This article is authored by Dr. Scott Poland and was originally published online in Campus Safety.
Dr. Scott Poland discusses the four-step process of conducting a school threat assessment and provides some accompanying scenarios and suggestions.
In August, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a public awareness bulletin about mitigating the threat of school violence because, as the report noted, DHS believed “the threat of targeted violence will remain elevated as more children return to school full-time.”
And it has, indeed, been a violent year. When we just look at gun violence – which makes up a relatively small percentage of school violence overall — there were 24 school shootings between January and late October 2021, 16 of which happened after Aug. 1, according to Education Week. The shootings resulted in six deaths and 34 injuries. Comparatively, in 2020, when many schools were not seeing students in person, there were 10 shootings. Additionally, there were 25 in 2019 and 24 in 2018.
When thinking about school violence, it’s important to keep in mind that school shootings are only a small part of it. Threats of school violence are a growing problem nationwide, and these threats have increased in both frequency and anonymity due in part to social media. Threats – whether they are hoaxes or actual threats — can spread panic throughout a school community and can have a profoundly negative effect on the learning environment.
In order for schools to recognize threats and stop violence from happening, they need threat assessments. Proper threat assessments allow schools to identify and mitigate threats before tragedy occurs.
A threat assessment is a process of evaluating the risk of violence posed by someone who has communicated intent to harm someone. It considers the context and circumstances surrounding a threat in order to uncover any evidence that indicates the threat is likely to be carried out.
Consider these scenarios:
Would your school staff know how to respond? Threat assessment helps schools address these types of scenarios. It also helps to:
Both the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education have endorsements for proper threat assessment. When I provide threat assessment training, I focus specifically on schools. This threat assessment process includes four steps:
SCENARIO 1 – A middle school student “B” says his friend “S” is planning something big. The threat is reported to the administration which takes it seriously and notifies local police. Local police interview both students separately. B tells the police he was joking and S never made a threat against the school.
S denies she ever said anything about school violence and remarks, “I do not know why someone threw me under the bus.” The police search the home of S and find no weapons. They seize her computer which has no hit list or postings about violence. School records indicate a few minor discipline reports for S in elementary school. S likes to draw and her drawings in a school notebook often have violent themes. And, she turned in a school paper about a serial killer. Her paper received a grade of an A and did not concern her teacher. S is very involved in the church where her father is the minister and she is very active in the care of her younger siblings.
The police concluded their investigation and determined that the threat was unfounded. What should the school do in this situation? Does this meet the criteria for a substantial threat?
SCENARIO 2 – Mrs. Jones, a parent, calls the transportation department to report that her daughter “Julie” received an e-mail from “Ben,” another student, which stated he is going to shoot kids on the middle school bus tomorrow. Mrs. Jones is concerned about her daughter’s safety. Ben readily admits during an interview that he had intended to shoot up the bus as he has been the victim of repeated bullying and had his thumb broken by another student named John on the bus last week. Ben’s father indicates that there are a number of unlocked guns at home and that his son is experienced with guns. The father also indicates that his son has not been the same since his mother died last spring and that the father has to work in the evenings while his son is unsupervised.
What actions should the school take in this scenario? Does this meet the criteria for a substantial threat?
Threat assessment helps a school navigate scenarios like these. It helps them determine whether a threat is substantial and what the next steps should be. It also helps guide actions such as notifying the community and getting support for the person who made the threat to address the underlying issues or concerns.
In Scenario 1, the school ended up expelling the student and there was a lawsuit filed over the school’s reaction to what was only a transient threat. Proper threat assessment can help schools avoid overreacting to transient threats.
In Scenario 2, this was a substantial threat and was handled appropriately by the school by moving the student to an alternate setting. The superintendent did not allow the principal to send a letter to parents acknowledging that a threat of violence had been made. Law enforcement was involved and many steps were taken to ensure the safety of students and staff. Unfortunately, all the parents learned about the threat when it was front-page news the next morning.
No case is black and white but proper threat assessment will help schools make the best decisions they can based on the information they have. Here are a few important things to keep in mind when it comes to threat assessment:
Threats will continue to occur. While there is no magic formula to prevent all violent acts, threat assessment is one of the best ways for schools to keep their staff, students, and communities safe.
Dr. Scott Poland is a Professor at the College of Psychology and the Director of the Suicide and Violence Prevention Office at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He is a licensed psychologist and an internationally recognized expert on school safety, youth suicide, self-injury, bullying, school crisis prevention and intervention, and threat assessment.
Dr. Poland has authored or co-authored six books and many chapters and articles on these subjects and has served as a legal expert in a number of lawsuits. He is also the author of numerous Vector Training staff and student online training courses on these topics.