Dr. David Bernstein is a forensic psychologist who is an expert in threat assessment, and who advises schools about security. The Wilton Public School district has contracted with Bernstein to help assess where security improvements are needed as well as to train the school community. According to Bernstein, that includes the entire school community–all staff, including teachers, administrators, bus drivers and custodian, as well as students and parents.
The school administration has scheduled two presentations for parents on the subject of threat assessment with Dr. Bernstein. Specifically tailored to parents of students in Wilton High School and Middlebrook, the presentations will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 4 at 9:15 a.m. and 7 p.m. in the Wilton High School Little Theater.
GOOD Morning Wilton spoke with Dr. Bernstein ahead of his presentations to talk about what threat assessment means for Wilton schools.
GMW: I’ve heard you say this before, that the rate of mass shootings used to be steady, at around 20-22 per year, but that now it’s accelerating.
Dr. David Bernstein: It has increased. We have to separate school incidents from other incidents of mass violence. A mass shooting is any shooting with four or more victims in one incident. That includes school shootings. About 50 percent of mass shootings events are family incidents. Since 2006 we’ve seen over 200 of these incidents–that’s a lot. It averages about one every two weeks. So yes, there has been in increase in these events. You still have to separate the difference between the events that happen at schools versus the events in total.
Public massacres, like we see in Newtown, are about 1-in-6 of all mass killings. We think of these mass shootings like Columbine, like Aurora, like Newtown to be the brunt of these mass events, and they’re not–they’re actually about 1-in-6. Most mass events, about 50 percent are family events, things that have gone very, very wrong, like family arguments.
GMW: But that doesn’t necessarily mean that, while the likelihood of a mass event happening at a Wilton school is small, that doesn’t mean that we can have our guard down.
DB: You have to put things in perspective. There are high risk areas, and low risk areas. The most schools that prepare the hardest, that have the hardest perimeters, that have the most precautions in place are inner-city schools. They have metal detectors, they have bars or gates on windows, that have more than one school resource officers. In fact, in some areas, like Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, or in parts of the Bronx, in Compton, the schools are typically the safest place to be. Targeted kids get attacked outside these schools, not within the schools.
You have to look at the level of violence in the area. In low-risk areas, like Wilton, like Fairfield County in general (notwithstanding parts of Bridgeport, parts of Stamford or Norwalk), Greenwich, New Canaan–these are low-risk areas. Newtown, Monroe, you can go on and on. For you to spend a lot of your resources hardening the perimeters of your schools, I think you’ve missed the mark. If you’re going to spend the majority of your limited resources in making an area hardened for a low-potential attack–like what happened in Newtown–I think you’re missing the boat.
Remember 95 percent of school shooters attack the school that they actually attend. So do we want to focus our resources on that external shooter, that small number, that random person that comes to a facility, that is basically not predictable. These events are “low-frequency, high-impact events.” And they’re basically not predictable events.
But what can be predicted, and what can be controlled, is identifying those individuals within your school who might be at a higher risk, and getting them the services and the help they need to start walking away from seeing violence as a viable option to settle whatever grievance they’re experiencing.
GMW: I’m on the record as supporting the two new security positions you’ve recommended that our school district add, a second School Resource Officer and a Mental Health/Threat Assessment Coordinator. Can you validate why that kind of professional, someone who isn’t doing the regular casework and evaluations, is important in the school?
DB: The process of threat assessment is broken down into three parts. The first part is detection–you have to detect an at-risk individual or at-risk student. It doesn’t just have to be a student, it could be a faculty member, a secretary, a bus driver, a cafeteria worker, it could be anyone in the school community. The second part is threat assessment–you have to assess the threat the individual poses. The last part is management–now you have to manage that level of risk. Give that child an education, help that child find an acceptable way to start heading away from seeing violence as a way of settling whatever grievance they might be experiencing, or for whatever reason they might want to make that act of violence.
The first step is, to me and most threat assessment professionals will say, the most important step. You can’t assess someone you haven’t detected. You can’t assess a risk you haven’t detected. You can’t manage a risk you haven’t detected. Detection becomes paramount. That’s what the additional mental health person will be tasked with doing. Along with other things that they’ll be asked to do, detection becomes a primary part of it–looking at all potential risks while they’re still in their infancy, before they progress on the continuum of starting to collect materials to follow through on an attack.
You’re going to focus not only on the ones making threats, but on the ones who have slipped through the cracks. Those kids who have been basically invisible.
When I go to a new district, and I’m asked, ‘What can we do quickly?’ I tell them to have all their faculty and staff write down seven kids that they feel that they have a relationship with. Then I want them to compare notes. And when you find those three or four kids on no ones list, that’s where you start.
GMW: So you’ve done training for teachers, staff and administrators [at a professional development day in November]. Now comes the training for parents?
DB: This is a 360 degree program. What composes students’ life? School makes up a big part; the family makes up another big part of their life; and their friends, their peers, their fellow students make up the other part. The goal is to be able to detect a situation, to wrap around whatever potential threat might be there. Any student who is feeling grieved in any way, who feels that they have to commit some act of violence, we know that there is typically “leakage”–someone is going to know. We know this from the earliest cases we’ve looked at–there’s almost always someone else who knew, who didn’t come forward, who didn’t say something, who didn’t recognize what they were seeing as a high-risk behavior. So we want to be very clear, that there’s no place that that child will fall through the cracks. That they’re going to get the help that they need.
What we need to get these children who are considering doing something like this is that they’re considering a permanent solution to a temporary problem. We need to get them help before they do something that is permanent, that can’t be ever changed. That’s the whole point of the 360-degree program that Wilton has employed, and I applaud them greatly. I applaud the Board of Education, the principals, the Selectmen, they have been very proactive. In my opinion, they have absolutely put their resources in a place they’re going to do the most good. That is focusing on those 95 percent of shooters who are internal, and not on those random acts of shootings, those “Black Swan” events that are not predictable.
At the same time, they’re also recognizing that it’s foolish to put all your resources in just hardening a perimeter in a low-risk environment.
GMW: So what is the schedule for your presentations?
DB: There are four prongs to the 360-degree program.
The first step was focusing on training the threat assessment team, and they were trained, they are very prepared, there’s a good team in place. You have good people on it. It takes a certain temperament to be on that team–people who don’t jump to judgement easily, individuals who are clinical minded, they look at the data, they’re able to focus and analyze the data.
Then there was the general school community. The focus there was, what would a high-risk behavior look like to you, in what you do, specifically as a professional. As an English teacher, as a Social Studies teacher what might high-risk behavior look like? As a bus driver, what might it look like? As a cafeteria worker… So that was the secondary training.
The third step is for the parents–what might high-risk behavior look like to you? As a parent, what might you see that might give you some reason to question, ‘Hey, what am I seeing here, and should I inquire more about it?’ That kind of a thing. And not just for your child, but perhaps for your child’s friend, which is common.
And lastly, to the school community, to students and peers. We know in at least 80 percent of these cases, at least one peer knew of the impending attack. You can’t ignore this data.
What we’re doing is wrapping around each student, making it much more difficult for any individual student or child to go undetected and not get the help they need.
GMW: As a parent and as a long-term observer, it makes me very happy that the school district is doing this, and that this doesn’t seem to be a partisan thing.
DB: I have to say, I’ve been very impressed how bi-partisan this issue has been. I think the common denominator is that everyone has children. Everyone knows it could be their kid. That goes beyond party lines. I’m happy to say I’ve seen that in Wilton, and in other towns, and it’s wonderful that they’ve been able to put down whatever barriers that come between us politically to focus on this uniting goal.
Dr. Bernstein is the president of Forensic Consultants, LLC and has held appointments at Yale University School of Medicine and Harvard University Medical School, where he completed his residency in Forensic Psychology in the Department of Law and Psychiatry. Additionally, he has trained with the United States Secret Service and currently serves as a consultant for state and federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI.