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Pilot project working to make schools safer by identifying students at risk of violence

Margie Daniels (left), executive director of the Massachusetts Partnerships for Youth, talks with Safe and Sound Schools Executive Director & Founder Michelle Gay ahead of Gay's presentation at MPY's school safety summit,Massachusetts Partnerships for Youth

Amid rising concern nationally about school shootings, four area districts are getting some help in keeping their schools safe.

Through a recent $634,307 federal grant, Boston Children’s Hospital is collaborating with Massachusetts Partnerships for Youth on a pilot project to reduce the risk of targeted violence and terrorism in the Bedford, Hudson, and Norton public schools, and Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical School in Danvers.

The two organizations are helping the districts create and enhance threat assessment teams at their schools. The teams identify youths at risk of committing major acts of violence, and take steps — including referring the student to needed services — to minimize the risk of an incident.

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Through the two-year grant from the US Department of Homeland Security, the hospital and Massachusetts Partnerships for Youth are also providing the teams — along with all staff and middle- and high-school students — training on reducing threats of targeted violence.

Heidi Ellis, associate professor of psychology at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, said the initiative is a response to the many school shootings that have shaken the nation and rising extremism in general.

“As health providers and educators, we have a role to play in preventing hatred and hate-motivated violence,” she said.

“Schools should be a safe place where students can learn and socialize together,” said Margie Daniels, executive director of the nonprofit Massachusetts Partnerships for Youth, which provides training to K-12 educators on topics related to the health and safety of youth.

But nowadays, she said, “I hear parents say they are afraid to send their kids to school, and that breaks my heart. If students don’t feel safe, it’s difficult for them to learn.”

Her organization has for many years helped districts create threat assessment teams, but Daniels said, “In collaborating with Boston Children’s Hospital, we are bringing this to a different level by making use of their expertise.”

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Margie Daniels, left, executive director of Massachusetts Partnerships for Youth, addresses attendees at MPY's conference Establishing and Assessing Threat Assessment Teams: The Importance of School Safety, at Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical High School in Lexington in November. She is pictured with, from left, Heidi Ellis, Director of the Trauma & Community Resilience Center at Boston Children's Hospital; John Oteri, School Safety Coordinator for MPY and James Barrett, Director of Clinical Support Services, Cambridge Police Department.Massachusetts Partnerships for Youth

Through its Massachusetts Area Prevention Program, the hospital for several years has provided counseling and other services to students that law enforcement agencies and schools have referred to them because of concerns about their potential for violence.

Through the new initiative, the hospital hopes to create a standardized model school districts can use in developing threat assessment teams, said Kathlyn Elliott, a postdoctoral researcher at the hospital. As part of the grant, the hospital will also help direct students to services if the teams believe they pose a threat.

The work to create or revamp threat assessment teams began in October. In January, training began for the team members, who can include school psychologists, social workers, guidance counselors, teachers, administrators, and other staff, as well as school resource officers.

The training to date has focused on how to spot signs that a student is at risk of committing violence. Next fall middle- and high-school students and staff from all the district’s schools will receive that same training, with selected students at each school helping to tailor the presentations to their peers.

The threat assessment teams this spring will also receive more advanced training in how to evaluate if a student is actually at risk, and if so, how to respond.

“Part of what we are trying to do is to decrease bias and assumptions around who might be of concern and increase accuracy in identifying who really does need more support,” Ellis said.

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Norton School Superintendent Joseph F. Baeta said his district has existing threat assessment teams but “we decided that we needed to not only enhance our knowledge and response, but to create a relationship with the experts from Boston Children’s Hospital. This is valuable to the needs of our school system and the at-large school community. It is a win-win.”

Daniels said the project is also an opportunity to reinforce the value of building positive school culture as a proactive way to prevent future violence.

“It’s really vital that schools have a culture of safety, respect, trust, and inclusiveness,” she said. “Everyone needs to feel welcome and supported.”

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.