SCHOOL’S IN: Student safety is critical

Jane Muskens, registrar at Okanagan College on recent school tragedies

The tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown this past week hits home when you work at a school, regardless of whether the students are six years old or young adults.

Post-secondary institutions in Canada have seen similar violence at Ecole Polytechnique where 14 people died (all women) and Concordia University where an associate professor killed four of his colleagues.

Canada has had 13 school shootings since 1975. All of these occurred at a high school, college or university.  In total 26 people have died in this country as a result of a school shooting.

In comparison, since 1975 there have been 64 incidences of school shootings in the United States.

The most notable was Columbine where 15 people died and Virginia Tech where 33 lost their lives. In total during this time 514 fatalities occurred as the result of school shootings in that country.

Most of these, 366 deaths, occurred during 1992 and the year 2000.

Another more alarming U.S. statistic is that during the school year of 1998/99, 3,523 students were expelled for bringing a firearm to school.

Statistics like these make Canadians wonder why some Americans still strongly believe in the Second Amendment, which enshrines their right to bear arms.

But blaming guns when it comes to these kinds of tragedies is just part of the picture.

From what I have learned in the last three years it’s more about recognizing the warning signs when it comes to individuals capable of this kind of violence.

About three years agoI took a course along with a number of my colleagues taught by Kevin Cameron, a noted Canadian threat assessment expert.

According to Cameron, most people just don’t snap and go out and start shooting people; exhibiting violent behaviour is an evolutionary process.

There are often a number of signs that trained individuals can recognize and through intervention can usually stop something terrible from happening.

Behaviour by those most likely to commit a violent act include previous violent behavior with intent to harm or kill, verbal or written threats to kill or harm, possession of a weapon (even if it’s a replica), bomb threats (including making a bomb), fire setting, sexual intimidation or assault, and gang related intimidation and violence.

All of these behaviours are warning signs that an intervention should occur.

Since Kevin Cameron’s training, Okanagan College has implemented a Violence Threat/Risk Assessment protocol. Part of the protocol was the creation of a security manual which provides information on how to identify high risk behaviours and the need to report this behavior, procedures in regards to bomb threats, weapons and lethal violence which may involve contact with the police.

Along with establishing what to look for, the College created a number of internal regional assessment teams.

These teams are trained to review and assess individual cases and determine the next plan of action.

Action may include just reporting to pushing the issue to the Institutional Steering Committee who have special training in dealing with violent behaviour and who will consult the RCMP if necessary.

Okanagan College isn’t the only institution in Canada that has developed these types of protocols.

All schools try to ensure there are mechanisms in place to provide the safest environment possible for students and staff.

Not an easy task – but something that can’t be taken for granted.

Jane Muskens is the registrar at Okanagan College. Comments can be forwarded to