The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School is engaging in Comprehensive School Threat Assessment Guidelines (CSTAG) training in order to properly evaluate and respond to threats within the educational community.
According to school psychologist Jennifer Russell during a meeting of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Committee, CSTAG has been used by thousands of schools across the country, and has yielded positive results in terms of threat prevention and intervention. “Threat assessment is a problem-solving approach to violence prevention that looks at assessments and then intervention with people who have threatened violence toward others,” Russell said.
A group of high school administrators, school psychologists, adjustment counselors, resource officers, and other school personnel recently participated in training to form a threat assessment team. Some outside the educational community also participated in training, including police officers, staff at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, and other outside supporters.
“We want to make sure that everyone who might be involved in that conversation is clear with the language used, so that the level of any threat that is identified can be quickly and easily understood Islandwide,” Russell said.
According to Russell, a threat is an expression of intent to harm somebody. When people talk about threats, they often think of verbal or physical threats. But Russell explained that the school sometimes deals with other kinds of threats, like social media posts, writing and art in class that are suggestive of violence, and other, less direct threats. “Sometimes the threats are pretty vague, like ‘someone is going to get hurt,’ but they can also be very specific,” Russell said.
For school communities, having an open line of communication between students and faculty is essential if threats are to be detected early and addressed in a timely manner, Russell said. By discussing the issue of violent threats, Russell said, some of the stigma surrounding “snitching” or “tattling” could be diminished, and the conversation could shift toward the goal of preventing violence.
When a threat is identified by the school, Russell explained that a core team will start to look at the threat, conduct interviews, and determine if the threat is transient or substantive. Transient threats are considered threats that are said in a reactionary way, where the person has no real intent to harm another individual. A substantive threat is more serious, and may require law enforcement intervention and more in-depth investigations.
The benefit to this model of transient and substantive threats is that there are responses built in for both instances, and all threats are treated with the utmost seriousness, according to Russell.
The day after the first training session, Russell said, the school conducted its first threat assessment. Between January (when the program began) and June, the high school conducted a total of six threat assessments: Five were determined to be transient, and one was determined to be substantive. “The wonderful thing about this program is we can really gear it toward what the needs are. On both sides, the potential victim and the person making the threat,” Russell said.
One of Russell’s goals with the program is to create more fair and equitable discipline policies, and because the protocols are data-driven, any policy changes informed by the CSTAG program will be well-informed and fact-based. “There is lots of family engagement included in any kind of intervention as well, so this is not something that takes place solely in the school — it involves the home education and support as well,” Russell said.
Moving forward with MSBA
As school officials work toward a kickoff meeting with the Massachusetts School Building Authority on Sept. 19 at 10:30 am, the decision of whether to request special town meetings for a vote on the amended regional agreement or wait until annual town meetings is up in the air.
Currently, the updated regional agreement, which has been reviewed and approved by the school committee, is under review by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“The school committee has finalized the regional agreement, and that vote has been forwarded to DESE for their review. DESE is strongly recommending that prior to requesting town meeting votes on these amendments, that they have a chance to look at them so we don’t have to go backward at a much later date,” committee chair Robert Lionette said.
According to school business administrator Mark Friedman, all six towns must unanimously approve the changes to the regional agreement. Scheduling the discussion for special town meetings could be a challenge, Friedman said, as some smaller Island towns delay their special meetings because it’s difficult to reach a quorum.
Friedman noted that appropriation for a feasibility study for a capital building project must take place by May 29, 2023. A vote to approve the regional agreement must precede any discussion or vote on feasibility study funding.
Superintendent Richie Smith said school officials may want to wait until annual town meetings and use the time in between now and then to go out into the public and explain their request. “What are we looking for, what would the amendment mean, and give people some time to digest this,” Smith said.
Lionette agreed that there has not been significant time or opportunities for townspeople to weigh in on the nature of the new funding formula, or any other element of the regional agreement. “If any towns are amenable to a special this fall, there lies the opportunity to make that pitch,” Smith said.
In related business, coordinator of special programs for MVRHS Sam Hart, said the Initial Compliance form that must be sent to the MSBA essentially accepts the terms of the MSBA eligibility process, and must be signed by Lionette and Smith before being sent off. A vote by the committee to authorize Lionette to sign the form was approved unanimously.