Behavioral Threat Assessment and Intervention in Schools
March 01, 2023
Appears in March 2023: School Administrator.
Based on a Secret Service concept, the practice has grown in use by educators and related staff as a prevention strategy
I met Mick in jail when he was 14 years old and charged with a mass shooting at his high school in a small Southern town. Tall and slender for his age, with curly hair and large bookish eyeglasses, he was a polite, softspoken young man. He was nothing like the brutish killer I had imagined. He was in shock over the magnitude of his crime and remorseful over the terrible harm he had caused to his victims and their loved ones, as well as his own family.
During my visits with Mick, I learned he had been relentlessly bullied since middle school, and that over time he had become suicidally depressed and paranoid. He fell under the influence of a group of boys who encouraged him to bring guns to school so that they could emulate a movie they had seen by taking revenge on the bullies. I interviewed some of his friends who had been forewarned and a few of the bullies who were threatened by this young man as he and the other boys planned their attack.
Because none of these students came forward to report his behavior, many potential opportunities to intervene and prevent violence were missed.
As a forensic clinical psychologist, my job was to assess his mental state and advise the circuit court on Mick’s competency to stand trial and a possible insanity defense. But as a professor of education whose field was school safety, I also wanted to understand what schools could do to prevent such terrible events.
When I subsequently contributed this case to the FBI’s study of school shootings, I was introduced to a new concept developed by the Secret Service to protect public figures called “behavioral threat assessment and management” (usually shortened to “threat assessment”).
I initially questioned whether threat assessment could be used in schools, given the Secret Service was concerned with apprehending assassins and terrorists, whereas schools were concerned with adolescents who needed help with bullying and other common problems. I did not anticipate that answering this question would take me down a 20-year pathway of educational research, development of a training program, and the dissemination of school threat assessment guidelines in thousands of schools across the United States.
Today, threat assessment teams are mandated by law in 18 states and encouraged by state departments of education in at least 21 others. In 2020, 64 percent of public schools in the U.S. reported they had a threat assessment team, according to the School Survey on Crime and Safety, published in July 2022 by the National Center for Education Statistics. However, most educators and the general public know little about threat assessment and have many misconceptions. There are concerns that poor implementation of threat assessment might prompt school authorities to remove students from school for minor misbehavior and perpetuate disparities across minority groups.
How It Works
A threat assessment is conducted when a student makes a threat of violence or engages in threatening behavior. A threat assessment team usually includes a school administrator, several mental health professionals such as a school counselor, psychologist and social worker, and, if available, a school resource officer. Others, such as school nurses and special education teachers, also may be on the team.
In contrast to zero-tolerance practices that call for automatic punishment without consideration of the circumstances and severity of the misbehavior, a threat assessment team considers the social context of the incident as well as the student’s intent and developmental maturity. A threat made in jest or by an impulsive elementary school student would be considered differently than a threat made in a calculated manner by an adolescent with evident hostility toward the target.
This contextual approach allows threat assessment teams to respond proportionately to the nature and seriousness of the situation and to minimize the use of exclusionary discipline. Schools using threat assessment show a marked decline in the use of school suspension and rarely expel a student.
Teams take a problem-solving approach to threats, recognizing that most students make threats of violence because they are frustrated about a problem or conflict they are unable to solve. The team focuses on helping the student solve the problem through interventions and support such as conflict resolution, social-emotional learning and special education services.
The team also will take appropriate protective actions based on the nature and seriousness of the threat, such as increasing the monitoring of a student, searching for weapons and consulting with parents and threatened individuals. The team might recommend a brief removal from the classroom to a supervised setting if it seems necessary to ensure safety while the threat assessment continues and a safety plan is devised.
These are some common situations where a threat assessment should be considered:
A student is being bullied on the school bus. After repeated incidents, he shouts he is going to shoot everyone who has been making fun of him.
A rumor circulates that a particular student is planning to shoot up the school.
A student is frustrated with classwork due to difficulties in reading. After receiving a low grade on an assignment, the student mutters “I’d like to blow up this school” loud enough for a teacher to hear it.
A student with an emotional disability is struggling to make friends. After a disagreement with a classmate, he texts a group of students that he is putting that classmate on his “hit list.”
A student sends a series of texts and e-mails expressing romantic feelings for another student. When she rejects his interests, he sends a hostile, threatening response and begins stalking her in school.
What to Avoid
Two errors that threat assessment teams strive to avoid:
Under-reaction. In several school shootings, classmates reported concerns that a student was threatening violence, but authorities dismissed the warnings and did not follow up with the student of concern. A threat assessment must gather information from multiple sources and teams often continue to work with a student over an extended period to resolve conflicts or problems underlying a threat.
Over-reaction. Many students make threats that are not serious because they were joking or expressing frustration without an intent to harm anyone. A threat assessment can guide school authorities to an appropriate intervention to counsel and educate these students without necessarily removing them from school.
Some common misconceptions exist over school threat assessment, most notably these five.
Assessment teams predict which students are violent. Threat assessment teams have no crystal ball to foretell the future. Scientific studies find that predictions whether an individual will or will not commit a violent act are often in error, but it is possible to identify risk factors and undertake interventions that reduce risk. Prevention does not require prediction.
One way to think about this is that we cannot predict who will get in a motor vehicle accident, but we know many ways to reduce the risk of accidents. Threat assessment teams focus on suggesting ways to help students and thereby reduce risk rather than trying to predict the future.
Threat assessments stigmatize students. A student who is suspected of threatening a school shooting runs the risk of being stigmatized and labeled as dangerous by the school community. In these circumstances, a threat assessment is the best way to vindicate a student who was not serious or was falsely accused of making a threat. Threat assessments are protections against stigma, not sources of them.
In a suburban Midwestern secondary school, a group of mischievous girls started a rumor that a socially awkward boy was planning a school shooting. The rumor incited panic among students that spread rapidly throughout the school community. Faced with intense pressure from worried teachers and parents, the school administrator quickly suspended the boy and recommended his expulsion. A threat assessment protocol would have allowed the administrator to learn the truth while providing a defensible basis for defusing the crisis.
Threat assessment is a disciplinary or law enforcement process. Threat assessment teams do not make disciplinary decisions, but they can influence them. Controlled studies show that schools using threat assessment are less likely to suspend or expel a student and that only about 1 percent of students are arrested. Threat assessment is a supportive approach, not a punitive process.
A 10-year-old boy texted to friends what he considered to be a joke about committing a school shooting. A parent of one of the friends saw the text and alerted the police. Concerned about an imminent shooting, officers immediately arrested the boy, placed him in detention and charged him with a felony. School authorities had no role in this case.
In contrast, threat assessment teams allow schools to collaborate with law enforcement to avoid over-reactions to student misbehavior. In Orange County, Calif., the Sheriff’s Department and the juvenile court initiated a joint training program with area school districts to establish threat assessment teams. One goal of the program was to eliminate unnecessary referrals to law enforcement of student threats that were not serious.
Threat assessment supplants special education. Students with disabilities might experience frustrations and conflicts at school that lead them to make threatening statements that could result in suspension from school. A threat assessment team can examine the seriousness of the threat and, in most cases, recommend services for the IEP team to consider. Students with disabilities are much less likely to be suspended if they are referred for a threat assessment than if they are sent to the office for disciplinary action after making a threat.
A high school student in a Northeastern state posted on social media that he was going to kill two classmates who had been teasing him about a girl who rejected his romantic interest. After the threat was reported to the school administrator, a threat assessment revealed that the boy was suicidal and had a history of depression as well as inattentive and impulsive behavior.
The threat assessment team recommended brief placement in an alternative school while a special education evaluation was conducted. The boy was found eligible for services and an individualized education program was developed. Over the school year, the boy received both academic and mental health services that allowed him to return to school with improved behavior and higher grades.
Threat assessment leads to racial disparities in school exclusion. Although Black students are suspended at much higher rates than other students nationwide, suspension rates for students receiving a threat assessment show no racial disparities. Our group has completed studies of more than 3,000 cases in Virginia and Florida, and a research team at the University of Colorado has studied cases in Colorado.
All three studies found no statistically significant differences in the suspension or expulsion rates for Black, Hispanic and white students receiving a threat assessment. These studies also found evidence for little or no differences for students with or without disabilities. These are remarkable results because, as a study by San Jose State University in the Review of Educational Research concluded, many educational programs have failed to reduce disparities in school exclusion related to race and disability.
Threat assessment is not an infallible process, and it takes staff training and commitment of resources to implement it effectively. Our research team at the University of Virginia has published a series of studies over the past two decades demonstrating the safety and effectiveness of the Comprehensive School Threat Assessment Guidelines. There are different models of threat assessment and much work to be done on standards of practice. However, many thousands of schools are using it with good results — conflicts resolved, services delivered and students remaining in school.
Last year, after a teacher completed a threat assessment training program in Michigan, she told us that her child had survived a mass shooting at his high school so she felt compelled to join the threat assessment program at her school. She appreciated being able to work as part of a team and having a standard, systematic approach to student threats. “I tell my students that my No. 1 job is to make sure that you’re safe,” she said, “because if you don’t feel safe, you can’t learn. And this helps make a safer environment.” n
Dewey Cornell is founder of School Threat Assessment Consultants in Charlottesville, Va., and holds the Virgil Ward Chair as professor of education at the University of Virginia.
‘I’m Glad That Wasn’t Me’
When students reported that a 15-year-old student at a high school in Virginia had created a “hit list,” parents and teachers pressured the principal to expel the student.
With the help of the school’s threat assessment team, the principal learned the boy was a new student desperate to make friends, but he had been teased and rejected by peers because of speech and learning problems. His hit list was a feeble attempt to intimidate them, but he had no serious plans or intentions to harm anyone.
The assessment team (with whom I trained) explained its conclusions to the concerned parents and teachers and, with the principal’s support, implemented a safety plan to monitor and help the student. With counseling and special education services, he was placed temporarily in an alternative school and subsequently returned to his original school.
The following school year, the boy came to the office of his counselor the day after a highly publicized school shooting and told her how much he appreciated what everyone had done to help him over the previous year. “That shooting in the news, I’m glad that wasn’t me.”
Threat assessment is based on the understanding that prevention must start long before a gunman shows up at school. Security measures are important, but a crisis response is not prevention. Schools can identify students at risk for violence and undertake interventions to steer them off a pathway to violence.
Service recommendations are not based on a determination that a student is dangerous, but on identifying the student as in need of services because of problems and conflicts that need assistance, and that came to our attention because they generated a threatening statement or behavior. We educate our youth to keep them from smoking, not because we predict they will develop cancer, but because we know that smoking is a risk factor that can be avoided.
— Dewey Cornell