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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

As school shootings rise again with students back in classrooms, area schools share how they evaluate threats

Deputy David Bruner, a school resource deputy for the East Valley School District, chats with East Valley seniors Janis Oliver, left, and Maddie Gordon, right, along with school security officer Joe Salmon (not pictured), as Bruner makes his rounds during a school lunch period on Jan. 13 at East Valley High School in Spokane Valley.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

It’s a typical morning at West Valley High School.

The parking lot is full of cars hastily parked by students as they slip on their masks and give a rushed greeting to School Resource Deputy Natalie Woolard before heading to class.

Nearly every morning, Woolard stands in the hallway dressed in her Spokane County Sheriff’s Office uniform, greeting students by name and asking about their lives, all the while looking out for signs of trouble.

A few minutes after Woolard slips back into her office, there’s a tap at her door; a student stopped by to report someone threatening them, showing Woolard screenshots on their phone.

On a daily basis, Woolard mediates disputes between students, evaluating who is a serious threat and who is just acting out.

School shootings and threats of extreme violence have been an increasing problem nationally for more than two decades. Local school districts have taken differing approaches to evaluating threats in recent years.

Spokane Public Schools have long maintained an unarmed security force and recently opted against having commissioned law enforcement officers in favor of new positions that administrators say focus more on prevention. Surrounding districts have continued to employ school resource officers to keep a pulse on the school and lead the law enforcement response to active threats.

After a significant drop in school shootings in 2020, when many schools moved online to prevent the spread of COVID-19, school shootings increased last year.

There were 34 school shootings that caused injuries or deaths in 2021, according to EducationWeek. In those shootings, 14 people were killed and 54 were injured.

No one has carried out a shooting or other extremely violent act at a school in the Spokane area since the Freeman school shooting in 2017 that left freshman Sam Strahan dead and others injured.

Last year, however, there were a few serious threats that caused schools to close. Adam McCarty, 18, threatened to kill another student at University High School on Nov. 5. McCarty was arrested and later pleaded guilty to harassment. He spent 61 days in jail, with the rest of his 364-day sentence suspended.

A few days later, a Medical Lake teen was arrested after police said he built bombs in his bedroom and wanted to “test it out at school,” according to court documents.

At the end of November, a student killed four people and injured seven at an Oxford, Michigan, high school. It was the most deadly school shooting since the Parkland, Florida, shooting in May 2018 that left 17 dead, according to EducationWeek.

With so many threats and shootings nationwide, school resource deputies like Woolard work overtime to make sure students feel safe.

“It makes them a little uneasy. We have copycats,” Woolard said. “I hope it makes them feel a little bit better that we’re here and visible and willing to do whatever.”

Spokane Public Schools takes ‘proactive’ approach

In 2020, Spokane Public Schools began an overhaul on its approach to school safety. The goal was to focus on students and making sure their “social-emotional needs are met,” said Shawn Jordan, chief operations officer.

The district replaced commissioned school resource officers with campus safety specialists, who focus on safety and early intervention.

Campus safety specialists work to connect students with social services and other resources before problems become critical. The biggest shift is one away from compliance and discipline and toward addressing the root cause of a student’s inappropriate behavior, Jordan said.

“We want to change the behavior through a process where we meet the needs of a student, so they meet our expectations, rather than punish them,” Jordan said.

While the new school safety program is continuing to be refined, Jordan said they have already seen benefits.

“We’re early on in this transition. There’s a lot of positive perceptions right now about it,” Jordan said. “It doesn’t mean to say that we haven’t had to respond to some very difficult situations, because we still have, but the total of it has been less.”

The district uses the Salem-Keizer Threat Assessment System. The system was developed by a school psychologist in Oregon and has three main objectives: to assess threats and determine the level of concern; organize resources to manage the situation; and maintain a sense of psychological safety in the community, according to the program’s website.

School and district administrators, campus safety specialists, and other relevant staff members form a team to evaluate the threat; if the threat is immediately and obviously serious, law enforcement will be notified.

“We take every single threat serious,” Jordan said. “We’re going to start out by assuming that it’s a very serious situation until our process uncovers as much information as possible.”

That team looks into factors like whether the student making the threat has motive and a plan to carry it out .

Those are some of the same factors that law enforcement look at when evaluating a threat, Officer Stephen Anderson with the Spokane Police Department said.

If the source of a threat remains unknown or is deemed credible, it’s possible school will be postponed or canceled, but that’s rare, Jordan said. Jordan said he can’t remember the last time Spokane Public Schools canceled classes due to a threat.

With a more limited role in Spokane Public Schools, Anderson said the department has been more reactive to problems in the last year than proactive.

“That’s the only way things are going to be safe and continue being safe, is if police are in the schools,” Anderson said.

Jordan pushed back on that idea. He said the district has continued to maintain a great working relationship with the police department and the new model has so far been successful.

“This whole process is about trying to determine what the reality is of the threat, but it’s also designed to intervene and support,” Jordan said.

‘It’s all about relationships’

The majority of school districts in Spokane County continue to have at least one school resource deputy through the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office as part of their safety program.

“That’s one of our mitigation measures,” said Kyle Rydell, superintendent of West Valley School District. Woolard has an office at West Valley High School but visits the middle and elementary schools in the district frequently, similar to her counterpart, Deputy David Bruner, who is stationed at East Valley High School.

When it comes to school safety, “it’s all about relationships,” Rydell said.

Having adults who students trust with concerns is a huge factor in keeping schools safe, Rydell said.

The district also employs private security, and administrators receive training on school safety and threat assessment. The district also uses the Salem-Keizer system to evaluate threats.

“It’s constantly that reminder of being present, being visible, and building relationships with our students, our families and our communities,” Rydell said of a recent training.

One of the biggest benefits Woolard sees of her presence in school is knowing students’ baseline behavior so when something abnormal happens, it’s easy to spot.

Woolard is the natural bridge between the tactical needs of law enforcement and the school district in a crisis situation, she said.

“They play a heavy role in this,” Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said of investigating threats. “They developed a lot of good relationships with the kids, and the kids are some of the greatest sources to help us track this down as quickly as we can.”

The second-largest school district in Spokane County, Central Valley, also uses school resource deputies. Spokane County Sheriff’s deputies are stationed at Central Valley and University high schools, and an officer from the Liberty Lake Police Department is stationed at Ridgeline High School.

Last year, the district hired recently retired Liberty Lake Police Chief Brian Asmus to be the director of safety and security.

The district also employs two school resource officers.

Central Valley also uses the Salem-Kaiser protocol to evaluate threats. Often, the district is able to refer students to resources and put a plan into place to bring them back to school safely, Asmus said.

That plan was put into action when McCarty made threats on social media earlier this year. The threat was reported to the school, and law enforcement got involved immediately, Asmus said.

They hoped to contact McCarty before school started. When that didn’t happen, the superintendent made the decision to delay school and ultimately cancel it.

McCarty was taken into custody later that day.

‘See something, say something’

Different districts may have different procedures and approaches to handling school safety, but everyone agrees that the biggest key to keeping students safe is reporting concerning statements.

“If somebody makes that type of threat, always report it,” Knezovich said. “This isn’t something you joke around about. This is very, very serious and needs to be treated that way.”

The No. 1 way threats spread is on social media, both Knezovich and Woolard said.

Social media threats or posts about threats often start a game of telephone that leaves law enforcement tracking down the origin.

“You’re a part of the problem when you’re spreading that,” Jordan said of reposting threats or sharing them with friends.

Instead, students should report threatening or concerning statements to an adult they trust, whether that’s a teacher, administrator, counselor or someone else at the school.

“Always notify somebody,” Anderson said. “The worst thing you can do is just not say something.”

When threats spread on social media, they often cause panic among students and parents, Woolard said.

She will often evaluate a threat and quickly find it not credible early on in the school day, then spend the rest of her day responding to concerned family members. Answering those questions is better than the alternative of rumors continuing to circulate, Woolard said.

“Please just ask,” she said.

If family or friends are concerned about a student they know making threatening or concerning statements, school districts have support systems to help.

West Valley, Central Valley and Spokane school districts have numerous mental health resources and can create personalized plans to intervene before it’s too late.

Anderson encouraged families to secure their firearms as mandated by law and make sure children in the home understand the seriousness of guns.

“Make sure you’re instilling good foundational safety,” Anderson said. An early and thorough education on gun safety can “mitigate that risk.”

Students, staff and teachers are all encouraged to be empathetic to those around them and reach out for help, Jordan said.

“We don’t always know what an individual is going through,” Jordan said. “We want to be more sensitive and understanding of each other.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic drastically affecting many students’ school experiences and mental health, Jordan said Spokane Public Schools has been focusing on student well-being as a whole.

“I think that we’re a lot more understanding, especially coming out of the pandemic, of the social-emotional needs of students,” Jordan said. “It’s not all about the academics right now.”