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Nearly 200 attend Secret Service research presentation at Normal West

Representatives of the U.S. Secret Service presented a four-hour program on school violence Thursday at Normal West Community High School.

Nearly 200 people attended a presentation on school violence research by representatives of the U.S. Secret Service Thursday morning at Normal West Community High School.

The four-hour event was aimed at equipping those attending with the ability to identify student behavioral issues as early as possible, with the presentation based on years of research from the U.S. Secret Service's National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC).

Sponsors included McLean County Unit 5 schools, Regional Office of Education 17, and the U.S. Attorney's Office-Central District of Illinois.

Speaker Aaron Cotkin, a social science research specialist with the U.S. Secret Service's NTAC, said part of the goal of the presentations is to emphasize behavior over profiling. Given the agency's two decades-plus experience studying commonalities among acts of school violence since 1999, Cotkin said the conclusion is that most acts are preventable — if behaviors are identified in time.

Relying on stereotypes, he said, allows potential perpetrators to slip through the cracks.

"There's no one accurate or useful demographic profile of somebody who goes on to commit an act of targeted violence against their school or community at-large," Cotkin said in an interview. "There are stereotypes about who commits these acts of violence, but those stereotypes don't bear out. Really, what (is) important, rather than profiling, is looking at the behaviors that students are engaging in, and looking for students who need help, and intervening to get them that help."

Cotkin and others referred to school violence as the topical theme Thursday because NTAC's research doesn't focus only on school shootings that often capture the national news cycle and drive discussions around school safety.

Specifically, he referred to findings in a 2019 report — "Protecting America's Schools" — that reviewed 41 instances of what NTAC called "targeted acts of school violence" from 2008-2017. Of those 41 incidents, 25 were firearm-related with "the remainder" being acts of violence "with bladed weapons."

"We focus on the the intentional infliction of violence, for the sake of inflicting violence, when we're looking at instances to include," Cotkin said.

Still, most of those 41 incidents did include firearms, which prompted Mark Jontry, superintendent of the Regional Office of Education that includes McLean, Livingston, DeWitt and Piatt counties, to encourage attendees who have relationships with parents of underage children to ensure firearms are being stored safely at home.

"I think we, as a society, have to stop relying or expecting that all of this mitigation falls on our school districts, and that it all has to occur when you get to the school doors," Jontry told WGLT. "Our parents and our communities have an equal responsibility to make sure that they're limiting or preventing access to these type of weapons for kids — especially those that are under age."

Nearly 200 people attended the event Thursday that included an opening statement from state attorney general Kwame Raoul.

Jontry said the number of people who signed up signaled "demand" for the program offering. Cotkin said while NTAC is "always" willing to give presentations on their research and findings to any group for free, there does tend to be an ebb and flow to how often or when the agency is asked.

"Part of it is that there is a yearly cycle, but we also find that demand ebbs and flows with the news cycle," he said. "As these things are more in the news, more people call us and ask us for help."

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.