School expert: How to help at-risk students and know where ‘the line’ is

Schools aiming to minimize violent incidents should teach students and staff how to reach out to at-risk students, as well identify which types of warning signs are most serious, an Ohio school psychologist says.

Local schools have fortified doors, added cameras and in some cases armed staff in recent years, but Erich Merkle, past president of the Ohio School Psychologists Association, said interpersonal work is critically important to school safety.

At-risk students

Merkle encouraged students and school staff to reach out to three groups of students specifically – those who are marginalized, bullied or disconnected from the school society; those who are having academic and significant behavioral problems; and those who have gone through some painful, life-changing event.

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“There is a fairly consistent set of features from these active shooter situations,” Merkle said. “These are kids that typically are marginalized. They may be bullied or tormented. They are outliers, not part of major social groups.”

He cautioned that plenty of students fit those profiles without having outbursts. But he encouraged schools to try to bring those students into the larger social group of the school and help them build connections rather than letting them be mocked or ostracized.

Merkle said obvious signs – clear threats in person or on social media, or a spate of behavioral incidents – should be dealt with immediately. He pointed to Akron schools’ threat assessment matrix, which includes flow charts for clear steps to take depending on the severity of the issue.

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And he encouraged schools not to get lost solely in the discipline side of such cases, instead making sure that counseling or mental health angles are explored so the root causes can be addressed.

“Students finally reach a point where they’re not able to deal with it, and they emotionally react,” Merkle said.

He added that while there is value to school safety drills, school psychologists worry about the impact that intense active-shooter drills can have on young students. He urged schools to give kids a chance to talk about and process those events after they happen.

To report or not report

Many schools repeat the safety mantra, “If you see something, say something.” But one of the hardest things for students to do is decide whether they should report a certain behavior or comment to school officials – especially when it came from a friend or teammate.

Merkle said schools have to establish that it’s OK to let somebody know what’s going on if you’re concerned about a person’s welfare. He said schools that use the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports system (PBIS) try to build that culture on a regular basis, not just when there’s an incident.

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But there’s still that question – where’s the line? Merkle said that decision involves determining the seriousness and specificity of the comment, and the ability and resources of a person to carry it out. He advised starting a threat assessment anytime there is a threat of “death, disfigurement or intractable pain, suffering or harm.”

“You do hear all the time – I’m gonna kill him, or I could just kill him,” Merkle said. “That does imply death, but the next question is, does this person have the capacity and resources to pull it off. If a kindergartener says I’m going to blow up Ms. Jones’ house, more than likely, they don’t have the capacity or resources to do it. But when a high schooler says, I’m going to jump Ms. Jones, key up her car and choke her, now there is an impending sense that this actually could occur.”

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