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SCHOOL SAFETY

U.S. Secret Service offers violence training at Normal West

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Aaron Cotkin 080422.JPG

Aaron Cotkin speaks about U.S. Secret Service research and analysis regarding school violence on Thursday in the auditorium at Normal West High School. 

BLOOMINGTON — Representatives of the U.S. Secret Service's National Threat Assessment Center visited Normal West High School on Thursday to provide specialized training on identifying and preventing targeted school violence.

About 200 educators and law enforcement from 39 different districts and entities attended the presentations, according to the Regional Office of Education District 17.

NATC has studied targeted school violence and educated faculties since the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, which left 15 people dead. Thursday's presentation highlighted a multidisciplinary approach communities can use to identify and intervene with students exhibiting threatening behavior.

Aaron Cotkin, a social science research specialist for the U.S. Secret Service, presented three publications: a 2018 report on how threat assessment can identify students of concern and get them help, a 2019 report that examined 41 cases of targeted school violence that left at least one person injured and a 2021 report that looked at 67 instances of current or former students who plotted to attack their school.

However, NATC does not just study incidents of firearm violence. Of the 41 cases examined in the 2019 report, 25 involved firearm violence and the other 16 involved bladed weapons.

"We don't focus on the weapons that are used when we're doing these reports," Cotkin said. "Instead, we focus on the intentional infliction of violence for the sake of inflicting violence when we're looking at instances to include."

Cotkin said one thing audiences are consistently shocked by is that there is no accurate or useful demographic profile of someone going on to commit a targeted act of violence against a school or community. Individuals planning acts of violence can come in all ages, races, genders, sexual orientation and social circles.

"What's important rather than profiling is looking at the behaviors that they are engaging in and looking for students who need help and then intervening to get them the help that they need," Cotkind said.

Kristen Weikle, superintendent of McLean County Unit 5, encouraged all families or students to report any behaviors or activities that seem unusual.

"We would much rather take the time to investigate a matter (and) provide the proper resources and support for our students rather than not," Weikle said. "And so it's really important for that communication flow between our students' homes, the community and the schools to occur."

Students may also use the Safe2Help app, which allows students to find online resources if they're at risk of hurting themselves or are concerned about the well-being of a friend. Weikle said the app is not meant to be punitive in nature but rather a tool to help students find proper support.

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