Texas School Shooting: Screening in the Aftermath

Note: This E-Alert is for “Violence Threat Risk Assessment” (VTRA) trained professionals

Click here to go to the complete Screening Document

We were planning to release a version of this E-Alert next week as a guide to triaging Threat Assessment cases for the remainder of this academic year but the tragedies in Buffalo, New York and Texas have accelerated it. As many of you are aware, we released an E-Alert a little over six months ago highlighting the 500% increase in VTRA cases, during the Fall of this academic year, compared to VTRA cases in the Fall of 2019 (prior to the pandemic). With professional resources being strained and some communities no longer supporting school resource or youth officer programs, the flow of necessary information for violence prevention efforts has been impaired in some areas. This E-Alert is focused on the immediate context teams need to be aware of and - strategies for increasing safety:

Children and Youth Context: There has been significant regression in child and adolescent behavior across their young lifespan. The pandemic and its’ effects only exacerbate other underlying struggles. The current war in Ukraine and the threat of nuclear war and the ability for young people to watch live images (real or fake) online is a silent weight many are carrying often without parents and caregivers being aware. The recent number of mass shootings and the media coverage has also further intensified this silent weight. Prior to the pandemic, the 14 to 16-year-old category was the most consistent group for high-risk VTRA cases. Now the 10 to 14-year-old category has dominated many regions with threats and weapons possession while the older youth continue to struggle.

This same age range (10 to 14) is manifesting far more sexualized threats then we have ever seen in the past. Due to the effects of quarantine, the impaired closeness-distance cycle and unrestrained internet activity, there has been an 88% increase in online sexual exploitation of children and youth across the country. Many have got in over their heads and do not know how to get out and we are seeing their distress further acted out online, in our schools, and communities.

From September 2021 to now, the possession and use of knives among young people is alarming. It speaks to a dynamic we have seen in individual community cases over the years but never globally, as it is now. When an individual community has a violent tragedy and children and youth (students) knew it was going to happen and believed the adults did as well, it impairs trust and faith between the two. Once that occurs we see weapons possession increase in those schools and communities because the kids say (consciously or unconsciously), “If the adults are not prepared to take steps to protect us then I guess we will arm ourselves”. This is no longer an aftermath issue in a single community, this is a global issue: The possession and use of knives among young people in VTRA cases across the country has dramatically increased.

Parent and Caregiver Context: Many parents and caregivers are tired and weighed down by the pandemic. Although able to compartmentalize better than some children, there is a societal weight that is hard to ignore. The reality is that all the two-year pandemic has done is intensify already existing dynamics in our lives, notwithstanding personal losses that may have occurred. Like our children and students, there has been significant regression among many adults as well. Increases in depression and anxiety were going to be unavoidable but increases in drug and alcohol misuse as well as family and relational abuse are now beginning to emerge in the growing reports of how difficult the pandemic has been on relationship systems within the walls of our own homes.

While there were some homes where stress levels were (or seemed) low, there were others where we may have not anticipated how difficult the past two years have been. One of the most concerning dynamics in some families has been where a parent or a caregiver genuinely tells one of their children “thank you for being so helpful”, “thank you for being so good”, “I don’t know how I could have done it without you” and then places them on a pedestal by comparing them to a sibling who the parent is angry with or already emotionally cut-off.

Considering the past two years, we are telling parents and caregiver to “not place your children on a pedestal” because we do not know for sure what weight our children are bearing from their own struggles during the pandemic from beginning to use drugs or alcohol to getting caught up in, or becoming victims of, sexting or online sexual exploitation, etc. Therefore, we can thank our children but we also need to let them know we know that they, like us, are human and may have made some mistakes as well. Parents/Caregivers and professionals alike need to assure our children (students) that we can handle the truth about drugs, alcohol, sex, bullying, weapons and their fears in general. Otherwise they will keep the secrets and try to raise each other which is what we are seeing among some right now.

Professional Context: VTRA trained professionals are generally exhausted from the past two years. The level of collaboration is diminished in many areas because of lack of resources and even a lack of emotional energy to fully do the work. However, this is an extended Critical Period with many different aspects that may not be a factor in everyone’s lives collectively but are intersecting, even if not consciously understood, such as:

  • Political Polarization
  • War in Ukraine
  • Truth about Residential Schools
  • Growing Reality of Systemic Racism and Marginalization
  • Growing Reality of White Nationalism
  • Trucker Convoy
  • Pandemic
  • Media and Social Media Trauma Images
  • Shootings after Shootings, and in a variety of different social settings
  • Rekindled Family of Origin Dynamics
  • And a general feeling for many of not knowing “where I fit in this world”!
All of these and more are often playing out in the tensions and escalations we are seeing in our daily cases with little insight by those elevated as to where all the stress is coming from. Nevertheless, even if we had all of our resources, there are so many VTRA-related cases that our systems would still be overrun. As such, we have included the screening section from the most recent iteration of the VTRA model that will be released in late August. The practical application of VTRA will be referred to as the “Assessment of Risk To Others” (ARTO) and the following is the Screening Section.

Screening VTRA Cases (PBA’s): For the past five years we have emphasized a jingle in the VTRA field called PBA’s which highlights three dimensions for initial screening in Stage One (Micro) Assessments.

P – Plausibility
B – Baseline
A – Attack-Related Behaviors

Remember this is a Critical Period and for the next two weeks all gun-related threats must be evaluated even if the threat is from someone with special needs and it is their typical baseline. But as noted, we are very concerned with knives and all other forms of potential violence. The following except should serve as a guide to conducting “Site-Specific” VTRA screening and decisions about VTRA Protocol activation.

Note: The following PBA Flowchart and attached Screening document is from our expansion of VTRA practice that includes the acronym “RTO” which denotes assessing “Risk to Others” rather than conducting a VTRA. It is a language change for the common practice of Stage One VTRA.

J. Kevin Cameron, NACTATR

“We cannot prevent everything, but we can prevent a lot!”

Click here to go to the complete Screening Document