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'Why is this happening? How can we stop it?': MAHS hosts forum on school violence

By Laura Hayes

Posted 8/14/19

Teachers and school officials from across the 10th Congressional District gathered at Middletown Area High School on Aug. 6 to learn about how to identify concerning student behavior and know if a …

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'Why is this happening? How can we stop it?': MAHS hosts forum on school violence


Teachers and school officials from across the 10th Congressional District gathered at Middletown Area High School on Aug. 6 to learn about how to identify concerning student behavior and know if a student posed a threat.

The training was organized by U.S. Rep. Scott Perry.

Although the training was planned months before the two mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, the tragedies were in the background of comments made by both Perry and Middletown Area School District Superintendent Lori Suski.

Perry called the shootings “heartbreaking,” although he added that there were shootings in Harrisburg over the weekend.

“It’s unacceptable. So, all of us are desperate to find the answer. Why is this happening? How can we stop it? How can we end this?” Perry said.

Perry had received a briefing about the threat assessment at schools from the Secret Service. He said he felt people in the district, specifically those who worked with children, needed to have this information.

“Our goal is to provide you the information you can use to stop and prevent any incident before it occurs,” said James Henry, special agent in charge of the Secret Service Philadelphia Field Office.

What should educators be on the look out for?

“I would say anything that somebody would consider concerning whether it’s posts online, online communications, Facebook posts, writings, assignments that are turned in with a specific theme that may be disturbing. It really could be anything,” Henry said in an interview.

It might be nothing, Henry said, but the thought of “see something, say something” really does apply.

The attendees were trained by a member of the U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center. Officials from 50 public and private school districts were at the presentation, including about 18 officials from Middletown, from the five schools and central district office, according to Suski.

The participating Middletown staff included principals, counselors, teachers, social workers and psychologists, she said.

According to Suski, about two months ago, MASD Director of Operations William Meiser was approached by Perry’s staff about hosting the event at MAHS, which Perry had toured in the spring.

Suski immediately said yes.

“As we all know, school safety has been and continues to be the number one priority for school leaders at all levels. It is a well-known fact that no one is really safe anywhere in today’s world as this past weekend our nation mourns the loss of 31 more innocent lives taken by active shooters in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio,” Suski said.

A shooter opened fire at a Walmart in El Paso, on Aug. 3, killing 22 people, and less than 24 hours later, a second gunman killed nine people — 10 including the shooter — at a bar in Dayton.

In an interview, Suski said she was interested in hearing from experts on what signs they should look for that could point to emotional disturbance or mental illness that could lead to a violent act being committed.

It’s not an active shooter training, Suski said, but hearing about the psychological component is important.

Henry said they were translating what the Secret Service did on a daily basis in a usable way.

Media were not allowed in the presentation, but a press release from Perry’s office after said the presentations included threat assessment training, tools to identify potential threats and student behaviors of concern, methods to investigate and gather background/behavior on troubled students, assessment techniques on how to know if a student poses a threat, risk-management strategies and intervention techniques and steps to help children in need before they become desperate or violent.

What the Secret Service was sharing wasn’t the “be all, catch all,” Perry cautioned, adding, “but I do think this, this is going to be one piece of the puzzle.”

In an interview, Perry said these conversations are important to have every day.

“I think the most recent events kind of highlight the fact that this is important and we probably don’t have enough information,” Perry said.

He said he hopes there are tools the attendees can use daily to assure that “every child that goes to school comes home safely.”

In an interview, Henry said there’s no way to judge if this type of training was effective in curtailing violence because they don’t know what they might have prevented.

Following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Phoenix Contact officials reached out to the district to provide financial support for any safety and security improvements. Phoenix Contact funded a risk and vulnerability assessment last August, though the full results of the report were not released publicly.

Securing the schools is good, “but we can’t be silent about the fact that it takes a person to commit these acts,” Suski said.

“We’ve got to be focusing on what are we doing as a school, as a school district, as a society to work on how do we determine who are the people who need help and what are we doing to help these people. I truly believe that some of this can be prevented if people were to seek help when they need help. Because if people have that amount of anger and rage inside of them, someone has to see that, and what are we doing to intervene for these people before something terrible happens,” Suski said.