Used by dozens of districts nationwide, the Salem-Keizer Threat Response System is considered the gold standard for school prevention efforts.
The protocol includes step-by-step instructions to report, investigate and prevent potentially dangerous situations.
The topic returned to the forefront Wednesday with the Parkland, Florida school shooting that left 17 people dead and more than a dozen wounded.
Read the original story: Florida shooting puts focus on safety plan developed by Salem-Keizer schools
“School safety is on everyone’s mind,” said Christy Perry, Salem-Keizer Public Schools superintendent, in a district-wide email. “It is, without question, our biggest priority.”
John Van Dreal, director of the district’s Safety & Risk Management Services, has been working on this subject for nearly 30 years, having started his career as a school psychologist.
He created and has continually refined the system Salem-Keizer has used for nearly 20 years. Van Dreal went over it again at the district’s Tuesday board meeting, less than 24 hours before the Parkland tragedy.
Salem-Keizer staff is trained to look for suicidal threats or indicators, student sexual misconduct that is not normal based on age or psychological development, fire-setting behavior and adult threats directed at staff or students.
The Statesman Journal sat down with Van Dreal Thursday to ask about the system, his reactions to Florida and how the district plans to move forward. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How did you create the system in 1999?
A: We had an adult threat assessment system in 1998. We used that system to address threats against our staff, our teachers and … for threats against dignitaries, judges and domestic violence.
It seemed like a very good idea to extend that same service and process to our student population. The problem was, at that time, there wasn’t anything like it …. as a template. So we had to develop our own design.
That’s why we get credit for being the first district to have it.
Q: Can you give some examples of how the system works?
A: There’s a Level 1 team, which is site-based. That means every school has a cadre of administrators, law enforcement, parents, etc. who do threat assessment using that protocol. And the protocol drives not only their questions, but the way they formulate their decisions and their interventions.
Once they have the situation under control, they move forward either with less supervision and intervention, or one of the possible interventions is to refer to what is called the Level 2 team.
That is a community collaboration consisting of all the public agencies that serve youth. That team, then, generates any of the interventions, resources and support for the school.
Q: Since it’s been implemented, have there been any major attacks in Salem-Keizer?
A: No. But it’s important to note, it’s a preventative and a protocol-driven model. So it has rules, guides and questions that are designed to get ahead of the problem before it gets really bad.
It’s preventative because we’re able to increase supervision and intervention, rather than take punitive measures.
Q: How would Salem-Keizer staff respond to an immediate issue, like the Florida shooting?
A: It ceases to be a threat assessment at that point. That’s most commonly referred to as “active shooter training,” we call it “options-based decisions making.”
That is basically a police response and the staff and the school operate under our lockdown procedures. And that is a template that is fairly well set.
Q: So staff is trained on this? What are they told?
A: Our current policy is to not share our operations … but I’ll tell you, in short, we use lockdown procedures and barricading, which is, by far, the most successful way to stay safe. We train our staff on further options if lockdown procedures don’t work. And the details of that training include … evacuation, further lockdown and considering different options available to protect your students.
But the bottom line is, every educator knows they are obligated to protect the kids. It’s called, “In Loco Parentis,” … which means we are the parents in that situation and we do everything possible to protect the kids.
Q: Do we have an idea, statewide and nationally, how many districts use the Salem-Keizer model of threat assessment?
A: About a quarter of the districts in Oregon use the Salem model, either through an education service district or directly as a district … as well as a variety across Washington state. I would say Washington state is moving forward very well.
Nationally, I’ve trained, or people have come here to be trained, probably two dozen school districts from all over the place, most recently, mid-state New York.
Q: As far as you’re aware, the school in Florida did not use this model?
A: I don’t know. People from Florida have been out and been trained at our annual, comprehensive threat assessment training. I haven’t been able to look yet; I have been curious. I’d have to check with Willamette University, which helps us run the training.
Q: Since the attacker is still alive and will be questioned, do you see that changing how we handle threat assessment?
A: It might add to our understanding. The way I started in writing the protocol, I identified the risk factors identified by a project called the Safe Schools Initiative, which is a collaborative project with the United States Secret Service, the United States Department of Education … and the Department of Justice. They interviewed school shooters and basically determined what the risk factors were.
As time has gone on, as more of these events have occurred, we found more risk factors along the way. Some of those are anecdotal. I’ve vetted those through a number of professionals in the FBI, U.S. Dept. of Education and the Secret Service because I have access to the original authors of the Safe Schools Initiative.
Q: Salem-Keizer has a new partnership with Safe Oregon, an anonymous tip line managed by the Oregon State Police, created by the Oregon Legislature in 2016. How did the district get involved?
A: They were very kind to include us in early conversations before they launched it. They did that because we had a functional system of reporting and assessing. And their goal was to make sure that it would fit with a functional system. We were able to guide them, to some degree, as they moved forward. They did an excellent job on this.
The next step for us was to prudently examine how Safe Oregon would fit with our system, having conversations with principals and Portland Public Schools and Beaverton about their implementation.
Our launch will be March 1, but people can call anywhere in the district now and they will channel the call to the Safety & Risk Management office.
Q: The FBI had received reports on the attacker in Florida. Do you have any initial thoughts on how the district in Florida, or the FBI, could have handled this differently?
A: I do not. I wish I’d had more time to think about that, but we don’t generally comment on those kinds of events from an after-the-fact perspective.
Q: In the last few decades, there seems to be a shift from seeing schools as a safe place for students and educators. What would you say to parents wanting to know their students are safe, teachers wanting to know they can go to work without fearing for their lives?
A: The fact is, schools are considerably safer than they were in the 70s and 80s. The homicide rate in schools was double in those two decades. American schools are at the top of the safest schools in the world, and that includes industrialized countries like Canada and England.
Overall, the country is safer — crime is down, homicide is down, aggravated assault is down. I think our communities and law enforcement and the government are doing a very good job of making the country and our district safer.
The problem that occurs is that these events are very sensational and they’re terrifying. And when they occur, they impact the national psyche. They traumatize everyone.
And so while the rates of death are down in schools, when they do occur, they are terrible, tragic events that include a large number of people. There is not a goal of hostage-taking or political grandstanding. The event is to do as much harm to as many people as possible.
Those are very personal and they affect all of us. We’re educators, we work with kids who look just like those kids, teachers who look just like those teachers. So it reaches out and touches us … in a way that the deaths during the 70s and 80s didn’t.
Q: What is the key to preventing these attacks?
A: We can’t say enough about communication because that’s how we find out if something is being planned if someone is considering it. And I believe students are reporting concerns more frequently.
Threat assessment is really identifying these communication lines, interrupting them and gathering information. That’s how we do our work.
Q: What behaviors should people look for that may be an indication someone is planning something like Florida?
A: First of all, the communications — that someone is intending to attack a target — then behavior that suggests they are continuing to consider that. And then behavior that shows they are preparing to do it. There’s an academic name for that and it’s called “attack-related behavior.”
Talk of suicide, discussions of plan, social media posts, acquisition of weapons are all examples.
Communication is one thing, but behaviorally, if someone is making preparations that show they are planning to follow through with it, that would increase your concern.
Q: After this incident, is the district planning to do anything differently?
A: We send a memo out to all of our leadership, reminding them to keep their eyes open and we list the kind of communications and behaviors that would lead us to be concerned. We’ll do that on Monday … and we will probably do it again in April.