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At threat assessment training, state official calls for help to end school violence

'We cannot prevent violence from happening alone,' said Office of School Safety director

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Blue lockers line a hallway in a school building.
A student walks down a hallway with lockers Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, at Hackett Elementary School in Beloit, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Teachers, students and community members should have a lower threshold for reporting threats of school violence in the wake of the most recent school shooting, the state’s school safety leader said.

Trish Kilpin directs the state Department of Justice’s Office of School Safety, including its Speak Up, Speak Out hotline for reporting potential dangers. On Thursday, she led a violence prevention training in Wausau for several hundred teachers and other school staff from multiple central Wisconsin school districts. In a press conference at the event, she said stopping school violence is a community effort.

“We cannot prevent violence from occurring alone,” Kilpin said. “If parents, students or bystanders become aware that a child may be behaving in ways that suggest that they could engage in violence, then we need to know about that, and they need to trust us, so that we can assess the information and develop an appropriate plan.”

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That means, Kilpin said, making reporting troubling behavior a normal part of what schools and communities do. The state hotline is designed to allow students to report potential threats for self-harm or suicide as well as threats of violence directed toward others.

Trish Kilpin
Trish Kilpin speaks at a press conference at Wausau West High School. Rob Mentzer/WPR

Cale Bushman, director of pupil services for the Wausau School District, said students are often reluctant to report their peers.

“They’ll see something on social media, and they don’t want to make it bigger than it is,” Bushman said. “And so one of the things that we want to do is proactively, in the beginning of the year, have the communication with our kids to say: ‘If you’re not sure, talk to somebody.’”

Calls to the state’s hotline increased after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 elementary school students and two educators. The threat assessment training Kilpin conducted in Wausau was not new or a direct response to that shooting. But even as the events in Texas have renewed a political push for gun control measures both nationally and in Wisconsin, they’ve also given a new urgency to efforts to prevent school violence through earlier interventions and stronger mental health support.

Kilpin said state officials have intervened in 67 plots by students to attack schools in recent years. These don’t necessarily result in arrests or jail time. In some cases, intervention may mean connecting students to mental health services or addressing other underlying needs.

The Uvalde shooting has also been followed by a series of threats against Wisconsin schools. In Slinger, a middle school student’s false claim that he had a gun caused a temporary lockdown. An 18-year-old in Oneida County has been charged with making threats against two Northwoods high schools that were forced to close as a result. And the Kiel School District had to cancel its last week of in-person school after it was inundated with threats related to the district’s handling of a complaint that students harassed a transgender student.

A 2017 state law created the Office of School Safety; Kilpin became its director in February after working as a school social worker in Madison for more than 30 years.

To report a tip to the Speak Up, Speak Out hotline, call 1-800-MY-SUSO-1. Visit speakup.widoj.gov for more information.

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