School violence cannot be avoided entirely, but through a conscious effort from school staff and law enforcement, today's students can be safer than in the past. That was the focus of a lengthy conference Tuesday at Rutgers University, featuring presentations from the U.S. Secret Service.

Educators and other school faculty were invited to the event, which focused on identifying students who might pose a risk of violence, as well as effective intervention strategies.

Christopher Rodriguez, head of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness (Dino Flammia, Townsquare Media NJ)

The conference was hosted partly by the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness.

"We have seen, over the past several years, tragic events take place at schools which are supposed to be safe havens for our children to learn and to grow," said OHSP Director Christopher Rodriguez. "Parents, teachers and administrators really need to be involved because the best gift that we can give our community is to allow our children to grow and learn in a safe environment."

Among the speakers was Carl Agnelli, acting special agent in charge for the U.S. Secret Service Newark Field Office, who said catastrophic events can occur simply because of a lack of communication.

"In most of these cases, the individuals that committed these crimes have told somebody they were going to commit these crimes ahead of time," Agnelli said in a conversation with Townsquare Media. "If somebody knows something, they need to get that message out there so we can cut it off before it happens."

A number of "concerning behaviors" have been posted on the agency's web site:

  • Expressions of hopelessness
  • Knowledge of drug use
  • Depression
  • Suicidal gestures or statements
  • Threats of violence

According to Agnelli, students have done a better job notifying school staff of a potential problem with a peer.

Dr. Cliff Lacey (L), director of the Rutgers Institute for Emergency Preparedness and Homeland Security, speaks with U.S. Secret Service acting special agent in charge Carl Agnelli of the Newark Field Office. (Connie Lee, Townsquare Media NJ)

"In the past, it wasn't cool necessarily to tell on somebody," he said. "But I think we're getting to a point where students understand that bad things can happen."

The agency's web site promoted the use of a "Comprehensive Prevention Plan" in schools, based on a climate of respect and trust and maintaining a threat assessment team. The plan also emphasized the importance of fostering relationships with law enforcement.

"It's extremely important that we focus on understanding the motivations, the indicators, the ability to detect and then the ability to contain," said Dr. Cliff Lacey, head of the Rutgers Institute for Emergency Preparedness and Homeland Security, which also hosted the conference. "If you can predict early enough, you can do early interventions that actually prevent."

Rodriguez noted the state's School Security Task Force is in the process of creating its final report on steps that New Jersey schools can take to better protect their students.