TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — On Valentine’s Day, a 19-year-old who was expelled from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School entered the school in Parkland, Florida, and allegedly gunned down 31 people, killing 17.
But long before the Valentine’s Day massacre occurred, Nikolas Cruz showed numerous red flags that he was headed down a dark path. Law enforcement had been called to his home 39 times since 2011 in response to his violent outbursts.
Brenda Truelove, program manager for corporate engagement in The University of Alabama’s College of Continuing Studies, said this tragedy could have been prevented if the clues had been heeded and early intervention was provided.
“We always think of things in the punitive way, but we need to look at intervention as well,” she said. “Some of these kids need help. This kid, Cruz, was doing a lot of acting out, and nobody was picking up that he’s hurting. He lost his dad and his mom. He didn’t get that way over night.”
James Satterfield, CEO and co-founder of Firestorm, a leading crisis and risk management firm and “America’s crisis coach,” said every crisis has clues along the way. The company got involved in attempting to prevent school mass shootings after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, for which they did crisis management.
And identifying those clues – those early warning signals – in order to prevent mass shootings and other violent acts, are why UA’s College of Continuing Studies has partnered with Firestorm to offer a comprehensive, threat prevention, e-learning program to all Alabama K-12 schools free of charge for the first year.
The program, BERTHA – Behavioral Risk Threat Assessment – is an online tool for Alabama schools that functions as part of a school’s overall school violence prevention program.
Schools – private, public or charter – and districts that sign up for BERTHA will be trained and equipped to identify, assess, manage and monitor students who may exhibit behaviors of concern long before they pose a threat of violence to themselves or others, according to the program’s website.
“There’s not another program out there like this,” Truelove said. “This can be done at your church and business, but our focus is school. When someone signs up for Bertha, they get access to the e-training model, and it walks them through the process step-by-step on what exactly they need to do.
“It usually takes a couple of hours to complete. At the end of the training module, we have a quiz to make sure you are retaining what you’ve learned.”
The Bertha process begins when a tip or report comes in regarding a student exhibiting troubling behavior such as bullying, cyber bullying, fighting, stalking, threats and bringing weapons to school.
Some other less immediately troubling factors that are considered when determining potential threats are students who:
- Have experienced multiple losses
- Have suicidal thoughts
- Make threatening, specific plans
- Are laughed at, talked about in a negative manner (they don’t fit in)
- Demonstrate volatile mood swings
Following identification and reporting, if there’s an immediate, life-safety concern, it’s advised that local law enforcement be contacted immediately and the local school resource officer or security be notified, according to the program. If it’s not an immediate danger, then intervention processes may follow.
“For example, a student named Billy may have a behavior of concern in third grade,” Truelove said. “They will follow his data with this program and see if it continues and escalates in fifth grade. If it continues by seventh grade, they can codify and assess to see if this student needs an intervention or whatever else is needed.”
The University got involved with BERTHA after working with Firestorm for several years.
“They had the program in a booklet, and I said ‘this booklet needs to come alive,’” Truelove said. “It’s like everything else on a shelf, it’s on a shelf. You need to transfer knowledge to action in some kind of kinesthetic learning.
“…The dean said go do it. It took me a year to get all the pieces in the puzzle together. Finally it came together, and it launched officially last fall. It’s Firestorm’s product. We created the conduit to get it into our schools.”
After the first free year of the program for Alabama schools – all schools outside of Alabama have to pay for the program – BERTHA cost $2,500 a year, per school. However, there are discounts and grants available for financially challenged schools and school districts.
To take advantage of the year-free offer, schools have to apply no later than Sept. 1. Applications can be completed here.
“We didn’t get into this to make money but to save lives,” Satterfield said. “What we’re trying to do is get the issue back to where it needs to be. How do you act before there’s an act of violence? BERTHA is ready to address that.
“At the end of the day, no one wants to pick up the phone and call a family and say ‘your child is not coming home from school today.’ Alabama can lead in solving this problem that’s affecting our children. It’s a topic that every superintendent and every PTA is thinking about.”
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.