CENTRAL ILLINOIS (WCIA) — There’s been an emphasis lately on school shooting response training and preparation. Champaign and Ford County law enforcement agencies and school districts Thursday instead focused on ways to prevent the trigger from ever being pulled.
Members of the U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) spent three hours training county and city officials on decades of research that’s resulted in a plan to address concerning behavior before it’s too late.
Illinois school districts must have a documented threat assessment protocol and update it every year. That’s been state law since the School Safety Drill Act was amended in 2019. The NTAC, on the other hand, has been publishing reports on mass attacks and what proceeds them since 1998.
Out of a sample of 41 school attacks between 2008 and 2017, researchers found half of the shooters’ plans were visible to someone, and nearly all who plotted an attack communicated their intention ahead of time.
Champaign County Sheriff Dustin Heuerman — who was a member of Lake Land College’s Behavioral Intervention Team for several years as a faculty member — announced the training late last week.
“Law enforcement in Champaign County train for the day that we may have to go to a school shooter,” Sheriff Heuerman said.
A school shooting hasn’t happened to date in the districts (St. Joseph and Tolono) under the sheriff’s jurisdiction, but it has happened in central Illinois. Those in Mattoon, in Coles County, recall Sept. 20, 2017, when a 15-year-old student fired a gun in the cafeteria hitting a fellow student.
“It probably didn’t happen at Columbine either, until it happened at Columbine. It probably didn’t happen at Uvalde until it happened at Uvalde,” Heuerman said.
“And so there’s kind of a balance between how many resources do we invest in something that may never happen? Versus how prepared are we whenever it actually does happen?”
It’s happened in just about any size town, and in NTAC’s sample of 41 attacks, researchers found school resource officers were the force that stopped the shooter every time.
In most cases, the perpetrators were stopped in about a minute, a response time that would be impossible for most, if not all, local law enforcement angencies.
There’s a school resource officer at both St. Joseph-Ogden High School and Unity High School (in Tolono), according to Heuerman. Unity’s deputy attended the NTAC training as well.
Other towns and cities in the county with school resource officer programs partner with city police departments.
Urbana has a program.
Champaign’s has been discontinued since last summer because of police staffing issues. The district has since equipped itself with five, unarmed private security guards.
“Having that resource at the school is, in my opinion, absolutely vital,” Heuerman said of resource officers.
The NTAC training, though, was about getting ahead of needing to respond to attacks at schools by recognizing threatening or concerning behaviors and/or communications in students ahead of time.
Some may be overtly threatening, requiring immediate response, as NTAC research specialist Ashley Smolinski explained, others are signs of distress, like slipping grades or increased isolation.
Smolinski says the majority of students who plotted attacks experienced between two to eight defined stressors at home, primarily parental divorce/separation or family financial concerns.
“One of those behavioral themes displayed in and of itself, mental health stressors, bullying is not a single risk factor for a student who’s going to engage in active targeted violence,” Smolinski said.
That’s why NTAC developed a ‘multi-disciplinary team’ framework for schools to implement, made up of a mix of staff, counselors and law enforcement with a developed protocol to intervene with students, conduct assessments and investigations, determine a threshold at which to bring in law enforcement and how to keep a record of it all.
“Those who are in a role to help support that student [who] shows us that they are in need of some sort of intervention and support,” she added.
Smolinski emphasized assessing behaviors and other factors in context when asked about concerns of discrimination based on singular defining factors.
Threat assessment teams, not necessarily NTAC’s model, are required under Illinois statute. St. Joseph-Ogden and Unity High Schools’ teams include the school resource officers who — like teachers — are there every day with eyes on changes in behavior.
“That could all be coincidental,” Sheriff Heuerman said. “But we really have to invest resources in preventing behaviors like this.”
At the least, it’s an investment in support for students who are, or may be, in distress.
When attacks were averted, “a majority of those plotters did go on to lead successful lives,” Smolinski said.
“And that was portrayed through them going on to continue higher education, or continuing their education to get their high school diploma online and go on to lead careers, or have successful marriages or be an important part of their community.”
The team approach is primarily reliant on reports from teachers, but also students and community members. Tips can be shared directly with a team if a district has one, school administrators, or law enforcement.
Crime Stoppers provides an anonymous avenue for tips in Champaign and several Illinois counties, as is the statewide Safe2HelpIL program.