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Can education and counseling prevent school shootings? The Secret Service says it helps

The U.S. Secret Service has been working on school-violence prevention since before Columbine, but now a step-by-step guide introduced after the February 2018 high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, may help school leaders prevent violence in their own buildings.

Five hundred people working in North Carolina schools, law enforcement and mental health will attend a Secret Service training on school threat assessment in Charlotte on Tuesday

They’ll learn such things as who should join the team that evaluates threats at each school or in each school district, what activities or statements should draw the team’s attention and how they’ll be reported, when to contact law enforcement and how to intervene with students.

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Many schools already have parts of these plans in place, Secret Service officials told the Observer, but the federal model puts all the pieces together to make sure no issue slips through.

“We really pushed to have not just law enforcement or student resource officers (at the training) but guidance counselors, teachers, community resources, people that can assist with that threat assessment ... and with the management after, as well,” said John Bullwinkel, assistant to the special agent in charge of the U.S. Secret Service.

Once an issue with a student has been identified, the guide suggests different ways to manage the situation, including helping the student build connections with classmates and school staff, helping the student manage stress and reducing access to weapons.

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The threat-assessment team will go through specialized training, but everyone at the school — including employees, parents and students — should get some safety training, according to the guide.

“The more people that know what to look for, the better chance we have of identifying it ahead of time,” said Reginald Dematteis, special agent in charge of the Secret Service’s Charlotte field office.

The conversation about safety at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools reached a new pitch in October, when a student was shot and killed in a hallway at Butler High School. Another student was charged with second-degree murder.

CMS introduced random screenings for weapons three months later, in January. Superintendent Clayton Wilcox called the screenings a deterrent. CMS has increased its fencing and video surveillance, too, along with adding more counseling and psychological support for students’ social and emotional challenges.

Asked about the Secret Service training Monday, CMS spokeswoman Renee McCoy said the school system is always looking for new ideas, but she declined to describe how the Secret Service model might change CMS practices.

Dematteis said school-violence prevention has to be three-pronged, just like protection of a top government official. Physical protection, like metal detectors or security buttons, is important, and every school or presidential visit has to have a plan in place for emergencies.

But presidential security teams deal with nearly all problems through intelligence work and intervention, long before they rise to the level of a crisis, Dematteis said. Tuesday’s federal training, which is making its way around the country, aims to help schools prevent threats through advance work like that.

“If you get to the point where your person at the front door (has) to hit a button to lock a door to stop a violent kid or violent person from coming in the school, if you get to the point where your sheriff’s department is responding to a problem that’s already occurring, you’ve, in essence, already failed,” he said. “You didn’t prevent it from happening in the first place.”

Education reporter Annie Ma contributed reporting.

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