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FBI looks to boost St. Louis-area school safety efforts

An illustration of students hiding in a classroom during a lockdown.
Dion MBD
Special to NPR
The FBI's St. Louis field office has been helping school districts in the region put together threat assessment teams since 2021.

School districts across the St. Louis region are getting a hand from the FBI’s local field office to evaluate the proper response to threats of violence made by students.

The bureau’s school safety initiative has been in place since 2021. A key component is helping districts set up threat assessment teams, or groups of staff trained to recognize potential warning signs that a student is struggling.

“What we know from the decades of research into mass acts of violence is that in almost every single circumstance, somebody saw this coming,” said Jay Greenberg, the special agent in charge of the St. Louis field office. “This is just looking for big sweeps in behavior change. That's not necessarily a sign that something is terribly wrong. But it is a sign that if we know to look for it, somebody could just go up and check and see how they're doing.”

Jay Greenberg, special agent in charge for FBI St. Louis, looks to the camera while wearing a blue suit and red tie
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Jay Greenberg, special agent in charge for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s St. Louis branch, in July 2022 at the agency’s headquarters in Midtown.

The FBI isn’t tracking which schools have put together these teams, Greenberg said, but more than 300 educators attended the most recent seminar earlier this summer.

“The most positive outcome that we can talk about is simply that communities and schools and police departments are out there looking for ways to support people before a formal law enforcement intervention is needed,” he said.

Parkway Schools first looked into a threat assessment model in 2018, after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Greg Wagener, Parkway’s coordinator for student discipline, said the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the rollout, but the district hopes to have a team in place at its central office by mid-October. Teams should be in place at all of the district’s 29 schools, including the early childhood center, by the end of the 2023-24 school year.

The teams will consist of administrators, guidance counselors and school resource officers where applicable, Wagener said. They’ll be trained to evaluate threats made by students and to determine the proper response.

“We certainly want to look at the facts of the threat,” Wagener said. “But at the same time, we also want to understand that a child is the source of the threat.”

Zero-tolerance policies, he said, would probably lead to students being unfairly suspended for a comment made in the heat of the moment.

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.