House Talk

Working to keep RI's schools safe

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During the month of May, the attention of the General Assembly necessarily turns to the passage of a balanced budget. It is an important undertaking and one that impacts nearly every citizen in Rhode Island. Next month I will update you on our budget progress.

That said, there are many other issues still being discussed and debated at the State House. One that is very important to me, and I expect to parents across this fine state, is the safety and protection of our children while at school. It would be wonderful to turn back the hands of time when we lived in a society where our children went off to school, they were going to a safe, worry-free institution of learning. Sadly, we know from tragedies beyond our state borders that it is often no longer the case.

Recently, I met with the Rhode Island State Police who chairs the School Safety Committee to discuss legislative efforts that could help prevent violence in schools. With their collaboration, I recently introduced legislation to increase school safety by creating Threat Assessment Teams in schools. These teams would serve as the “boots on the ground” in identifying potentially threatening behavior by those in the school community. Under the bill (2019-H 5538), school districts would also adopt policies for assessment and intervention, including procedures for referrals to community services or health care providers for evaluation. Similar models have been adopted in Maryland, Florida and other states since the tragedy that took 17 lives at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas School in Parkland, Florida.

I believe that this bill is a proactive step to ensuring the safety of our schools. The idea is to utilize these Threat Assessment Teams to protect students from threatening behavior before a violent incident occurs. The focus must shift from reacting to tragedy to one of proactive prevention. It seems apparent to me that when a student enters a school with a gun and an intent to kill, it is already too late. By using teams of experts who are already present in every school, we may be able to prevent a tragedy from occurring.

So many times after a tragedy, members of the school community say there were so many warning signs from the eventual perpetrator of the violence. Then people are puzzled about how those signs could possibly be missed, to such devastating effect. Many times, it’s because of segmented administrative structures that don’t result in anyone in charge recognizing multiple warning signs from a single person.

There need to be people at every school – people who are part of that school’s fabric, who know the students, the staff, the parents and the structures – whose job it is to collect that information and decide what to do with it. Everyone at that school needs to know who to tell if they see concerning behavior, so they can help keep schools safe, and connect troubled individuals to help so they don’t become the next perpetrator of violence at school.

By creating Threat Assessment Teams for each school, the district superintendent will be required to appoint people with expertise in counseling, mental health, law enforcement, and guidance. The teams would:

Guide students and faculty in recognizing threatening behavior.

Identify the appropriate persons to report threatening behavior to.

Implement the policies that have been adopted by the local school committee.

Report any threatening behavior by a student (to self or others) to the district superintendent. Personnel may also act immediately if the threat is imminent.

The bill would further require school committees to utilize model policies or adopt their own written policies relating to the function of threat assessment team. The policy must include referrals for mental health and community service providers. The school committee must appoint a district committee to provide oversight of all the teams in a district.

Last but equally important, besides preventing violence, this approach is aimed at getting troubled individuals the help they need. With this bill, we can prevent people from becoming victims, others from becoming perpetrators, and ensure that our schools are safe places where kids and teachers can focus on learning.

I thank my House colleagues for overwhelmingly passing this legislation, and I look forward to its final enactment.

Nicholas Mattiello, a Democrat representing District 15 in Cranston, is speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives.

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