Hamilton Tragedy: National Implications

To all VTRA Trained Professionals

In the aftermath of the tragic death of Hamilton, Ontario youth Devan Bracci-Selvey, many school districts across the country have noted a growing concern from parents and caregivers about bullying. In the 10th Edition of the Community VTRA Protocol we added three new categories for action:

1. Chronic, pervasive, targeted bullying and/or harassment.
2. Hate incidents motivated by factors including but not limited to: race, culture, religion, and/or sexual or gender diversity.
3. Suicide as a Special Consideration: When Site-Specific professionals are dealing with a situation where an individual is of concern because of suicidal ideation, they should follow their existing protocols for suicide risk assessment. Most Protocol Partners have personnel (or should have) who are trained in suicide risk assessment and intervention. Therefore, as a standard, this is not a category for action and the VTRA protocol is not to be activated. However, those trained in suicide risk assessment should also be VTRA trained and be open to the possibility that the individual being assessed may be fluid. The third formal hypothesis in the Stage One VTRA process is: “Is there any evidence of fluidity?”

As well, whenever there is evidence of a suicide pact or evidence that there is a peer dynamic or a “puppet master” in the background trying to drive them to kill themselves, the VTRA Protocol should be activated. Therefore, the VTRA Protocol should only be used as part of a case with suicidal ideation when there is evidence of:

  • Fluidity (Suicidal to Homicidal Domain)
  • Suicide Pact
  • Conspiracy of two or more (Puppet Master)
  • Multiple Suicides or Attempts in Quick Succession in a Community
“VIOLENT THREAT RISK ASSESSMENT (VTRA) Protocol: A Community Based Approach, p. 24-25, 2018.”

National Implications

These new “Categories for Action” are meant to address the heightened anxiety in society that both adults and students are experiencing. The political climate is adding to the justification process for hate-related crimes by some youth and adults. But social media has intensified that process for both targeted violence (focusing on one justifiable target for violent acting out) and “priming” (i.e. elevating violence potential in general) so that if opportunity presents itself, violence is more likely.

Many VTRA leads from across the country have reported that this academic year started at a higher baseline than usual, with several reporting high-severity VTRA’s being conducted on Day One back to school. This denotes that many Districts are inheriting dynamics that were escalating during the summer but boiling over at school.

We have said for the past two decades that “many things start at school and finish in the community, but many things also start in the community and finish at school.” This is essential to our work in violence prevention because schools cannot and should not be solely responsible for violence prevention, bullying prevention and suicide prevention. The social media life many young people are leading is foreign to many professionals, parents and caregivers alike. All adults in a child’s life need to be better connected so we can be “connecting the dots” and staying ahead of when evidence is present that someone is giving a conscious or unconscious “cry for help.”

Current Empirical Research

A dynamic growing more extreme in this generation of youth is “conspiracy of two or more.” This is where there is often a “puppet master” in the background choreographing bullying, harassment and sometimes violence by having other children or youth “do their dirty work for them.” Many susceptible youths being puppeted do not realize they are being used for the entertainment and expression of power by another. The reality of conspiracy of two or more is confirmed in our current research project of over 500 VTRA trained professionals representing over 2753 VTRA cases in Canada. 93% of respondents confirmed that conspiracy of two or more was a risk enhancer in their VTRA casework. Further data related to peer dynamics noted that 20% of respondents confirmed that they found “evidence of planning” to engage in a violent act in the possession of a Person of Concern’s (POC) friend.

Local Strategies

Your formal Community VTRA Protocols need to be utilized not just by schools activating them but by police, mental health, social services, probation and others committing to this collaborative process. Many times, non-school related professionals are aware of growing dynamics among youth in a community that should warrant “High Level” (High-Profile) VTRA’s where we are no longer assessing a single POC but an entire peer or community dynamic. Many protocol regions have brought their VTRA leads together for cases where multiple youth are involved in:

1. Increasing community baseline for violence by youth which is sometimes manifested in the community only; at other times manifests at school only, and at other times manifests in both settings.
2. Online chronic, pervasive, targeted bullying and/or harassment involving multiple children or youth as victims and/or perpetrators.
3. A significant increase in repetitive self-mutilation among a particular peer group or youth in general in a specific school or region.
4. A significant increase in suicidality (attempts) or if a current death by suicide is believed to be a catalyst for attempts by others in a specific school or region.
5. Gang-related behaviour.

In these circumstances, Children’s Services (Child Protection), Mental Health, Probation, Police, Schools, and other helping agencies signed on the VTRA Protocol, share appropriate information regarding individuals involved; the possible dynamics between them; identify risk enhancers and plan data-driven interventions. Specifically, we are looking for:

  • Evidence of baseline shift, including human target selection and site selection of the POC’s.
  • Identification of possible peer dynamics denoting who are the key leaders and who are the followers.
  • History of individual trauma that may be undiagnosed or untreated. (e.g. a male youth who leads his peers on a campaign to relentlessly bully his ex-girlfriend after his mother allows another abusive partner into their home. The youth may not see the connection, but his anger towards his mother may unconsciously be projected onto his ex-girlfriend).
  • History of collective exposure to trauma that may be an unseen force behind the increase in peer group escalation (e.g. several youths witness a brutal assault at a party but because of fear and guilt they keep the secret).
  • What POC’s and their families are most likely to be open to immediate intervention and what POC’s will require more of a concerted effort to address risk enhancers.
  • What VTRA leads (or their designates) will do as part of any other data-collection required, interviewing of POC’s and collaterals and intervention strategies specific to them.
In high-baseline complex cases, there may be two or more meetings, as the first meeting may be limited to more clearly identifying the scope of the problem (assessment phase) followed by further data collection as decided by the team. As well, it may be apparent that other key professionals need to be involved for further assessment. Strategies and interventions occur after proper assessment. VTRA Protocol Regions who are also trained in the Traumatic Event Systems (TES) Model understand that the fields of violence threat risk assessment and crisis/trauma response are inseparably connected. Therefore, High-Level (High-Profile) VTRA’s are meant to skillfully focus on the interaction between four distinct yet interconnected processes:

Some Community VTRA Protocol partners view the words “student” and “school” as synonymous and, as such, have placed an unreasonable burden on schools to address the most complex issues themselves. But children and youth are not living one-dimensional lives. They have family dynamics and peer dynamics at school that may differ from peer dynamics in the community and sometimes a series of online identities that would confound many adults. School and community VTRA professionals as well as parents and caregivers need to be strengthening our partnerships with each other for the cause of our children. The loss of any child is a community tragedy.

J. Kevin Cameron, M.Sc., R.S.W., B.C.E.T.S., B.C.S.C.R.
Board Certified Expert in Traumatic Stress
Diplomate, American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress
Executive Director, North American Center for Threat Assessment and Trauma Response