Threats to our schools continue in high numbers

Threats to schools

While we have been very fortunate in the past year not to have experienced a large-scale school attack, threats to our schools continue in high numbers. Just this week, I came across the following news stories related to school threats:

AMESBURY, Massachusetts – An Amesbury Middle School student was ordered to undergo a mental health evaluation after threatening to create an incident similar to Columbine as the anniversary of that shooting approaches, according to police.

COPPERAS COVE, Texas – Security was stepped up and attendance was down Monday at Copperas Cove High School, which was named in a shooting threat. Parents were notified Friday evening after the threat, “I’m going to shoot up Copperas Cove high school on 3/20/17,” was found spray-painted on a wall at an abandoned car wash on Casa Drive.

PEORIA, Illinois – In early February, police arrested a 14-year-old girl on multiple charges related to text messages and comments she made on social media threatening a school shooting. At Partridge Elementary, someone wrote on a bathroom stall in pencil, “school shooting March 30th.” At Alta Loma Elementary School, a 12-year-old student was booked into the Durango Juvenile Detention Center on a hoax charge after he made threats against Santa Fe Elementary School via Snapchat.

PUYALLUP, Washington – Puyallup police late Sunday detained a Kalles Junior High School student who allegedly made threats against the school, the department announced.

SPANISH FORT, Alabama – Two male juvenile Spanish Fort High School students are in custody after making terrorist threats through social media on Sunday (March 19) afternoon.

CORNING, New York – A Corning-Painted Post High School sophomore was arrested Thursday for allegedly threatening to shoot school staff members.

NEWTON COUNTY, Georgia – An 11-year-old boy is facing charges after deputies say he made threats against his school, showed a gun and then posted the video on social media.

IREDELL COUNTY, North Carolina – An 18-year-old is accused of making a threat toward North Iredell High School on social media.

DELMAR, New York – Three Bethlehem Central High School students were arrested and charged with making a terroristic threat after police say they threatened to “shoot up the school” on various social media sites.

ATLANTA, Georgia – A middle school student accused of bringing a gun and ammo to class will spend 30 days in custody. This comes amid allegations he also threatened to kill a teacher at McNair Middle School.

CABOT, Arkansas – Three Cabot students have been arrested in the past week and three other cases are being referred for criminal charges. This was the second threat reported in a week at this school, according to a Facebook post by the Cabot Police Department.

According to the Educator’s School Safety Network (ESSN), a national nonprofit that compiles data and provides training to deal with bomb threats and similar school safety concerns, U.S. schools have experienced 1,267 bomb threats during the 2015-16 school year, an increase of 106% over the same time period in 2012-2013. Since November, 2011 there has been a 1,461% increase in bomb threat incidents.

Amy Klinger, co-founder and director of programs at ESSN, explains, “people do it because it’s exciting and interesting to watch any chaos and confusion that it might cause. The best thing a school can do to prepare for bomb threats is to have a plan based in best practices and to give its teachers and staff training on how to respond.” According to Klinger, “some of the excitement that is created by confusion is because most educators have not gotten any training. But when a response goes well and it’s not total chaos, you find the number of threats goes down. … If the first threat was exciting and interesting, you’ll likely see more. But if not and it was dealt with in an orderly fashion, future threats are less likely.”

Ken Trump, President of National School Safety and Security Services, states, “We are now dealing with ‘Generation Text. The rumors typically become greater than the issue, problem, or incident itself.  Rumors fly in minutes, not hours.” National School Safety and Security Services reviewed 812 threats made to schools during the first half of the 2014-15 school year. Bomb threats ranked highest at 44% of threats made, with shooting threats second, at 29%. Total threats increased by 158% over the previous school year.

We need to be sure we are doing all we can to prepare and train staff to respond in a calm and orderly fashion in the face of a threat. When staff members know that the school has a solid procedure for reporting, investigating and acting on concerns, they are able to respond more calmly. We are coming up on the anniversary dates of several school attacks, so it’s a good idea to increase staff vigilance around any behaviors that seem out of context or related to violent ideation, aggression, grievances, intolerance, revenge, or increasing anger. For a more complete list of warning signs of violence, read this.

As always, we want to focus on creating a welcoming school climate, which provides a protective factor for students and encourages them to come forward and report concerns to adults. We want to take all threats seriously, and have a process in place to investigate, assess and manage them. It’s also important to have an effective communication system so parents can receive information quickly, alleviating anxiety and concerns that may have been fueled by rumors or texts from their children.

If you’re wondering whether your school can do more to keep everyone safe, you may want to consider a comprehensive safety assessment. Summer is a great time to put together the staff and tools necessary to start your next school year, safer than ever.

 

Sources:

Seacoastonline.com

Campus Safety

Schoolsecurity.org, National School Safety and Security Services website

School Threat Assessment FAQ

School Threat Assessment FAQ

I frequently get asked questions about how the practice of violence threat assessment applies to schools. Threat assessment is seen as the emerging standard of care for assessing concerning behavior and threats. It’s an important safety practice that should be in place in all U.S. schools.

Q. What is a threat assessment team? Do we need one?

A. Threat assessment teams are comprised of staff members representing a number of disciplines. In a school setting, this includes at least one administrator, counselor, psychologist, social worker and school resource officer or local police representative. Each of these individuals brings specific expertise to the team, which is vital to a thorough and accurate threat assessment. Threat assessment teams are required in preK-12 schools in Virginia, and the state of Oregon has recently called for a consistent statewide threat assessment protocol for schools. If you want to be sure you’ve done everything you can to keep your students and staff safe, you need a threat assessment team.

ta-team

Q. How are threat assessment teams used?

A. When someone’s behavior or words indicate that the person may be struggling to cope with a situation, or shows signs of violent ideation, the team will evaluate the threat and develop a management plan that keeps everyone safe and assists the troubled person in resolving the difficulties.

Q. Can you explain the process of assessing a threat?

A. The process of assessing a threat includes a review of multiple areas of a person’s life, past and present behavior, verbal, written or otherwise communicated threats, family dynamics, social functioning, risk factors, triggers, behaviors indicating movement along the pathway to violence, and violence inhibitors. The team will meet to review the information they already have, determine what is still needed for a thorough assessment, and divide responsibilities for gathering additional information and interviewing others (teachers, parents, students). The team will then reconvene in a timely manner to complete the assessment and develop immediate safety and intervention plans along with a long-term management plan. A threat assessment identifies risk of violence at a given point in time and must be updated as new information is gathered and discounted. It often continues for an extended period of time.

Q. Have threat assessment teams been proven to avert violence?

A. The model of threat assessment that I use in schools is the same model used by the FBI and U.S. Secret Service to assess threats to public figures. This model is the best tool we have available to investigate and mitigate potential threats. While it is always difficult to prove that a practice has prevented something that did not happen, we know of at least 200 serious acts of school violence that have been prevented by someone coming forward with a concern that is followed up by  threat assessment and a management plan.

Q. Do threat assessment team members need specific training?

A. All team members should be trained specifically in the warning signs, best practices, procedures, and tools used for violence threat assessment. Training should include a thorough explanation of behaviors and what it is typically behind them, along with signs, activities and items that could signify a violent mindset. It’s important that this training include hands on practice with threat assessment tools, case study analysis, and support and follow up for the team as they work through their first few assessments.

Q. How will people know what to report to our threat assessment team?

A. While working with school threat assessment teams, I help them develop a plan and a framework for training students, staff and parents on what to watch out for, warning signs of both suicide and violence, and reporting procedures. It’s imperative that we get this information out to these individuals, as it is most often the swift action of student, parent or staff members that results in averted violence.

Q. Where can I find more information about school threat assessment?

A. There are a number of excellent resources available to help you. For starters, I recommend reading the publications Early Warning Timely Response and Threat Assessment in Schools.  You can also learn more about the threat assessment process here.

If you have questions about the process or want to know how to get started, please feel free to contact me.

Finally, for an inexpensive training tool for your entire staff, consider this.

The Problem with Threat Assessment Checklists

The Problem with Threat Assessment ChecklistsThere are a number of violence threat assessment checklists and tools available to guide an assessment of someone who may pose a danger to him/herself or others. In fact, it is vital that we use such tools to ensure that we are gathering the most relevant data on an individual’s history, social supports, past and current behaviors, possible threats, mental health, and a number of other variables. Yet, there is a problem with violence threat assessment checklists.

Checklists alone will not answer all of our questions.

A checklist cannot clearly tell us what type of risk is posed by a person others avoid because they feel nervous and fearful around him or her. A checklist won’t explain what’s happening we feel discomfort or unease, but can’t put our finger on the reason.

To perform a thorough violence threat assessment, we need to have a keen understanding of what the threats and behaviors mean to the person of concern. We should be familiar with the violence escalation process. We must have a number of trained professionals at the table to gather missing data and interpret the findings of our assessment. We’ll want to be cognizant of the group dynamics that can affect our assessment. We need to practice our threat assessment skills.

The stakes of assessing violence risk are high, and to minimize risk and liability, we need to develop the skills necessary to do so as effectively and accurately as possible. Equally important, we’ll sleep better at night knowing we are using a solid practice based on the exact model used by the Secret Service and FBI to assess and manage threats.

Checklists are important, and there are a number of excellent tools available to you. But, they should not stand alone. Your threat assessment skills will be much better if you obtain adequate training and practice before using them. The tools will guide your inquiry, but much will be missed without a deeper knowledge of the threat assessment process, risk factors and warning signs associated with targeted violence.

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What’s the Best Threat Assessment Tool?

The Best Threat Assessment Tool

The best threat assessment tool is awareness. Being aware of our surroundings and paying attention to anything that seems out of place, out of context, or causes us to hesitate, is a vital tool for threat assessment.

According to Gavin de Becker, our intuition informs us at all times, even when we are busy attending to other business. Those feelings of fear, apprehension, hesitation, and doubt are signals from our intuition that something is wrong and we need to pay attention. Too often, we ignore or minimize these signals.

This week, I’d like to ask you to pay close attention to your surroundings and the nuances of others’ behavior. Listen to your intuition and see what you can learn.

You might notice some unusual activity in an area of your school that is normally off limits. Perhaps you notice something out of place, someone you don’t know in the parking lot, or behavior that seems unusual.

We need to be able to recognize that which is typical of someone’s behavior, so we can notice when something atypical is happening. If a previously calm and steady student, parent or staff member suddenly erupts in anger or becomes increasingly combative or agitated, we are being given clues that demand our attention.

Is someone complaining that  he or she is “always a victim”? Is a middle school student reporting increased bullying?  Does a freshman boy seem more withdrawn than the last time you spoke with him? Is your English teacher experiencing increased work, family or other stress?

Make attention your best tool for one week, and let me know what you learn by contacting me here. I look forward to hearing from you!

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Arapahoe report teaches about threat assessment

Report

Unfortunately, we often learn the most about how to improve our own levels of school safety by studying tragic incidents that have devastated lives. I never want to place blame or criticize anyone’s safety efforts. We all do the best we can with limited resources, knowledge, and power to implement change.

I do want to reflect for a moment on the recently released report regarding the 2013 Arapahoe High School fatal shooting of 17-year-old student Claire Davis, only because of what we can learn. The field of school safety is continually evolving. We are learning and improving every day.

The Arapahoe report teaches us about threat assessment

The report’s author, Michael Dorn of Safe Havens International, found that many effective school safety practices were in place at Arapahoe High School and in the Littleton School District. In addition, 11 analysts cited the following concerns that leave room for improvement in the area of threat assessment:

  • A systematic, “integrated systems approach” that involves collaboration with public safety partners to assess and make decisions regarding potential threats, was not in place at the time of the incident. It’s important to define roles and keep MOU’s (Memoranda of Understanding) between agencies on file in the school district.
  •  The threat assessment process used prior to the shooting focused more on establishing evidence that the student of concern “made” a threat rather than on assessing whether he or she posed a threat.
  • There was no defined multidisciplinary threat assessment team at Arapahoe High School at the time of the incident. All threat assessments were conducted by the school psychologist and assistant principal, and it appeared they may not have received adequate training on the threat assessment process.
  • It is unclear whether the team responsible for initiating the threat assessment had the professional knowledge and training needed to determine whether to conduct a threat evaluation of a student of concern. Threat assessment teams must include members of administration, pupil services and law enforcement, and all members should be professionally trained in violence warning signs and threat assessment practices.
  • There is no record that individual schools were provided with adequate resources or direction to train staff on recognizing violence warning signs and the specific actions to take. A district training presentation instructed schools to provide annual staff training on suicide and violence warning signs, but it is unclear whether this was done.
  • District staff may not have properly understood FERPA guidelines for information sharing.
  • There are concerns about decisions around disciplining the attacker after he made threats. School administrators had the option to suspend or expel him, but did not do either. In addition, a more thorough law enforcement investigation of the attacker’s prior threats may have decreased the likelihood of an attack.
  • The assessment form listed limited options for police response.
  • The assessment form did not provide a prompt for the threat assessment team to follow up to ensure that recommended safety strategies had been implemented.
  • Some of the procedures on the assessment and action plan forms were not followed.
  • Often, there was no explanation of the rationale for decisions made as part of the assessment.

The report contains much more detail than this post and I encourage you to review these recommendations with your own safety team to ensure that you are making your school the safest it can be. If you need assistance, or just want to discuss whether you’re on the right track, consider an inexpensive 1-to-1 consulting session. To learn more, simply read this.

Remembering Sandy Hook

Remembering Sand Hook

We all remember those dark days of December, 2012 when innocent lives were lost due to an unthinkable act of violence. The 3-year anniversary of this tragedy has just passed, and our hearts go out to those who were intimately affected. Their lives have been forever changed.

Learning from the Sandy Hook tragedy

In this post, I’m going to focus on what I believe is the single most important take-away from the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy:  There is an established and effective practice that can help prevent future tragedies. The practice of violence threat assessment allows us to identify and attend to the warning signs before we get to the point of another school shooting. It is precisely the model used by the FBI and Secret Service to evaluate threats and warning signs.

In the days, weeks and months following a targeted act of violence, we start to peel back the layers and acknowledge the many signs and missed opportunities. When we notice, assess, and intervene in behaviors that seem “off” or match those we know are indicators of possible mental illness, lack of coping skills, violent ideology, suicide or violence, we are taking action to prevent violence from occurring.

By attending to the warning signs, communicating with others, gathering information that helps us form a complete picture, and implementing plans for both safety and intervention, we are making great strides toward preventing violence. To learn more about how violence threat assessment works, simply click here.

Preventing Mass Shootings

Last week brought word of yet another mass shooting, and once again we find ourselves asking whether there were indicators that might have allowed us to prevent it. From my vantage point, I can’t be sure of whether there were or weren’t, as I don’t know the full story. But, I do know that we need to continue to educate schools, workplaces and community organizations about the practice of threat assessment. It remains the best tool we have to prevent mass shootings.

These attacks are not spontaneous; they are meticulously planned. The time it takes to plan and move closer to an attack gives us a window where we can intervene, assist and redirect a person of concern.

Preventing Mass Shootings

It’s important to fully understand what threat assessment is, and what it isn’t. It is about preventing an attack. It is not about predicting it, which is extraordinarily difficult even for trained mental health professionals.

We begin this practice by educating everyone in our organization about the signs and signals to report. We ensure that each staff member, student and parent knows how and where to report concerns and that those concerns will be taken seriously and followed up by action. We must put together and train a team of building administrators, school resource officers and student services professionals to do the work of investigating, assessing and managing potential threats. This is not a one-time action; it is a process that may go on for years.

For a more in-depth explanation, read this series of articles on threat assessment. For a thoughtful, engaging look at the current state of threat assessment, read this article by Mark Follman published in the November/December 2015 issue of Mother Jones.

If you do not currently have a threat assessment process and team in place, consider that you may be exposing your district, campus or workplace to liability. Threat assessment is now seen as the emerging standard and is required for public colleges in three states, and in K-12 schools, in one state. Developing and training threat assessment teams is what I do, and I will work with you for an extended period of time to make sure your team has a full grasp of the concepts and procedures, and can confidently move forward on its own.

If you’re ready to get started on building your threat assessment team, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I’m happy to answer your questions.

Violence Threat Assessment Tools: Which are the best?

Violence threat assessment tools

I would love to be able to tell you that there is one definitive violence threat assessment tool that will give you all the answers. Unfortunately, it simply isn’t true. Threat assessment tools, grids and checklists are a method of organizing your information. A good tool will help guide your inquiry and investigation so you’ll know what’s important. Some tools will help you discern what is most important by assigning weight to each question or variable. But, your threat assessment team will still need to do the work.

Violence threat assessment tools and teams

Your team needs to be made up of individuals with a clear goal and the training, practice and belief system to achieve it. It should include staff members in various roles because each of them will bring something different to the table in terms of training, experience and knowledge of the person of concern.

Together, your team will walk through the threat assessment tools they’ve selected and determine what is currently known about the subject, information that still needs to be gathered, which team members are best suited to gather specific information, preliminary conclusions and an immediate plan. It is critical to agree on a time to meet back together to review additional information gathered. At that point, a more thorough assessment will take place and a careful, well-thought-out plan will be developed and implemented. It’s important for you to remember that threat assessment is not a one-time thing. It is constantly evolving and changing as new information is gathered and discounted. Your team will need to continue to monitor and review the situation, making adjustments as needed.

The practice of violence threat assessment is itself one of the best tools we have to identify and help individuals who are struggling. Your assessment may not reveal a serious or imminent threat of danger, and that would be an ideal outcome. But, you may find someone who needs your help. Helping that person with his/her struggles, mental health issues or grievances will improve his/her life immensely and keep all of you much safer.

Threat Assessment Explained

TA Explained

When concerns about an individual’s words or behavior indicate that he or she may pose a danger to others, someone in your school district will be asked to judge whether the person does indeed pose a risk of violence.

Because this is a high-stakes assessment, school districts are advised to assess as a team rather than rely on one or two individuals to make the assessment. Violence threat assessment is a solid method for making this guided professional judgment. It is required of pre-K – 12 schools in the states of Virginia and Connecticut.

Threat Assessment Explained

The practice of violence threat assessment differs from the types of assessment used by forensic mental health professionals to determine the level of risk posed by an individual. Those practices, while effective with individuals, are not necessarily the best tools to prevent the type of targeted violence that occurs in school attacks. Violence threat assessment is designed not to predict, but to prevent violence. The focus is on four things: keeping everyone safe, preventing violence, solving the problem or grievance of the person of concern and getting help for the concerning individual. When we do this, we interrupt the pathway toward violence and change the outcome.

School threat assessment teams should be comprised of one or two building administrators, a school psychologist, social worker, school counselor, school resource officer, school nurse, and mental health professional. Team members need specialized training in the concepts, procedures, and tools used to conduct a threat assessment. While most of the professionals on the team will have a solid knowledge of suicide and violence indicators, a threat assessment views the warning signs of violence somewhat differently, and takes into consideration a number of additional variables and dynamics that have been associated with targeted violence. It is through the study of past incidents and attackers that we are now able to identify concerning behaviors and intervene before an incident occurs.

Threat assessment team training includes an in-depth look at violence risk factors, warning signs, threats, inhibitors, triggers, and the pathway to violence. Participants learn to distinguish between making a threat and posing a threat and between “howling” and “hunting” behavior. They learn that the troubling behavior and words of a concerning person are considered “leakage” of intent, and will commonly be seen and heard up to several years before an attack. They are indicators of a preoccupation with planning and preparation for violence.

A team approach to violence threat assessment is vital because it allows us to gather data from a number of sources and put it together like a puzzle. It is only after this has been done that we can feel confident in our assessment. School districts must have in place a reporting system and assessment team that follows up. Without this communication system in place, each potential red flag appears to be an isolated incident. As a result, we may not give the individual or potential threat the attention that is warranted. When we communicate, a picture begins to emerge that will cause us to either feel less concern, or more concern, about an individual and his/her movement toward violence. That picture will dictate our next steps and actions.

It is important that all other school staff members receive training in observable warning signs and the school’s specific process for communicating and investigating concerns. These staff members work with students every day and are in a position to notice and report red flags as soon as they see them.

Violence threat assessment is an ever-evolving practice. The model we use in schools is also the model used by the U.S. Secret Service and the FBI to assess threats. While no tool is 100% accurate or perfect, it is the best tool we have at this time. When schools put this practice into place, they can begin to breathe a little easier, knowing they are doing everything they can to prevent violence and harm to the school community.

Recommended Threat Assessment Practices

threat assessment

You have probably heard me speak on the topic or have read something I’ve written on threat assessment, and my belief that threat assessment teams should be in every school district, college campus and workplace.

All aspects of safety are important and should be addressed. In this post, I want to focus on the process of threat assessment because it allows us to identify, assess and intervene when someone needs our help. It is not designed to predict violence but to prevent it. And, isn’t that a primary goal of protecting our students and staff?

Recommended Threat Assessment Practices

Whether you have had a threat assessment team operating in your district for several years, or are in the very beginning stages of developing one, I encourage you to read about threat assessment and to get training for yourself and key staff members. You will want to include building administrators, student services staff, your school resource officer(s) and school nurse(s). It really does take a team to put all of the pieces together and feel confident that you’ve done a thorough job of assessing and assisting an individual or situation.

If you don’t have a threat assessment team and want to learn more about why you need one, FEMA’s Guide to Developing High Quality School Emergency Plans addresses the practice of threat assessment in a clear, concise way on pages 59-63.  It’s a good starting point.

If you want to learn more, feel free to contact me. I help school districts get started and continue to improve upon their threat assessment practices. It takes time and repetition to get right, and I work with a small number of districts for up to a year until they feel confident that they know what to do when someone’s behavior concerns them.

Just imagine how much safer your school will be once you have a trained threat assessment team in place.