Handling Threats in Schools is Hampered by Progressive Cultures and Lack of Individual Initiative

Bice House at UVa

by James C. Sherlock

Virginia’s school threat assessment and mitigation processes are broken, putting entire school communities in danger.

The University of Virginia shootings and the rapes at two Loudoun County high schools were each preventable had the focus been on intervention by authorities responsible to do so. It was clearly not.

School cultures are an issue, but not an excuse.

One signal in progressive jurisdictions is the creation of committees and teams to define and enforce progressive cultural orthodoxy. At the extremes, leaders will even assign cultural enforcers with serious threat deliberation and action responsibilities to these teams.

Like threat assessment teams.

But that is insufficient excuse here. I see four factors at play in all three tragedies.

  1. Special situation policies and plans — like those that failed in Virginia’s pandemic response and more recently in school threat responses — usually fail without executive interest, oversight, and the training, exercise, accountability and inspection of action agencies prior to need.
  2. The chief executives of the Loudoun County Public Schools and the University of Virginia failed to set a clear tone and show by their actions that school safety took precedence over extraneous considerations and values.
  3. Second-tier executives with specific responsibilities for safety at UVa and in the Loudoun school system (at least one principal) failed to do their duties.
  4. The individual members of threat teams do not shed their personal executive authorities and responsibilities upon meeting as a group. They remain personally responsible and have to carry out their duties against cultural headwinds and enforcers. They failed in the UVa case. It is nowhere clear they were even used in the Loudoun cases.

There was a price paid for those failures. But only a single member of that hierarchy has been fired, and that happened yesterday in Loudoun County.

Five UVa students and two Loudoun County girls paid very high prices indeed.

Our society, led by progressive ascendancy in positions at the heights of the culture, has “evolved” to treating dangerous persons as victims. We see it everywhere in progressive-led jurisdictions.

In those jurisdictions, government cultures are increasingly progressive with threatening persons being seen as victims themselves. Failures to arrest or prosecute, cashless bail, restorative justice, equity bureaucracy oversight of executive actions and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) in the schools set the table for failing to deal with danger and allowing it to grow.

Many government bureaucratic systems, including some of those in Virginia, in dealing with policies without discrete regular deliverables but dangerous situations – consider pandemic emergency plans or school threats as examples — fail to follow up, train, exercise or assess.

And God knows they don’t like to be inspected.

To the Loudoun County School Board’s credit, their regulation on threat assessment teams is sufficiently specific on interventions. UVa’s policy was not.

But the authority of a threat assessment team or other bureaucratic construct itself is a red herring — a distinction without a difference — when the members themselves have sufficient executive authority.

Whether the team is assembled or not.

Bottom line. So, forget the teams for now.

None of the government employees involved in any of the three school threat situations exercised his or her individual authority to stop threats that were well enough defined to warrant action.

We cannot fail to note that the cultures of all three schools were strongly on the side of being non-judgmental and passive in the face of challenges to authority, and therefore vulnerable to the dangers that lurked therein.

We have to fix that.

But more than that we must remind public employees across the government that they are in positions of trust, responsibility and authority. We thank them for it, but government must inspect to check readiness for responding to irregular but dangerous circumstances. The best employees will support that if well-led.

Accountability is absolutely necessary. The best employees will support that as well.

Those who fail to prepare for or to carry out their duties resulting in danger to their own organizations or the public must lose their jobs. Or the policies are for naught.

The Loudoun County School Board fired Superintendent Ziegler yesterday.

Even though the action seemed defensive — a reaction to a special grand jury report of information they had known for a year —  it was a good start.

But just a start.