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Can a Multi-Tiered System of Supports Quell School Violence?

The Multi-Tiered System of Supports is a layered approach to intervention and, when used along with other tools, can help uncover the behaviors that lead to violence and, perhaps, change them.

A group of high school students walking into school a building.
Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images
There is no silver bullet to preventing violence in schools, and certainly not when it comes to preventing a school shooting. But there are tools to help weed out those troubled students and even, perhaps, get them on the right track in life.

Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports (MTSS) have long been used for academics, and the principles that guide the design and implementation of effective MTSS frameworks can help develop a safer atmosphere in a school setting.

MTSS is a layered intervention approach. Support on a multi-tiered system could be a mental health or behavioral approach, or whatever a school district has defined as a needed intervention or support for students.

“MTSS … is really thinking about, how do we organize our resources — the academic support and behavioral, social, emotional and counseling supports — in a school system to make sure that students are getting what they need,” Rebecca Zumeta Edmonds, director of the National Center on Intensive Intervention, told Education Week last year.

“Fostering positive relationships and connections is at the heart of why school-based interventions like MTSS are so crucial for addressing the tragedy of school shootings,” said Diana Empie, director of staff, student and family engagement at Mechanicville City School District in New York, in an email. “These approaches provide a framework for really getting to know our students — their struggles, their needs — and wrapping the right services and supports around them.”

Another key tool to go along with MTSS is the universal screener, such as the DESSA screener by Aperture Education, used by thousands of schools today. The screener is a tool that given key data elements can shed light on which students need intervention and what kind of intervention they need.

The screeners can come into play when determining students’ strengths and weaknesses in the five CASEL core competencies:
  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Responsible decision-making
  • Social awareness
  • Relationship skills
“The screener may help identify that a student has a strong ability to make responsible decisions, but is really at risk in the area of developing relationships,” said Brandy Samuell, director of K-12 mental health and related services at eLuma, a company that works with K-12 students who need intervention via online or on-site support.

“So what the screener does is it allows schools to take that data and build targeted instruction — direct explicit instruction — around building the skill gaps just like we do in academics," Samuell explained.

The data gleaned from the screener can help with an intervention over the next eight to 12 weeks to try and build those desired skills. “If the student is acquiring the skills that we’re teaching, the real positive in that we know those prosocial behaviors help lessen the child’s risk factors to violence.”

Samuell said screeners can help take a deep dive into the students' social and emotional competencies and help administrators home in on helping build the students' “protective factors” or resilient factors and decrease those factors that lead to school violence.

"A lot of students who have taken part in a school shooting have dark personality traits," she said.

“When I talk about a dark personality trait," Samuell explained, "I’m typically thinking of aggression or violence toward other youth or young children that tend toward more aggression; they may be withdrawn, externally slow to make friendships or don’t develop relationships. They might have poor anger regulation.”

That’s when an intervention may be needed.

“I believe that the disconnect that students have with society and their peers continues to grow every year,” Samuell said.

“When we talk about the MTSS, we talk about the tiers, but there’s a foundational piece and I believe that’s where we come together as a community — parents, community leaders, responders, school staff — and that’s developing those relationships, collaboration and communication from the get-go.”

Samuell remembers when she was directly at the center of a middle school shooting. She had just taken a job as an assistant superintendent at a Roswell, N.M., school district. The shooting took place a week into her term. At the time there was no crisis team or agenda for such a thing.

With a background in crisis management, she went to work, starting from scratch. “It changed everything for me. I had a 90-day plan my second week, and it worked,” Samuell said. “I believe schools are in such an important position to put all the measures in place that can absolutely promote positive change.”


Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management magazine.