Call it a convergence of professional passion and societal concern.
There's a new position at Lincoln Public Schools created in the shadow of school violence, a growing awareness of mental health issues and a community’s desire to prevent the sort of horrors that make headlines and ruin lives.
And it's a great fit for Allyson Headrick, who started her professional career in child protective services, then earned her master's degree in social work. Her first job as a social worker was at the Lincoln Regional Center in the forensic unit and working on mental health board commitments. Her second one was at Holmes Elementary and Lefler Middle School.
She was hired for her new gig with a portion of the $1.5 million designated to an interlocal agreement between Lincoln Public Schools and the city to improve safety and security in schools. As the district's first safety social worker, she is part of the LPS threat assessment team.
The team — comprised of Headrick; Nate Hill, the Lincoln Police Department’s threat assessment officer; Jon Sundermeier, LPS security coordinator; and a therapist from Blue Valley Behavioral Health who contracts with the district — identifies potential threats and develops interventions to help students and reduce the potential for violence.
“We are in the process of sort of changing the culture of LPS to have a threat-assessment focus throughout the district because it’s kind of new for a lot of people,” Sundermeier said.
Because they operate from the district office, they depend on schools — counselors, teachers, administrators and students — to share concerns. The team meets weekly, assessing a couple of new cases each week and monitoring existing cases.
“That’s the bottom line with each case, to move it toward safety, to move it to a nonviolent outcome," Sundermeier said.
Headrick’s role is to help connect students to mental health resources when needed. She looks at what's going on at home, what's happening at school, and helps work around any obstacles, such as a lack of insurance, high co-pays or transportation.
“More often than not it’s not lack of will,” she said. “It’s lack of access.”
She helps open the lines of communications between schools and therapists while maintaining the privacy of students, Sundermeier said, so therapists are aware of what raised concerns at school.
Headrick’s time at the regional center clarified the connection between mental health issues and the criminal justice system, she said. She heard stories from people who’d had problems when they were younger — missed opportunities for them to get the help they needed.
“I know where things can end up,” she said. “Let’s figure out where we can move to prevention.”
Schools are the perfect place to do that, she said. And LPS isn’t starting from zero. They have social workers in all the schools, a tiered intervention system focused on prevention, restorative justice practices and teachers and administrators who receive training about how trauma affects students.
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She wants to reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues, so students don’t internalize false messages.
“It’s such a myth that mental health issues cause violence,” she said. More often, people suffering from mental health issues are victims, she said.
Breaking down stigmas can also make people more willing to report concerning behavior, to help people understand it’s not “telling” on someone but seeking help for them.
“Part of the process of encouraging people to report is removing the label,” she said.
The threat assessment team often starts with a snapshot of concerning behavior. It can be activity on social media, comments by a student, threatening graffiti on a bathroom wall. Maybe a student is fascinated by weapons, or feels isolated or marginalized, or their schoolwork shows a fascination with violence.
The threat assessment team finds out the rest of the story: What’s happening in that student’s life, what’s happened in the past, what other issues might be at play. Then the team determines the level of risk.
Most cases end up being low risk, Sundermeier said. But threat assessment looks at incidents from a different perspective than school administrators often do — not from the perspective of what rule was violated, but by what’s causing the behavior and the risk involved.
“If you look at that and reasonably think there’s a chance this kid is thinking about violence or could be violent, let’s get to them now rather than before it’s much more mature and farther down the road," he said.
Both Headrick and Sundermeier help schools develop safety plans.
Plans can involve prohibiting students from bringing backpacks to school or turning out their pockets when they arrive. But they also involve plans to help those students when they struggle, to realize when they need help or need to calm down. It's also about establishing relationships with students, helping them feel connected, Sundermeier said.
Things can happen in a student’s life that can change the situation, which is why the team continues to monitor cases.
“There’s a million facts that could influence one case,” he said. “With all those it’s now what can we do. We still need to find what’s the best we can do and most we can do to make it safer.”
Headrick sees the threat assessment team as building on the work already happening in schools — another step to create an environment of emotional, psychological and physical safety.
“That’s the epitome of violence prevention,” she said.