Safer Schools Through Better Communication…

Here’s an idea. Instead of turning our schools into fortresses to try to prevent the next school shooting how about we do more than just that?  As we contemplate adding metal detectors and bulletproof safe rooms to schools how about we try an additional approach as well?

How about setting up dedicated lines of communication within schools so students, teachers and staff can confidently share what they know about troubled kids and get them the attention they need.

In most cases school shootings are carried out by angry current or former students. And who is in the best position to observe these disturbed kids? Other kids, of course! If Sebastian overhears his classmate Luke incessantly talking about guns or if Ruby knows Owen is talking about his romantic heartbreak and suicide shouldn’t we give these kids a fast and safe way to relay that information?

An 8-Step Plan to Keep Schools Safer From Mass Shooters

This common sense concept is at the center of a new plan from of the National Threat Assessment Center at the U.S. Secret Service which recently issued an 8-step guide for safer schools.  The plan has been described as, “one of the most explicit pieces of literature to come out of the Trump administration on how to prevent targeted attacks.”

The guidelines encourage administrators to establish an atmosphere where students can make reports about the disturbing behavior of their classmates without feeling like a “snitch.” The incoming reports would be assessed by a specially trained “threat assessment team” of adults which includes education, mental health and law enforcement professionals. This team would be dedicated to talking with — and seriously listening to — students. Their goal: to build trust and break down the “codes of silence” so many teens follow. The federal plan’s suggestions include setting up an online tip form, a dedicated telephone hotline and/or designing a Smartphone app to accept reports about worrisome behaviors.

There’s no magic wand that will unmask potential school shooters, of course, but if a student sees a classmate has posted a disturbing message on social media or a teacher suddenly notices a student isn’t completing homework and has withdrawn they can use one of these new lines of communication to instantly alert the threat assessment team.

If the reported threat is found to be a one-time occurrence light disciplinary action and a note home to parents might suffice. But if the threat is more serious or a repeat of past bad behavior then the threat assessment team might direct the student to psychological therapy or special tutoring.  If the team decides the threat is a real and credible danger to the school they would call in law enforcement.

This kind of system has been in effect in Los Angeles County since 2009. Dr. Tony Beliz set the program in motion and stresses that it is not just about confronting high-risk kids. It also has to be about really engaging with them and staying in touch well after the first contact.

“When we focus on the fact that we’re trying to help them get on with their life versus drilling them every day about whether you have a weapon, are you going to shoot somebody today, and we talk about the issues beneath that, they get better, they see some hope,” Dr. Beliz said.

School shooters like Nikolas Cruz, who attended Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High but was involuntarily transferred to an alternative school for students with special needs, was well known as a kid with severe emotional and anger issues. He had been diagnosed as disruptive, explosive and impulsive at the age of 5.  Somehow, Cruz’s long-standing behavior intervention plan was discontinued as he approached his high school graduation. On Valentine’s Day 2018 he returned to Stoneman Douglas High and shot dead 17 students and teachers in one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history. Cruz’s classmates said they were not surprised when he was identified as the killer.

Could this newly proposed road-map to safer schools have prevented Cruz’s rampage? Who knows for sure, but it might have helped if only one person had expressed genuine concern about his erratic behavior.

We’re in a summertime lull right now but schools will be back in session soon, targets for disturbed minds once again. We can continue on the singular path of hardening our schools against attack or we can add a completely different course of action. One that focuses on tending to the young minds inside the school, directing the troubled ones to support services that can help them – and may avert a tragedy.

Everyone says they want to help students feel safer in school. Toward that goal we need to try every reasonable suggestion. Each school district across America should try to implement these new Secret Service suggestions – immediately — before the new school year begins.


  1. Diane Dimond on August 15, 2018 at 9:12 pm

    Reader Mars Smith writes:

    I enjoyed your article on Safer Schools by way of my brother-in-law, Paul Lutttrell. I guess you are saying our schools and students should be doing their job. Our society has created a NIMBY attitude. Nobody wants responsibility anymore.

    I live in Portland, Oregon and am 71. The “good old days” are gone but I sure miss the values. Especially personal responsibility and the sincere feeling we are our neighbor’s keeper.

    Mars Smith

  2. Diane Dimond on August 15, 2018 at 9:40 pm

    ABQ Journal Reader Paul Luttrell writes:

    Re: Safer School piece in today’s Albuquerque Journal.
    Excellent! How can you get this into the hands of every school board member?
    This is a no brainer in my view.

    Paul Luttrell
    Albuquerque, NM

  3. Diane Dimond on August 15, 2018 at 9:40 pm

    ABQ Journal Reader Catherine Snyder, Ph.D writes:

    Dear Diane,

    Typically I agree with most of the columns that you write. And I consider myself a liberal. And I am an educator. I own a gun.

    In your column regarding safer schools you lost me after the first paragraph.
    I suggest you spend some time in a high school and middle school. Wander the halls. Speak with teachers and students. Spend some time in some classrooms. Talk to parents who have children in middle and high school.
    Do you seriously think that students would make honest reports to a threat assessment team? I can envision some poor kid who’s bullied being set up as a possible shooter just for fun. And an on line tip line? Oh dear God!

    My school district (which is Albuquerque Public School by the way )
    barely has money for pencils and text books. Who will pay for this threat assessment team? Who will It comprise of? You obviously have no idea how much other “stuff” teachers and administrators have on their plate … oh goody let’s add this!
    What is this special tutoring you suggest comprised of? Is there a standardized evidence-based curriculum for possible school shooters? And psychological therapy? We can hardly get parental consent for social work services. And again, who will pay for said therapy?

    I read your sentence to a friend who teaches HS about a student not completing their homework and is withdrawn they could contact (instantly) the threat assessment team. He laughed out loud. You’ve described at least a third of a typical HS population.
    The notion that there would be light disciplinary action and a note sent home is also laughable. To what end? And trust me, no middle or high school sends notes home anymore. This is the 21st Century.

    Any program that’s set up by the government for schools is suspect. The Department of Education has regulated schools to the point that they barely function as schools any more. I long for the days when schools had no federal over-site.

    And by the way a school threat assessment team won’t prevent a disgruntled former student from returning to school and committing a shooting.

    And you are absolutely correct in your statement that there is no magic wand that will unmask potential school shooters.

    Catherine Snyder, Ph.D

    • Diane Dimond on August 15, 2018 at 9:42 pm

      Dear Dr. Snyder,

      I am the first one to agree that the federal government should step out of regulating schools. States should take full responsibility for that.

      However, the stuck-in-a-rut thinking that you write about here – i.e. – “Gee, its so awful you have no idea …things can never change….” is exactly part of the problem in my view.

      Did you know that Congress recently passed $100 million for new school safety programs? Instead of mocking suggestions (not regulations – just suggestions) from the U.S. Secret Service perhaps energy would be better spent convincing your state school officials to immediately make moves to grab some of that $100 million dollars. THAT would be how your district would pay for implementing the 8-point plan I outlined.

      I’ve never been a can’t-do type. I’ve always been one that forged ahead and looked for solutions. I have no doubt that the ABQ school system is fraught with problems. But, in my mind, problems are there to be solved. And problems are never solved by laughing at or immediately dismissing new ideas.

      Nonetheless, I don’t believe in censoring people who don’t agree with me so I have posted your comment at my website where you’ll find an archive of all my columns.


      Diane Dimond

  4. Diane Dimond on September 4, 2018 at 5:13 pm

    Reader Steve writes:

    Ms Dimond,

    I read with interest your 8/15 column. I find the premise good but I fear that there will be so many false alarms, the plan will become little more than the cry wolf to the educators. Some kids will even use it as a weapon to get another in trouble.

    We saw at Parkland that it doesn’t work at all. The Sheriffs Dept was warned of the killer many times & the FBI was warned, they never interviewed him.

    At one time I was a proponent of guns in the classroom, no more. I am, however, for armed guards with detectors at every entrance that is to be open to the public. I understand that it works in Israel. I do not want to turn my grandson’s school into an armed camp but we live in a new world. One where the media glorifies and canonizes killers to the point where a sick mind sitting in his room says I wanna be just like him!

    I hope, no I pray that there is no next one so we can get a workable plan in case there ever is.



    • Diane Dimond on September 4, 2018 at 5:18 pm

      DD replies: To be fair, Steve, this newly formed 8-point plan was not in place at Parkland before their tragedy. But you are right. School administrators, teachers and police HAD, indeed, been warned about the young man who became the shooter and did little to alleviate the situation.

      A plan that revolves around better communication must be accompanied by a real-life action plan for law enforcement, social services and even mental health professionals. In short, EVERYONE needs to get involved and take actions as if it were their own children’s lives at stake.

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