Three Essential Questions for Every K-12 School District Using or Considering Threat Assessment

According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s “Guide for Preventing and Responding to School Violence:”

School violence has increasingly come into the public eye due to multiple deadly shootings. The possibility of school shootings has become an issue for urban, rural, and suburban communities alike… schools have experienced multiple-victim homicides, many in communities where people previously believed “it couldn’t happen here.”

This statement appears in an International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) report intended to guide America’s educators through times of fear and uncertainty. This peer-reviewed guide, completed by over 500 stakeholders from across relevant fields, presents different strategies and approaches for school communities to consider when creating safer learning environments. The findings and recommendations in the ICAP report came from the existing literature on school violence, delinquency and workplace violence. Despite being published 20 years ago, the report reads much like recent school safety publications.

Mass shootings are a form of targeted violence in the U.S. involving the murder of four or more people. Research from Harvard University and Mother Jones’ mass shooting database reveals that mass shootings tripled in frequency between 2011 and 2014. During this period, a mass shooting occurred in the U.S. on average every 64 days, compared to every 200 days in the previous 29 years. An additional study by the FBI National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crimes revealed that educational environments had the second-highest total number of active shooter attacks per location from 2000 to 2013. During this time, there were 39 attacks in educational settings across the U.S.

The data suggests that our need for school violence prevention remains high. Thankfully, the commitment to school safety by law enforcement and educators is stronger than ever. The FBI, U.S. Secret Service (USSS), the U.S. Department of Education and the IACP recommend using multidisciplinary Behavioral Threat Assessment and Threat Management (BTATM) teams to prevent targeted violence in educational environments. In 2020, states like Florida, Kentucky, Maryland and Texas passed laws to mandate threat assessment programs in their schools.

While these mandates are a positive step for school safety, they also reveal new obstacles for school districts that fall under these laws. In a 2019 Education Week article, school violence prevention expert John Van Dreal detailed a major problem for school superintendents who are using or considering threat assessment in their districts: “There are a lot of people doing threat assessment trainings who do a great job,” Van Dreal said. “But then, the K-12 people walk out, and they still have to create a system that is compliant with special education law, discipline rules and the civil rights of juveniles.”

As Van Dreal suggests, improper threat assessments may infringe on student rights or hinder the school community’s safety. School districts using or considering these programs should ask themselves these three essential questions to mitigate the risk of improper threat assessment.

1. Do I have the financial resources to train a behavioral threat assessment and management team properly?

Adopting threat assessment methodologies alone is ineffective without the proper protocols and expertise of a trained multidisciplinary team. School districts need to account for the costs of hiring recognized BTATM instructors with enough experience to provide end-to-end training. According to threat assessment and management experts Calhoun and Weston, threat assessment and threat management are interrelated processes where a proper assessment informs proper interventions and management strategies. A comprehensive and effective training program goes beyond instruction in threat assessment tools or risk factor checklists to include training in the BTATM philosophy of restorative violence prevention. End-to-end training includes cap and resource analysis and advanced instruction in threat assessment, threat management, mental health, legal and civil rights protection, team building, and structured threat assessment protocols and manuals. School districts should plan for these costs by setting aside funds in their annual budget. Funds can also be secured through state or federal grants or through cost-sharing agreements with other school districts.

2. Do I have the human resources capability to implement a behavioral threat assessment and management team?

Implementing a BTATM team takes commitment to the program’s structure, training, and design. In the USSS’ 2018 guide titled “Enhancing School Safety Using a Threat Assessment Model,” they recommend using trained multidisciplinary groups of school officials and community stakeholders to prevent acts of targeted violence. According to the guide, BTATM teams should meet regularly to assess and manage individual cases. Districts must consider their human resources capability before assigning additional threat assessment and management duties to school officials.

3. How will I protect my students’ rights and needs?

A recent article in Searchlight New Mexico, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization for investigative and public service journalism, probed at the use of threat assessment programs in New Mexico schools. The 2019 article titled “Who’s the Threat?” revealed that the Albuquerque School District conducted a disproportionate amount of threat assessments on special education students. According to the article, “special education students, who make up just 18 percent of the total student population, were subject to 469, or 56 percent, of all threat assessments in Albuquerque.” However, this disproportion in Albuquerque’s threat assessment process does not directly imply that its methods were flawed.

Students with certain emotional disorders, or other conditions that contribute to impulsivity or aggressive behavior, are more likely to be investigated by a threat assessment team. A threat assessment team’s efficacy is measured by assessing the context surrounding a student’s behavior, their motivations to threaten or act in a concerning manner, and the process’s outcome. When guided by a restorative caretaking philosophy, the threat assessment process draws positive results. BTATM teams must train to a standard that balances student needs with the school community’s safety needs.

School districts should also acknowledge the critical role of special education and mental health experts within BTATM teams. These experts help properly assess behaviors that could signify an unidentified or undiagnosed learning disability, psychological or psychiatric disability such as mood, anxiety and depressive disorders, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Asperger’s and other autism spectrum disorders.

Plan Ahead

To summarize, BTATM teams mitigate the risk of targeted violence in schools and help support students in need. School superintendents should research and plan ahead to ensure the success of their BTATM programs. Existing models and established protocols serve as a foundation for superintendents to decide on the appropriateness and utility for use in their schools. Cookie-cutter approaches and canned training programs are not appropriate for such complex issues. A school district’s decision to move forward with threat assessment and management teams should be based on the relationship, trust, resource and availability of certified trainers.