A collaborative approach to managing adolescents and preventing targeted violence

A collaborative approach to managing adolescents and preventing targeted violence

Mass shooting incidents in the United States perpetrated by adolescents have increased in recent years. Shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Oxford High School, Sandy Hook Elementary, and Buffalo, New York, represent incidents in which there were observable warning behaviors and displayed indications of unaddressed psychological and social challenges and observable dangerousness. The confluence of these factors represents a population of adolescents who often fall within the “gray area” between the criminal justice system, education, and mental health. Preventing violence among adolescents within this population requires an evidence-based, collaborative multidisciplinary approach grounded in a public health perspective.

Adolescents must be identified early in their trajectory to violence. Identification is the responsibility of bystanders, peers, and professionals. It should be behavior-based rather than based on identity. Identification should be followed by a holistic assessment process that includes violence risk assessment, behavioral threat assessment needs assessment, and behavioral and physical health assessment. Validated structured professional judgment instruments used for behavioral threat assessment, such as the Terrorist Radicalization Assessment Protocol (TRAP-18), the Extremism Risk Guidelines 22+ (ERG 22+), the Violent Extremist Risk Assessment (VERA), and violence risk assessment instruments such as the Historical Clinical and Risk Management-20 (HCR-20) and others should be leveraged to inform collaborative client support and threat management strategies. These strategies should not solely rely on observed risk but should also leverage observed protective factors. They should also consider the appropriateness of restorative, supportive, and punitive strategies.

Do punitive strategies work?

Although punitive strategies such as arrest and detention should not be the primary means of violence prevention, they may be deemed necessary due to the presence of imminent danger. However, if used, these strategies should account for how incarceration may increase dangerousness or at least not reduce it. These considerations highlight that an initial intervention may not ensure the desistance of violence. This reality is apparent in the 2018 Averted Paw Paw High School Attack, in which an adolescent male’s plot to conduct a school attack using firearms and explosives was thwarted by his mother and law enforcement. Although the attack planned for the next day was detected and averted, the adolescent male conducted a homicide-suicide two years later, following his release from detention and the end of his court supervision.

Professionals in varied disciplines have a role in targeted violence prevention

Promoting violence desistance and reducing recidivism requires training and education for involved professionals, supporting families of adolescents, addressing toxic belief systems, and a commitment to long-term management. Professionals in varied disciplines have a role in targeted violence prevention. These professions include local law enforcement and other criminal justice officials such as judges, prosecutors, and probation. Law enforcement officials may engage with adolescents early in the pathway to violence, when there is a more heightened risk, and when an adolescent has already planned an attack and has moved to an operational phase. This reality necessitates that law enforcement officers understand primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention. It is also essential for judges, prosecutors, probation, and parole to be engaged. This involvement ensures that officials involved in the prosecution, sentencing, and monitoring of crimes related to targeted violence are equipped to recognize warning signs and leverage multi-disciplinary strategies to prevent violence and manage adolescents in community contexts. Engagement with law enforcement and other criminal justice officials creates opportunities to pursue jail diversion, robust jail-based treatment, and collaborative re-entry programming.

The community of prevention practitioners also includes behavioral health and medical professionals. Currently, there are not enough behavioral health professionals who have received specific training regarding behavioral threat assessment, violent extremism, violent conspiracy theories, terrorism, and targeted violence. The lack of specially trained behavioral health professionals prevents law enforcement and other criminal justice professionals from utilizing care-based interventions and management. Many agencies do not have community mental health partners trained to accept these referrals. Furthermore, the ability to provide care-based prevention efforts is challenged by the lack of focus on engaging medical professionals in this space. Medical professionals like behavioral health professionals are often not trained to recognize warning behaviors associated with the pathway to violence. The lack of support in this area also significantly impacts the identification of high-risk persons.

Training public safety and public health professionals to serve this population is crucial

This lack of support also challenges law enforcement and community mental health efforts since adolescents are often sent to emergency rooms once they have been evaluated in the community and are determined to be in crisis. Unfortunately, these adolescents are too often released into the community without a connection to support and are often still in crisis. Therefore, these individuals are not connected to community mental health professionals or social service workers who may offer basic needs (work, housing, food, clothing) that may serve as violence mitigators. When public safety and public health professionals are not trained to serve this population, it prevents them from providing support to adolescents in need and prevents them from supporting their caregivers. Caregivers and peers close to an adolescent with problematic circumstances should understand their role in identifying concerning behavior and signs of escalation and their roles in supporting treatment plans and countermeasures. In doing so, caregivers and peers can increase the likelihood that the intervention will be holistic and successful. Additionally, teaching communities how and when to engage their loved ones in conversations regarding toxic belief systems that dehumanize certain groups of people and promote and justify violence is critical to preventing extreme violence. Without training, families and peers may unintentionally sabotage an intervention, cause the person to become more rigid, or engage in behavior that unintentionally endorses toxic ideologies.

Preventing these acts of violence and ensuring that adolescents lead healthy lives and engage in pro-social activity requires training, research, innovation, and collaboration. Multidisciplinary teams must be established and resourced to provide long-term intervention to support adolescents, their families, and others in their social network. The responses must be research-informed and evidence-based, and they must be innovative and holistic, considering the client’s personal experiences, challenges, strengths, and environment. Furthermore, multidisciplinary approaches offer promise because they provide options. This is important because no two clients are alike, and what may reduce violence for one client may not for another. Prevention demands professional inclusion. We can no longer afford to operate in silos.

Subscribe to MHS’ Public Safety Insights Newsletter and get information on how to register for the upcoming webinar “Multi-disciplinary Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention: High-risk, High-need Adolescents,” presented by Frank Straub, Ph.D., Alyse Ley, D.O., Courtney Tassin, M.A., LPC and Sammie Wicks.


About the Authors

Frank Straub, Ph.D.

Dr. Straub served for more than 30-years in federal, state, and local law enforcement. He is currently the Director of the Center for Targeted Violence Prevention, where he has conducted in-depth studies of targeted mass violence events in San Bernardino, Kalamazoo, Orlando, Parkland, and the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. He also leads the Averted School Violence project, a national database, funded by the US Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, that tracks, analyzes, and reports on averted and completed school attacks. Additionally, Dr. Straub is a practicing clinician.

Sammie Wicks

Sammie Wicks is a Senior Program Manager at the National Police Foundation’s Center for Targeted Violence Prevention. Prior to working with the National Policing Institute, Sammie served as a law enforcement officer for eleven years during which he led the Aurora Police Department’s Targeted Violence Prevention Program. Additionally, Sammie currently serves as a Colorado Preventing Targeted Violence team member, supporting local threat management teams and statewide prevention efforts.

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