mental health professionals and law enforcement personnel on what to do with the information once people bring that forward. Sometimes it’s nothing, sometimes it’s something and when it’s something, there are a lot of things we can do to reduce risk.”
Another common misconception is that shooters are quiet about their intentions, when in fact they let people know their intentions beforehand, Randazzo said. It’s something the FBI calls “leakage.”
“Other students see the ‘leakage’ on social media, they hear about it, and they’re in a great position to be a key component in prevention,” she said. “Students are likely to hear first or be the only ones to know about an emergent problem.”
In order to collect information and tips, Gannon talked about an app that will be launching soon called P3. He said it will send messages in to a center where it will be “sent to the appropriate people for evaluation.”
“We really stress, ‘see something, say something,’ – but also, do something,” he said. “It is your responsibility if you have that information – these are life and death situations.”
Another misconception Spitzer said, is that these shootings are spontaneous.
“They are planned, long, drawn out acts,” he said. “They begin with ideation, they travel to a means of doing it, start gathering what they need, and eventually go into ‘execution’ of the act. Once they finally make that decision to do it, it’s a relatively short period of time. Our goal is to work in that period of time.”
Denville Police Chief Christopher Wagner said that the county police chiefs prefer to never have to act on a mass shooting situation and instead stop it in advance, and are therefore proud to partner with the Sheriff’s Office on the program. He said he works with the superintendent of schools in his town because he can’t secure the schools by himself.
“We share information,” he said. “If the superintendent hears something, they call us and we make a visit to the house. If there are weapons, we ask them to voluntarily submit their weapons. If they won’t, we’re prepared to take action with a warrant if necessary.”
Wagner said it was important that the training was attended by law enforcement, mental health professionals, and educators, because, “we’re going to succeed together, not individually.”
Wagner said the list of behaviors they look for “is voluminous.”
“There are the obvious threats like ‘I’m going to kill you,’” he said. “But there are also things like changes in behavior, slippage in grades, writings, becoming more introverted, social media activity, or the loss of a parent. An art teacher follows a student through the grades and I talked to one yesterday who said a student’s artwork had gotten very dark. [The list] goes on and on. The school may contact us – and we may notice that we’ve had to go to the house three times because that child has acted out and gotten violent. That makes great information for us to step in, intervene, help that child and prevent that child from doing something detrimental.”
Reaction to the training was very positive.
Montville Township Superintendent of Schools René Rovtar attended with Montville Township Police Department Patrolman Scott McGowan. McGowan started in the school district at the beginning of the 2018-2019 as the schools’ resource officer.
“Officer McGowan and I were very impressed with the Behavioral Threat Assessment Training that we participated in,” Rovtar said. “Morris County continues to be extremely proactive in preparing for emergency situations and in providing local school officials and law enforcement officers with tools and training to assist us in dealing with a variety of situations. This two-day training provided great guidance for assessing behavior and determining how to respond. Officer McGowan and I have plans to turn-key this training for our administrative staff and school counseling personnel. We found this training to be very pertinent and useful in terms of our day to day operations.”
“The biggest thing Dr. Randazzo taught today is that most of these school shooters tell somebody,” Spitzer said. “They usually tell their best friends, and if it had been known ahead of time, it could have been stopped. We know that we’re not going to stop every violent act, but this is a net and we’re trying to make the holes a little smaller and catch a few more people.”
“There are lots of things to do every day [to keep students safe], and just having a police officer in the schools – and I’m the chief of police – and I have seven police officers in our schools – it’s not enough,” Wagner said. “It’s not going to stop [violence], nor can I guarantee you that that police officer is going to stop any violence event. But I can tell you that that, coupled with five or ten other things, greatly reduces the chance that there’s going to be an encounter, and what we’re doing today is undeniably the best chance. Looking at the behavior, looking at the changes before anything goes bad. I think what we’re doing is cutting-edge.”