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An Antidote To The Secret Panic

The person who said, “Leadership has been defined as the ability to hide your panic from others” has understandably chosen to remain anonymous.  Yet, it is a sentiment that rings very true for school leaders.  As a school leader, you have the important job of reassuring everyone that they are safe  - especially after a school shooting.  You’ll discuss the fact that your doors are kept locked, visitors must sign in, students are encouraged to report bullying, and the staff has received the most up to date crisis response training available.  However, when you watch the news and realize that recently victimized schools also followed those same basic processes, a slow panic can start to creep in.  

It’s not uncommon for school leaders to say that they take all threats seriously.  But it is hard to know how to seriously respond to veiled threats or comments that could have double meanings.  We all know that kids say crazy things all the time, and they certainly don’t always mean what they say.  We may wonder if we’re making mountains out of molehills, or if our small concerns are just the tip of a much larger iceberg.  The responsibility for correctly navigating all of the “what ifs” is an indescribably heavy burden to carry.

Simon Sinek said, “Panic causes tunnel vision. Calm acceptance of danger allows us to more easily assess the situation and see the options.”  One of the most effective ways for a school leader to move beyond panic and tunnel vision is to form a threat assessment team.  The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) described the value of threat assessment teams saying, “Effective threat assessment is based on the combined efforts of a school-based team including representatives from administration, school employed mental health professionals, and law enforcement.  In unusually complex cases, the team might draw upon professionals in the local community.  The interdisciplinary team approach improves the efficacy and scope of the process and reduces the risk of observer bias.” In my former school, I developed and led our threat assessment team, which was made up of a school psychologist, a school counselor, our school safety specialist, and the student-in-question’s building principal.  

When the threat assessment team met, we discussed the concern that had been brought to light and talked through a plan for following up with the student, family members, and friends. Investigative tasks were assigned, and a timeline was laid out for the team members’ next steps.  When we reconvened, team members engaged in an in-depth discussion of the student’s academic progress, physical and mental health, services the student received, family life, friends’ perceptions, and information discovered in social media posts.  Depending on what was uncovered, we would also involve our local law enforcement department, sharing our concerns and requesting their advice or assistance as needed.  Inviting other school and community-based professionals to participate in assessing the seriousness of a threat not only increases the thoroughness of the investigation, it also allows you to hear a variety of perspectives on whether you are dealing with a molehill, a mountain, or even an iceberg.  

Taking school safety seriously means more than just installing metal detectors, holding lockdown drills, and implementing “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies.  It means putting extra time into investigating the full spectrum of threats that present themselves through student statements, school rumors, teacher concerns, and even your “gut feelings.” If your school does not yet have a threat assessment team, you should put one in place right away.  NASP’s website has a section dedicated to school-based threat assessment teams which is full of helpful information about conducting a threat assessment, tips for forming your team, and valuable training materials.  After all, school safety should not just depend on the decisions and actions of one school leader - it should always be a team effort!