JEFFERSON — Before a shooter enters a school with intent to injure or kill, they usually give some clue as to their state of mind — on social media, or in an offhand comment to a peer.
In that situation, early intervention can ward off terrible losses later.
“In 81% of violent incidents in schools, someone else knew of the plans but didn’t report it,” said Kathy Volk, director of pupil services for the Jefferson schools.
Likewise, before a troubled person resorts to suicide, they often give some kind of sign, in their comments to friends or in an online post.
In this situation, too, immediate intervention at a critical time can save lives.
To this end, the School District of Jefferson and others in the area are in the process of starting a new grant-funded initiative aimed at heading off emergencies before they happen.
Entitled “Speak Up, Speak Out,” the program is aimed at breaking the “culture of silence” that surrounds potential threats.
The Speak Up, Speak Out Resource Center is a comprehensive, one-stop place to turn with important school safety concerns. It offers a 24/7 threat reporting system, threat assessment consultation, critical incident response, and general school safety guidance.
SUSO strives to build safe communities by empowering students and community members to act, connecting people to critical protection and support.
“Speaking up works and saves lives,” Volk said.
Through this program, resource center staff work around-the-clock to respond to tips and to deploy a response locally by communicating directly with school administrators, law enforcement, and counselors.
Once activated, the system immediately connects people to resources to address potential threats or crises before they reach a critical level.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice launched the SUSO initiative, which is backed by $2 million in federal grants. The program has been opened up to all public school districts across the state. Several area districts are in the process of implementing this initiative during the current school year, including Whitewater.
Jefferson has trained some staff members in how the program works in the last couple of months.
“We wanted to make sure all of our administrators and our pupil services team were trained,” said Kathy Volk, pupil services director.
This week, Jefferson’s program is being introduced on social media, through email messages to parents and through the school district’s website.
Next week, the program will kick off with presentations for students at all levels K-12.
SUSO is a reporting tool for use by students, parents and community members, through which they can report any potential threat or safety concern.
It builds off the district’s existing “See Something, Say Something, Do Something” effort.
SUSO encourages students to look out for each other, empowering both youth and community members to make a difference.
“The idea is that there’s always help,” Volk said.
For example, if teens find that a peer is looking up assault weapons and posting messages online that seem to warn of an impending attack, they should report that potential threat.
Volk noted that the GoGuardian program which already monitors school computers will also automatically “ping” if it senses potentially dangerous activity.
This concern — whether submitted by an individual or via a monitoring program like GoGuardian — will then be immediately checked out.
Some concerns will prove baseless, as when students are researching drugs for a school report, or getting background information on the Columbine shootings because their class is reading a book on that topic.
In other instances, checking out a threat before it reaches crisis levels could forestall a major emergency which could impact many lives.
Other concerns which would be appropriate to report might include instances of bullying or cyberbullying, or statements by a student that lead peers to think they might be considering suicide.
SUSO provides opportunities for people to report concerns anonymously if they do not wish to share their name.
Those reporting a concern can fill out an online narrative, contact an anonymous tipline, or share photos and/or screenshots of concerning activity.
Once a concern is reported, any time of day, any day of the week, it will go immediately to a trained analyst who will assess the concern and what the appropriate next steps would be.
There’s a chance for the person making the report to speak with the analyst directly, as well.
Having an analyst assigned to this task means all concerns can be addressed immediately, even on “off hours,” Volk said.
“Sometimes students reach out to a teacher on weekends, but that teacher doesn’t see the message until they’re preparing for school on Sunday night or even when they start their work day Monday,” Volk said. “In some cases, that could be too late.”
Based on the type and severity of the concern, the analyst will decide where the issue goes next. In some cases, school officials would be the right people to field such a concern. In other cases, people would be referred to community resources, and in still other cases, the analyst would determine the concern should be looked into by local law enforcement.
The new reporting tool is easy to use and provides immediate action to address potential threats and safety concerns, Volk said.
“I think it is going to be powerful,” she said.
The pupil services director noted that early reports from districts which have already implemented SUSO are very promising.
“Across the state, some districts already have this in place and some are in the process,” Volk said. “From what I hear, it’s working well and districts are very pleased with the tool.”
The state is backing the effort as even more important considering the stresses the pandemic has added to everyday life.
Volk said that the new reporting tool is backed by research and recommended by the U.S. Secret Service as part of a comprehensive school safety plan.
Students, parents, school staff, or any community members can submit a school safety concern or threat via the SUSO website: https://speakup.widoj.gov/, mobile phone application, or toll-free number: 1-800-697-8761.
For more information, people may check out the website speakup.widoj.gov.