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Early intervention goal of countywide school threat team

Photo by Jordan W. Patterson Chautauqua County District Attorney Patrick Swanson and local FBI agent Brent Isaacson established the School Threat Assessment and Response (or STAR) team. The group is activated by a school superintendent when a perceived threat against a school is received. The STAR team has been activated four times and successfully used to direct students to resources.

For the last 10 months, Chautauqua County District Attorney Patrick Swanson and the local FBI agent assigned to the Jamestown area have been putting together a group of experts in a range of fields to address threats to local schools and colleges.

The team — School Threat Assessment and Response (or STAR) — is comprised of staff from the State University of New York at Fredonia, county mental health officials, school counselors and local law enforcement. With cooperation from every school superintendent in the county, the STAR team can be activated to address early indicators of threats aimed at area schools by students.

“We assemble upon request of partner groups when a threat is realized,” Swanson said in an interview. “The team is typically assembled within 24 hours. We then discuss (the threat) amongst the disciplines represented, the seriousness and legitimacy of it and how to best proceed from there.”

The STAR team has been activated four times, though details of each case including dates and schools involved have not been made public for a variety of privacy and school policy reasons.

The district attorney opted, in part, to come forward with information on the STAR team following the May 7 shooting at a STEM school in Colorado. An 18- and 16-year-old are facing a host of charges after a student was killed and several more injured.

Swanson said the idea to assemble a group of counselors, mental health experts and law enforcement officers came to fruition along with the help of Brent Isaacson of the FBI after a school superintendent approached the DA’s office about concerns with a student. The situation was handled immediately, however, Swanson said the incident reinforced his belief that schools need more resources to help students obtain counseling or other services before threats of violence escalate.

“It was needed,” Swanson said of the STAR team, believed to be the first of its kind in New York state. “We’ve all seen the events on TV — we don’t want it to be here. We felt it was important to do as much as we can do, and with this team, the best thing we can do is prevent it when a threat is first heard.”

“We have the right people to really tackle the problem,” he continued.

The STAR team is activated when a school superintendent contacts Swanson. The DA said school staff are in the “best position” to learn of threats and determine when additional resources are necessary.

Once Swanson is notified, the rest of the team is assembled within 24 hours and a plan is put into place. That includes gathering as much information on the student as possible, whether combing through social media posts, through interviews or from an investigation by police. Students can be directed to mental health counseling, or in some instances, be given a mentor-like figure outside school if one is lacking at home.

Swanson stressed STAR is designed to be proactive; he said the goal is for group members to be brought in early enough to guide troubled students to accessible resources.

Any imminent acts of violence, Swanson noted, are immediately handled by the school and law enforcement.

“The goal really is healthy thoughts,” Swanson said. “When the superintendents make the call, the team assembles and we make our initial assessment.”

EARLY SUCCESS

Jamestown Public Schools Superintendent Bret Apthorpe said he reached out to Swanson and Isaacson twice in 2018 regarding incidents involving students. He touted the success of the pair’s intervention, noting that the students involved are now thriving.

“It was so effective that under the FBI and DA’s leadership they created a model, the STAR team, that can be activated by a superintendent calling and saying ‘I have a situation,'” Apthorpe said.

Apthorpe believes the success of the program will begin to influence intervention operations in schools across the country. He said every incident is “situational,” and the primary focus is to ensure a “healthy outcome.”

“The goal isn’t to arrest and punish people,” the superintendent said. “Rather the goal is to positively intervene, and not only prevent the violence, but put the children involved into a positive track.”

With the FBI, Isaacson has been part of a nationwide effort by the U.S. to identify and manage targeted attacks of violence using behavioral analysis. Locally, he has talked to school staff and law enforcement to recognize offender behavior based on case study.

Isaacson said the training is designed to help calibrate the “If You See Something, Say Something” mantra made popular by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“The research clearly shows,” Isaacson said, “for the successful attacks … in nearly every single case, and I mean well over 90 percent of the cases, there was either a peer or adult who saw concerning behavior, didn’t recognize it for what it was and didn’t report it.”

In March 2018, Isaacson was one of many experts to speak to a group of about 300 area church representatives in Mayville on safety and security for houses of worship. He used his knowledge of behavioral analysis to highlight indicators common to mass shooters.

PATHWAYS TO VIOLENCE

Isaacson, during an in-depth interview last week, said violence can be categorized in two ways: predatory/planned and impulsive/reactive, with the former involving premeditated actions while the latter is emotional and impromptu.

Many mass shooting incidents, according to an analysis by the FBI, are premeditated and well-planned in advance.

“One of the hallmark behaviors of active shooters is they don’t just snap,” Isaacson said. “This is behavior that is usually many, many weeks and even a few years in the making.”

Many offenders are considered “brittle people,” those who feel grieved and have a hard time getting over the “bumps in life.”

“People that are easily grieved, and are grievance collectors, will hold onto that and they’ll nurture it and incubate it,” Isaacson said. “It’s a very painful experience for them. They can’t let it go.”

The FBI has found that, in its “Pathways to Violence” study, most active shooters are highly narcissistic, which combined with being easily grieved, is a “toxic combination,” Isaacson said.

The pathway also includes ideation and fantasy about committing violence; research and planning along with pre-attack indicators that can be observed by other students or teachers; the preparation phase in which weapons are obtained and a plan is developed; a breach phase that includes a “point of no return” in pre-planning; and ultimately the shooting.

“By then it’s too late,” Isaacson said of the final stage in a pathway to violence. “We failed as a community to detect this active shooter.”

The number of school shooting incidents rose in 2018, according to statistics gathered by the US Naval Postgraduate School of the Center For Homeland Defense and Security. There were 97 instances of gun violence last year, the most since 1970 when data was first collected. There were 44 incidents in 2017 and 45 in ’16.

The K-12 school shooting database documents each instance in which a gun is “brandished, is fired, or a bullet hits school property for any reason, regardless of the number of victims, time of day or day of week.”

The program said 56 people were killed (including the shooter) in school shootings last year, up from 24 in 2017 and 13 in 2016.

Seven people have been killed as a result a gun violence in the U.S. so far this year.

Data for the program was collected from a variety of sources, including government reports, mainstream media and nonprofit groups, among others.

“Our idea is that the superintendent, when he or she becomes aware (of a perceived threat) he or she picks up the phone,” Isaacson said. “We’re on the phone with them that day and we’re at the school the next. And we’re bringing this incredible cadre of experts. We’re all experts in our own little fields.”

Isaacson said a key partner in the team is SUNY Fredonia, which he said has a “wealth of experience and expertise” in counseling students. He noted in particular the work done by Tracy Stenger, director of the college’s Counseling Center, who sits on a behavioral intervention team of which the STAR team is partially modeled.

“They have 5,000 students there, and they have students of concern,” Isaacson said of SUNY Fredonia. “Internally they have been doing a lot of this work, not so much when it has a violence component, but with kids struggling with being homesick or having trouble getting socially connected to peer groups. They have a team of experts that sits down once a week to talk about students that are struggling … and what they can do resource-wise to improve those outcomes. They are part of that (STAR) team.”

Jordan W. Patterson contributed to this story

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