“Every risk factor you can imagine was on this student’s Internet posting,” recalls Lisa Cull, senior program coordinator for Glenn County Behavioral Health.
On the basis of Felton’s and Cull’s responses to the post, the student was jailed for one month and eventually placed on probation. The school remained safe.
“When you take a look at the horrific shootings that have happened in some of our country’s schools, the one common denominator is someone knew something before it actually happened,” says Glenn County Office of Education Supt. Tracey Quarne. “Our whole objective is to give those somebodies a number to call.”
In this geographically vast but sparsely populated county in Northern California’s Central Valley, a model program to pre-empt mass school shootings has taken hold. Since its inception in 2014, SMART (System-wide Mental Health Response Treatment) has referred 187 cases to a team of law enforcement officials, educators, psychologists, and social workers.
The impact of SMART reaches well beyond this county that is sustained largely by farming rice and almonds. In 2016, Felton, chief SMART law enforcement investigator, was cited by then-U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch for Distinguished Service in Community Policing.
“A lot of this job is how you talk to people and execute common sense,” Felton says.
Behind Felton’s humility is a collaborative multi-agency effort that responds quickly and efficiently to incidents at schools including threats, suicidal behavior, violence and bullying. Modeled after groundbreaking work in Los Angeles County, the Glenn County SMART Team includes a Sheriff’s Department investigator; members of Glenn County’s Office of Education and Schools; and clinicians from Glenn County’s office of mental health, child welfare and probation departments.
The effort is intensive. Egos are left at the door.
“We rely on Greg,” says Amy Lindsey, director of Mental Health Services at Glenn County. “If Greg says do X, Y and Z, then we do X, Y and Z.”
The program begins with evaluating the threat. Once the SMART team receives a call on its crisis hotline, Felton obtains specifics by interviewing the stu-
dent who made the threat, the recipient or other witnesses.
The rest of the team then assesses whether the threat is transient or substantive. It seeks guidance from a local school team that includes a school counselor, psychologist, principal and vice principal. Helping to make team judgments is MOSAIC, a risk assessment model that uses a standardized series of questions to assess the level of threat.
On a mid-August morning in Willows, Felton and Cull gather the SMART team’s two case managers, Priscilla Cortes and Calley Pfyl, as well as therapist Janet Mendez, for their weekly roundtable.
Cull opens the meeting with a discussion of two calls that have been received on the hotline in the past week. One involves a first grader who was behaving disruptively and aggressively in school. Cull determined that the child was suffering separation anxiety from a parent and recommended parent-child therapy.
The other case involves a high school student who threatened to beat up a peer. Felton recommends a “no contact contract,” executed at the school level and which would mandate a suspension if the student were to violate it.
Later in the meeting, the SMART team turns to ongoing case reviews. Cull brings up the case of a younger student who has already been in trouble for vandalism and physically accosting school staff.
The student is worried about family members who have their own serious concerns. Cortes will continue to monitor the student through his caregiver but notes the new school year has started without incident.
“We have always had students we shouldn’t have let fly under the radar,” notes Willows Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Mort Geivett. “Now we have a tool that addresses this, and it is a highly effective tool at that.”
A shared sense of responsibility permeates discussion over several more cases that the SMART team discussed. So, too, does a shared sense of good fortune that a mass shooting hasn’t happened in Glenn County.
Virtually every household in the county owns at least one firearm, due to the popularity of hunting. Residents here are passionate about it, bagging deer, ducks, pheasant, and even wild pigs, which according to rumors fatten up on the grass of a football field at one of the county’s most remote high schools.
Willows Intermediate School Principal Steve Sailsbery’s most vivid memory of a SMART intervention covered a young student who “chronically bought fake guns to school.”
Felton recalls a case from several years ago, when a high school student picked up a rifle that was left lying out in his parents’ home and thought it would be funny to put on a mask and issue a threat to fellow students on social media. The post triggered a call to law enforcement and a lightning-quick weekend visit by sheriff’s deputies to the student’s home. The detective determined the threat not to be serious, but discipline and counseling for the young man ensued.
“Turns out it was a dumb mistake,” Felton recalls.
The county’s 18 schools feature wide-open and accessible campuses, reflecting the preferences of 1960s- and 70s-inspired architects. Open-designed schools and beautiful weather means that kids in Glenn County schools spend a lot of time outdoors — close to streets, parking lots, throughways and potential danger.
“Talking about this program is easy because people want it,” says Glenn County Sheriff Richard Warren Jr., Felton’s boss. “Funding is another matter because the program takes time and it is not always backed up by hard statistics.”
Nationwide, there were 30 active school shootings in the United States in 2017, representing the highest number ever recorded by the FBI during a single year.
The next year, the FBI released a landmark study of pre-attack behaviors in 63 school shootings that date back to 2000. Among the findings:
• active shooters fit no specific profile;
• more than three quarters of them spent a week or longer planning violence;
• the majority purchased guns legally;
• only a quarter of the shooters had been diagnosed with a mental illness.
What focuses the SMART team are two other findings contained in the FBI report: each active shooter had in advance of their actions displayed four to five concerning behaviors that were observable to others, and these behaviors were most noticeable to fellow students and teachers, rather than their parents.
Hence, the SMART team’s laser-sharp focus is on pre-emption and outreach. Cull runs through weekly updates of school needs, collaboration updates, and community presentations.
Green colored “survival cards” that possess a crisis hotline number on one side and the phone numbers of 40 public agencies on the other side are passed out to every student and staff member in Glenn County schools. Case manager Pfyl discusses ongoing programs in schools that aim for prevention, crisis response, screening, early identification and monitoring.
“When the program was first brought to us I said ‘Wow, this is great,’ because what is predictable is preventable,” says John Vieges, a retired police chief for the City of Orland and a current member of the Glenn County Board of Supervisors.
Following approval by the county board five years ago, Glenn County’s SMART program was seeded with a $100,000 per year grant from the California Legislature that is about to expire. Medicaid reimbursements and support from Quarne account for the remainder of the $250,000 the SMART program requires annually.
The future is promising. A new grant proposal was approved by the county board of supervisors this past spring. Glenn County’s Lindsey took a new funding proposal to the state capital this summer, just as requests poured in from Fresno, Modesto and the California Legislature to introduce Glenn County’s program to other counties in the state.
Regardless of the outcome, local officials say SMART is here to stay.
“The program will continue,” Quarne says. “You cannot operate schools in the 21st century without a pre-emptive program like this.”