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Vt. superintendent on school safety initiatives following recent shootings, potential threats

An empty school hallway is pictured.
State officials last week announced that they're reviewing school safety protocols, following mass shootings around the country and a string of potential school threats in Vermont.

It’s been a little over two weeks since a gunman in Uvalde, Texas shot and killed 19 students and two teachers. In that time, Vermont education officials and law enforcement have reported several potential threats to schools here.

All of these incidents have put a spotlight on school safety. The Agency of Education recently highlighted several initiatives including threat assessment training and a statewide anonymous tip line to report potential threats.

But how do these initiatives work at the local level?

To learn more, VPR's Liam Elder-Connors spoke with Brooke Olsen-Farrell, superintendent of Slate Valley Unified School District in western Vermont. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Liam Elder-Connors: In 2018, just after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, a Vermont teenager was arrested for threatening to attack Fair Haven Union High School, which is in your district. Are there any lessons from that incident that inform how you approach school safety now?

A woman poses for the camera.
Brooke Olsen-Farrell

Brooke Olsen-Farrell: Absolutely. There were a lot of lessons learned out of that for us. And I think part of the reason we were successful in having averted an attack, so to speak, was the fact that we have really positive relationships with all of our stakeholders, including law enforcement, and we regularly collaborate on difficult situations.

The other thing that we started to put in place back then, and have a much more robust system now, is behavioral threat assessment. So back in 2018, we were just beginning that process. But having been through what we went through in 2018, we have really systematized that process districtwide. It's a very comprehensive process. We have many stakeholders at the table reviewing any concerning language or behaviors that we are seeing from students, or even adults within the system. And we're reviewing all of that information at our monthly district public safety team meetings.

Can you describe in sort of simplified terms what exactly these behavioral threat assessments look like? What that process is, and how they're useful?

Yes. So, for example, if a student makes a concerning statement, or has concerning behaviors, that is an expression of an intent to cause physical harm, typically we'll bring in school counselors to the table, administration perhaps, teachers — it all depends on the situation and depends on the student. And if appropriate, we bring in law enforcement and maybe even outside mental health resources.

And we go through a series of questions, interviewing that student. Also could be interviewing peers, connecting with family to see if there's concerning behaviors at home. And then from there, depending on whether it's a low-level, mid-level or high-level threat, we take action that's appropriate from there.

Sometimes if it's a high-level threat — each one of these situations is completely different — we may be bringing in outside resources to do a more comprehensive evaluation, or putting safety plans in place. Depending on the situation, there may be a no-trespass order in place. There may be required meetings with counselors, so it really depends on the situation. But again, it's all about the relationships and communication with one another.

Are there other school safety measures that you think the state should be investing in now?

I think some that would be really important and really valuable for the state of Vermont to consider mandating is behavioral threat assessment in all schools. I think that's a really powerful tool. I also think access control, and making sure all schools have an access control policy and plan. The other piece is emergency operations planning. I think it's critical that all schools have an emergency operations plan in place.

And then, finally, probably one of the biggest pieces is schools are in desperate need — as is the community as a whole — for additional mental health services. We do not have the services available that are really necessary to deal with the level of mental health crises we're seeing in our in our youth.

I'm wondering how you're feeling and reacting to what happened in Texas, but then also, after that, we've seen a couple of potential school threats here in Vermont. And I'm wondering how you're feeling and dealing with with all of this right now.

I think it goes without saying that I'm horrified that this can happen again in the United States of America, but we seemingly do nothing about it. And that's really disheartening. I think this is a societal issue. And we all really need to come together to solve it.

It's not going away and we can't become desensitized to these issues. And we're starting to see now kids actually becoming desensitized to comments that their friends are making or violence they might be seeing on social media. And that's not okay. I don't think that's the society we want for future generations.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Liam Elder-Connors @lseconnors

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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