On April 20, 1999, the world looked on in horror as details of a massacre at a high school in Colorado came to light.
In the aftermath, we found out there were 13 dead and 27 injured. Canadians, in our somewhat smug fashion, lamented the violent culture of our southern neighbours. We were different, right?
We would find out a mere eight days later when 14-year-old Todd Cameron Smith marched into W.R. Myers High School in Taber, Alberta and opened fire with a sawed-off .22-calibre rifle killing one student and injuring another.
Perhaps our differences were more rooted in Canadians' lack of access to the automatic weaponry and dangerous materials of our American counterparts and not in the will to wreak havoc.
It's not that there had not been school shootings before in the United States, or in Canada for that matter, but Columbine and Taber were to some extent turning points for our respective countries.
Following Columbine, information started trickling out there had been extensive warning signs that Eric David Harris was a time bomb just waiting to explode.
In 1996, Harris had set up a private website that started out fairly innocuously as a host for a homespun video game, but quickly started to show signs of the teenager's volatility with instructions on how to cause mischief and build explosives.
In 1997, the parents of Brooks Brown, one of Harris' former friends, got wind of the site and discovered numerous death threats against their son. They complained to the Jefferson County Sherriff's Office. Michael Guerra was assigned to investigate. When Guerra accessed the website he found violent threats against students and teachers of Columbine High School, blog entries outlining Harris' general hatred of society, an inventory of guns and explosives he had compiled and a hit list of individuals he wanted to kill.
Guerra wrote a draft affidavit requesting a search warrant, but never filed it. After the shooting, the Sherriff's Office covered up this information until an investigative report by the TV show 60 Minutes uncovered the subterfuge.
Changing the landscape
Columbine prompted U.S. officials to start seriously looking at the underlying causes of school violence and led to changes in how law enforcement agencies deal with these situations. It and numerous school shootings since, have not, according to critics, led to appreciable changes in gun laws or access to mental health services.
In Canada, the Alberta and federal governments enlisted the Canadian Threat Assessment Training Board—now the Canadian Center for Threat Assessment and Trauma (CCTATR)—to develop and pilot a student threat assessment training program for schools.
This is a very tricky business. Some of the strengths of North American society are that we do not convict and punish people for crimes they might commit; we cherish the right of free speech even if it is sometimes uncomfortable to hear; and we protect individuals' privacy with respect to personal information.
How do you balance those fundamental tenets of society with protecting the public from potential threats? If risk factors are identified in an individual, what is the appropriate level of intervention? How much information sharing is acceptable between what might be several organizations that are stakeholders in a particular case?
Threat Assessment reaches the schools
After the CCTATR program became available to school divisions across the country, Alan Sharp, superintendent of education for the Good Spirit School Division (GSSD), was tasked with implementing the protocol within the divisions' schools. Four years ago, the division decided that didn't go far enough. The missing pieces were the supports outside the school system to ensure interventions in threat situations were comprehensive and lasting.
"When we've been involved with situations in the past from a school division perspective, but also from other perspectives, we know we need access to information, we need access to resources in order to solve the situations," explained Dwayne Reeve, GSSD director of education.
"What we've seen is it's worked well in the other places that we're aware of in this province and in other provinces as well and we saw that model we said this is a model that needs to be brought forward here and we're pleased that all the partners have agreed it's a model that will work for us."
On September 16, Good Spirit and Christ the Teacher Catholic Schools, along with community partners, officially launched the Community Threat Assessment and Support Protocol at a signing ceremony at Yorkton City Hall.
Based on the CCTATR Canadian Model of Violence Threat/Risk Assessment (VTRA), the protocol allows for sharing of information and mobilization of resources between the schools and various other agencies including the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Social Services, RCMP, SIGN, Sunrise Health Region and the Yorkton Tribal Council.
The process in action
In a nutshell, any person who has concerns about a potential threat may initiate the process by informing the principal of the school, or, in the case of an outside agency where the student's school is not known, the superintendent responsible for safe and caring schools.
In the case of worrisome behaviours (those that do not present an imminent danger), a complaint would trigger an investigation by the principal, school counselor and RCMP representative and a risk reduction plan is put into place without necessarily activating the protocol.
Saskatoon Public Schools (SPS) has had a similar protocol in place for three years. Pamela Goulden-McLeod, SPS consultant for safe and caring schools, said the program has been hugely successful for the Saskatoon division. The underlying principle, she said, is that worrisome behaviours are a "cry for help" and the sooner that call is heeded, the better the outcome.
"The goal here is we want to address the child's cry for help as quickly as possible," Goulden-McLeod said. "In most cases that can be handled right within the school," she said.
In the case of high-risk behaviours (threats of violence, potential possession of a weapon etc.) or imminent threat (presence of a weapon, homicidal/suicidal behaviour etc.), the protocol is immediately invoked following steps to ensure student safety and eliminate the immediate threat.
At that point, the VTRA team is activated and completes a comprehensive 11-step process arriving at an appropriate intervention plan based on criteria developed by the FBI, Durham Regional Police Service (Ontario), Ontario Provincial Police and CCTATR for whether an incident represents a low, medium or high level of concern.
"It really is a multidisciplinary team that comes together," Goulden-McLeod said. "What's been really amazing about this process is we can typically have community partners at the table very quickly."
Although SPS does not currently have any empirical data that school violence is down, anecdotal evidence suggests the protocol is working to get at-risk students the services they need.
"We've definitely heard back from community partners and families that it's been a very valuable process for them," Goulden-McLeod said. "We've also heard from teachers and staff that they know what to do now to make better decisions."
A work in progress
In that regard, training is the key issue.
GSSD and CTTCS have already trained a wide range of staff, including all principals and vice principals, all school counsellors, and some support staff and teachers. The divisions also have capacity in place to train more staff in-house.
It is, Reeve said, difficult to ascertain how big a problem the threat of school violence is, but he is confident the new protocol will be a tool to reduce the risk.
"The threat of violence, I think when we look at it is hard to put a magnitude or measure on it, but what we look at is that [the protocol] allows us to respond when we need to."
Decades of research indicate "when they need to" is long before a sensational event such as Columbine or Taber takes place. The FBI warns that there is no actual "profile" of a potential school shooter, but identifies several common characteristics of school shootings. Most telling of these may be that 75 per cent of attackers felt bullied, persecuted or threatened by others.
In light of some high profile cases such as Rehteah Parsons, the Nova Scotia girl who committed suicide in the spring allegedly as a result of Internet harassment following a gang rape, bullying has become the hot button issue in education. In the most recent "Tell Them From Me" survey for CTTCS 22 per cent of Grades 6 through 10 students self-reported having been bullied physically, socially, verbally or over the Internet. The national norm is 25 per cent.
Another key statistic is that in nearly 80 per cent of school shootings, someone else knew about the threat, information that does not always get shared as in the case of Columbine.
Darrell Zaba, CTTCS director of education said the new protocol will facilitate better and more timely sharing.
"What it means is the supportive partners will be able to be involved much earlier and there's an agreement as far as what information will be shared so that's going to be valuable for us as school divisions to know that certain agencies will be prepared to share certain information to support us in meeting the needs of our students when those risky behaviours are existent."
Addressing privacy concerns
That does not mean a carte blanche green light to breach a person's right to privacy of personal information. The agreement is very clear that "Wherever possible and reasonable, consent to disclose information should be obtained."
There are exceptions to the right to privacy under the local and provincial Protection of Privacy Acts, Health Information Protection Act, Mental Health Services Act and Youth Criminal Justice Act when disclosure of personal information is necessary to protect the mental or physical health or safety of any individual or the public at large.
These exceptions have been tested at the Supreme Court and found to be constitutional.
The local Community Threat Assessment and Support Protocol is available on both school divisions' websites.