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School threat team proposal advances in Minn. House

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A bill requiring school districts to establish threat assessment teams for each Minnesota school building is on the move in the Legislature.

A House education committee endorsed the proposal Tuesday. It is just one of several school safety measures on the table this session in response to the latest school shootings around the country.

Rep. Keith Franke's bill seeks the formation of teams with expertise in counseling, mental health, school instruction and law enforcement. The St. Paul Park Republican said the aim is clear.

"Virtually every one of these attacks is a predatory crime, methodically planned and executed. Therein lies the promise of a threat assessment,” Franke said. “There are weeks months or even years when a would-be killer is escalating toward violence, a window of opportunity could have been detected and thwarted."

The teams would establish guidance for school officials on how to detect “threatening or aberrant behavior” and when to intervene. It also instructs officials to notify parents if a student poses a threat or exhibits significantly disruptive behavior.

Kristine Kienlen is a forensic psychologist and a threat management consultant who works mainly with businesses and colleges but also with some public schools. She told the committee that the teams are a preventative approach and would be a message to anyone in a school that safe environments are paramount.

“The threat assessment process is not meant to criminalize or be punitive,” Kienlen said. “However, there are individuals who have violated a code of conduct where all kinds of attempts have been made to keep that person in compliance with rules and being in a safe environment and acting in a safe way in the school environment and it can’t be done.”

She added, “Some students have acted in a way where they are violating laws and they become involved in the criminal system.”

Kienlen said the assessment teams would be used to distinguish real threats from cases where students are crying out for more support, such as mental health treatment.

She said the state of Virginia has already developed model policies that Minnesota schools could draw from.

Lawmakers are being urged to proceed carefully with legislation requiring new school threat assessment teams and procedures.

Roger Aronson represents the state's elementary and secondary school principals. He said they share a goal of working to keep students safe, especially amid heightened fears over school shootings, but he urged lawmakers to be cautious.

"A lot of what's driving your policy here is the phrase 'school shooting' and that's just a horrible event, and we all know that,” Aronson said. “But the standard in here is threat to safety, which is an awful lot lower standard."

Aronson said there is concern about how those teams will interact with special education units, where student behavior can be misinterpreted as threats.

He said schools need time to implement the teams in a coordinated and deliberate way and asked lawmakers not to impose the requirement for the coming school year.

Grace Keliher of the Minnesota School Boards Association suggested a pilot program before all school districts adopt the proposed standards. She said the requirements need some clarification.

“We’re interested in what constitutes a threat. That’s not really spelled out any place here. We’re interested too in how you get off the threat list. Do you ever get off the threat list,” Keliher said. “It’s a good idea. It’s got potential.”

The bill, which could eventually include state funding for districts to carry out the measure, was moved to the House Civil Law Committee for further consideration.