After decades evaluating school threats in Salem, John van Dreal retiring to spend more time on his art

John van Dreal sits in his office at the Salem-Keizer School District (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

When John van Dreal started a new job four years ago, his bosses were thousands of miles away.

Van Dreal, a school psychologist specializing in threat assessment, was heading up the Salem-Keizer School District’s new risk management office.

His direct supervisor, Mike Wolfe, was in Spain and Superintendent Christy Perry was in Hawaii.

“John’s like, ‘Hey, thanks for the opportunity here, I’ll see you guys next couple of weeks,’” Wolfe recalled. His next contact was an email he received while sipping coffee in Lisbon.

“It’s basically this emergency management plan, and one of the scenarios is how we would deal with the zombie apocalypse,” Wolfe said. He no longer recalls the precise details, but said the plan was thorough and seemed plausible.

“I knew we had the right guy,” he said.

That was in 2015, after van Dreal had already spent nearly 20 years working for Salem-Keizer schools.

Now 57, he’s retiring from the district.

Van Dreal is best known for a system to evaluate threats of school violence, developed in the wake of the Columbine High School shooting. The Salem-Keizer model is used by hundreds of school districts in the U.S.

A bulletin board in his office displays the risk management team’s unofficial motto: “Stay frosty. Don’t get captured.” It’s a combination of two U.S. military sayings urging soldiers to stay alert to danger. Below the motto are yearbook-style photos of the Marion County threat assessment team at its inception, and in 2011 and 2017.

Through a career dealing with troubled students and highly-charged situations, van Dreal has approached the work with a sense of humor and a healthy balance, colleagues and friends said.

He’s a published author on threat assessment, but also is an oil painter, published poet, and keyboardist and songwriter for Reverend Shaky and the Part-Time Believers, a self-described “bluesy-rock-folk-funk and country-swing-alternative band” made of middle-aged professional men that mostly plays winery gigs.

Painting was his first love, something he began as a child under instruction from his father. He paints in the style of Old Masters – renowned European artists working between the Renaissance and 1800.

“I decided that the life of an artist probably wasn’t the best way to support two kids,” he said. Education was a logical field. His parents were educators and summer off meant he’d have time to focus on painting.

His resume has led many colleagues to label him a Renaissance Man.

“His well-roundedness, that shows through in the work that he does. And he’s a collaborator,” said Mary Paulson, deputy executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association, who worked with van Dreal at Salem-Keizer.

Van Dreal studied educational psychology and fine art at Brigham Young University and then went to work in acute care facilities for kids who were “highly disruptive” – aggressive, threatening others or harming themselves.

“I was interested in working with kids who kind of lived in the extremes,” he said.

That interest came in part from his childhood. Van Dreal grew up in Bakersfield, California, and was a “rowdy kid” for several years, ditching school and going out at night with friends to break windows. He grew out of it, but it cemented a desire to see kids as more than their worst moments.

“Life isn’t black and white and just good and bad,” he said. “Most of the kids live in these gray areas.”

Van Dreal worked as a school psychologist in Coos Bay for three years before coming to Salem-Keizer in 1992.

Six years later, an expelled student opened fire at Thurston High School in Springfield, killing two classmates and injuring 25 others. The following year, the Columbine shooting led to nationwide efforts to improve school security.

An Oregon law passed soon after required school districts to have policies and procedures outlining what to do if students made threats. Salem-Keizer leaders decided they wanted more than a policy and approached van Dreal about developing a threat assessment system with other agencies serving youth.

At a time when many schools were pursuing “zero tolerance” policies ­- automatic expulsion for bringing any weapon to school, even with no intent to harm someone – van Dreal took another approach.

Most kids who bring a knife to school pose little risk to peers: they may have forgotten it in a backpack after a weekend camping trip or brought it in to show off to friends, he said. And a student who calls in a bomb threat to a school is far more likely to be seeking a break from class or a test than intending to harm anyone.

Treating those acts as deliberate steps toward violence and ignoring the true intent serves no one, van Dreal said.

“It’s ineffective, it disenfranchises kids and it’s a completely useless tool for threat assessment,” he said of zero tolerance. “It only catches the overt situations. It doesn’t identify things that aren’t against the rules that may be indicative of some pretty scary stuff.”

Drawing on research and recommendations from the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education’s Safe Schools Initiative, he sought a way to identify kids whose behavior suggested they might be heading toward violence.

Threat assessment was a relatively new field, but suicide risk assessment had a longer history, van Dreal said, and many of the same principles apply. Someone talking about taking their own life is at higher risk if they have a concrete plan or access to a weapon.

The process he developed meant training school employees to identify warning signs of potential acts of violence and assessing concerns that were reported to them.

If such an evaluation concluded there was reason for concern, van Dreal’s office would step in.

Despite a heightened fear of school shootings now, van Dreal said schools are safer than they were 30 years ago, thanks to better training, more police officers on campus and improved security measures.

School shootings are no more common than when Columbine first made headlines, he said, citing FBI data, and Salem-Keizer has had roughly the same number of threats year-to-year since he began working for the district.

He said the heightened fear is in part because news of shootings travels much faster and feels closer to home, thanks to social media.

Media coverage of school shootings has also improved, he said. Sensational coverage made the Columbine killers famous and “gave people who were considering the idea a strong cultural script to follow,” he said. Now, mass shooting coverage tends to focus first on victims, and shooters are less likely to become household names.

When he was asked to develop an assessment system, Van Dreal didn’t relish being the go-to guy for threats. He initially agreed to take the project on for six months and was troubled by the thought of having to decide whether a student represented a real threat, with lives hanging on his conclusion.

“I don’t want to end up being the person who makes these decisions by himself,” he said.

Out of that concern came another signature part of the Salem-Keizer model: joint decision-making. If a threat goes beyond what employees at a school feel comfortable evaluating, it’s passed to a team including mental health providers, law enforcement, juvenile services and van Dreal.

He found Salem police, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office and other partners eager to collaborate. The Willamette Educational Service District joined soon after, and the team has grown from there.

“It was amazing. Everyone stepped up,” he said.

Salem Police Chief Jerry Moore said having a research-based system for evaluating threats of violence was a huge help to police, who know how to respond to violent incidents but don’t always have the background in psychology to evaluate risk.

“John, I think, was really a pioneer in what he’s brought to the table,” Moore said. “I can remember over the course of my long career when we could get things that were concerning to us … where you just didn’t really know what to do.”

Once they’ve ensured a school is safe, the team can work with students to address underlying problems. That might mean moving them to a new school where they can get more individual attention or connecting them with a counselor to work on coping with frustration and disappointment.

“His vision around those wraparound services for kids … shows his commitment to finding and helping kids be the best that they can, regardless of whether or not they have had issues in the past,” Paulson said.

Van Dreal doesn’t discuss specific cases without permission from students involved, instead using composites when he’s training others. But he ran through a 2011 case in an NPR report on the threat assessment team published earlier this year.

He got a call about Mishka, a 17-year-old student at North Salem High School who had posted on social media about beating other students with pipes and saying the school was asking for a shooting.

Van Dreal interviewed the teen, who was upset because his friends had been suspended after a fight with jocks. He felt other students had done similar things without getting punished.

Looking into Mishka’s background, van Dreal found he was “a student who did get in lots of fights, but most of the time he was the one who was provoked, he was not the one who instigated.” He was also a “talented young man who was close to graduation and had a lot going for him.”

He’d been blowing off steam with the posts, not planning an attack, and had no access to a gun. But van Dreal and his team thought Mishka might be better served at Roberts, an alternative high school where he’d have more direct interaction with counselors and be away from the injustices he was upset about.

After the switch, Mishka graduated from Roberts and now works in security.

Van Dreal soon began training other districts on the system, chiefly in Oregon and Washington, and was the lead author of a book on school threat assessment.

He said it’s not unusual for him to get a call from a school district in another state saying they’ve started using the Salem-Keizer system.

In part because his day job is so serious, van Dreal makes a point of living a full life in his off-work hours.

“I once heard somebody say of him ‘He drinks from the cup of life and sometimes he slurps,’” bandmate Kevin Rentz said.

Van Dreal’s musical career began through informal gatherings at his home. Van Dreal would invite Rentz to bring a guitar over and hang out around his backyard fire pit or in his art studio with other artists.

Rentz said van Dreal described the scene to him: “It’s really laid back – we drink beer, smoke cigars and there’s a nude model in the room.” (Van Dreal added the models were there for painters to work from.)

Another artist friend began bringing a guitar regularly, Rentz said, leading van Dreal to ask him what instrument might be easy to learn. He began practicing harmonica.

“Even though he didn’t play an instrument, he was a hard worker so I knew he was going to practice obsessively,” Rentz said.

That led van Dreal to re-learn keyboard, which he’d played when he was younger.

The two played as a duo for five years, hiring other musicians for one-off gigs as needed, before forming a regular band. The group now has an album of original bluegrass and folk music and is working on a second.

Van Dreal’s oil paintings, which include Oregon landscapes, still lifes and portraits, have been displayed at Salem’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art and sold to collectors around the U.S.

“As a painter proficient in traditional masterly techniques, he is unusual among contemporary artists, especially in our region,” Roger Hull, a Willamette art history professor, said in an email.

As the district’s security and risk management director, van Dreal’s past few years have involved less hands-on time in schools. He evaluates threats against district staff and continues to consult and train other districts on threat assessment.

But the demands of the job have left him with less time for painting. He’s gone from 30 pieces a year to about six, he said, and he’s eager to do more after retiring.

Van Dreal will continue his consulting work after leaving the school district.

Wolfe said van Dreal’s calm in situations of crisis and dry humor have made him a friend and close colleague.

“I’m gonna miss him. I’m going to miss him as a friend and I’m going to miss him as one of my administrators,” he said.

Correction: This article originally misstated the timing of the Thurston and Columbine school shootings.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.


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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.