How one law enforcement agency is collaborating to prevent school violence

It takes a community to help a troubled kid – before they shoot up a school


April 20, 2019 was the 20th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting. Fifteen people were killed, including the two shooters who turned their guns on themselves, and 21 people were injured. It wasn’t the first school shooting by students. It wouldn’t remain the deadliest. In 2007, an undergraduate killed 32 people and wounded 17 others at Virginia Tech before killing himself. But Columbine marked the beginning of what some call “Generation Columbine” – kids who have never known a world without school shootings.

Fire alarms, drills and “Stop, Drop and Roll” have been augmented with active shooter drills; hard corners and code reds; Stop the Bleed kits; ballistic backpacks; and “Run, Hide and Fight.” But in Yavapai County, Arizona, community stakeholders have implemented a more proactive strategy.

The Milestones Project

Crosses with the names of the victims of the massacre at Columbine High School nearly 20 years ago stand along a picnic site in the park before a vigil at the memorial Friday, April 19, 2019, in Littleton, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Crosses with the names of the victims of the massacre at Columbine High School nearly 20 years ago stand along a picnic site in the park before a vigil at the memorial Friday, April 19, 2019, in Littleton, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The 20 years since Columbine yielded grave but valuable information. Ninety-one percent of school shootings were committed by current or former students. Eighty-seven percent of mass school shooters exhibited signs of a crisis in their behavior before the shooting. About 80% were suicidal. Seventy-eight percent revealed their plans ahead of time.

If the shooter is a student in the school, lockdown drills show them the school’s planned response. Punishing precursor threats of violence with suspension, expulsion or criminal charges is ineffective with a suicidal student and may increase the risk of violence by worsening grievance. When such students are expelled, they may enroll in another school that receives no information about the expulsions.

Don Ostendorf didn’t wait for 20 years of data before taking action. The former CEO of the West Yavapai Guidance Clinic – which is tasked with providing client-centered mental health services to residents of Yavapai County – envisioned that communities needed to get out in front and identify students at high risk of violence and then provide them services. Thus began the Milestones Project not long after Columbine.

Milestone Partners

The first challenge was to connect stakeholders and service providers so they could and would share information, work together, develop individually tailored plans and provide services.

The Milestones Project partners include:

  • Schools and school districts;
  • Law enforcement – the Sheriff’s Office and police departments;
  • Child Protective Services;
  • Juvenile Probation Office;
  • Mental health service providers;
  • The County Education Service Agency;
  • The court system.

Relationships and trust had to be built. When I asked Yavapai County School Superintendent Tim Carter what it took, he said, “The right people willing to work together.” Simple, but not easy. They’ve been working together now for 20 years and Yavapai County Sheriff Mascher said they continue to learn and refine roles and processes

Initially, these people had to find ways to share information. Schools are bound by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) – a federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) protects the privacy of mental health records. According to Superintendent Carter, 11 different agencies had relevant information regarding the Columbine shooters. None of it had been shared.

The Milestones Project made parental consent and involvement key to information sharing and an Individual Case Management Plan for every kid accepted into the program. A local judge helped devise the parental consent form. Superintendent Carter could only recall two parents during the project’s history who had not consented.

Entry into Milestones

Anybody can refer a kid to Milestone – bus drivers, students, teachers, parents, probation officers, police officers, medical or mental health providers, CPS workers, or a neighbor.

Once referred:

  • The Milestone partner that is the Reporting Agency confers with internal staff to determine if the child fits the Milestones profile. (Guidelines for that determination can be found in the online project manual.) A parent signs the consent form.
  • The Reporting Agency submits the Milestones electronic file with parental permission attached to the County Education Service Agency.
  • The file is then sent electronically to the liaisons for the lead agencies – schools, juvenile probation, police and mental health. They confer via email, phone, etc.
  • Once a majority agrees the child fits the Milestones profile, the Reporting Agency arranges a meeting with all applicable agencies and the family. Decisions are made about appropriate services and referrals.
  • Services are provided to the child.
  • The Reporting Agency uses the follow-up report to inform participating agencies of the child’s progress.

Sheriff Mascher noted that a unique aspect of Milestones is that all committee members are decision agents in their agency, so things don’t have to travel through a chain of command. Decisions are made and acted on quickly. The Individual Case Management Plan is also key – ensuring follow-through and accountability.

Law enforcement’s role has evolved. They are not just a committee member involved with decisions related to a particular child; they also also offer risk management through four main mechanisms:

  1. Risk assessments regarding how the school is secured.
  2. Preventative threat assessments. When a child is referred, they can do a threat assessment.
  3. Training first responders.
  4. Aftermath – how to deal with the media, funerals, families and crisis intervention after a tragedy.

The results

Both Sheriff Mascher and Superintendent Carter had compelling stories of kids and their parents helped by the Milestones Project. No one can say for sure those kids would have become a school shooter without Milestones, but we know that none of the school shooters from Columbine on received such services. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to forecast what can happen when you take a mentally disturbed student who is depressed, suicidal, has made threats and has the means, and you ignore that and reject them by expulsion with no information being shared.

A detective with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said in a presentation after the Parkland school shooting last year, “It was obvious that [the shooter’s] behavior was escalating over time.”

Tragically it was only obvious after-the-fact, because there was no Milestones Project to take note of the escalating behavior and act on it before the shooting.

As Sheriff Mascher said, “Think if there had been a Milestones Project that had brought all the information together and developed and implemented an Individual Case Management Plan. Could that have prevented Parkland?”

Let’s not be left wondering what we might have done to prevent a school shooting. Of the Milestones Project, Superintendent Carter said, “This is just a model. You can tailor it to your community. We don’t have the corner on intelligence.”

All it takes is the right people willing to work together. The Milestones Project – winner of a 2015 statewide Youth & Education Rural Innovation Award for its collaborative efforts to prevent school violence – offers a good model.

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