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.

An Interview with Robert Martin

You may not recognize Robert Martin’s moniker as a household name, but once you finish reading his biography and this interview, you’ll be left wondering how that could be possible. Robert (Bob) Martin has contributed enormously to the study and advancement of threat assessment practices, and he is someone you definitely need to know.

I first met Bob at the Gavin de Becker and Associates Advanced Threat Assessment and Management Academy in 2012. Bob was running the show, demonstrating the MOSAIC threat assessment system, and lecturing on various topics throughout the week. He always made himself available to answer questions and I quickly realized that Bob has a special ability to mentor others.

Since that time, our paths have fortuitously crossed several times, and it recently dawned on me that you really need to know more about this great guy. Bob agreed to sit down with me for an interview (along with an extended chat where I got to tap into his inexhaustible knowledge on all sorts of topics), and this is the result. My many thanks to Bob for his time, knowledge and extensive contribution to the fields of law enforcement and threat assessment.

How would you describe the focus of your career before your recent “retirement?”

For 20 years, I served as the Vice President at Gavin de Becker & Associates, and for the two years since then I assumed the role of Senior Advisor. I was responsible for administration of the business, internal and external training, development of threat assessment methods, the MOSAIC system, and the Advanced Threat Assessment & Management Academy. I essentially served as the public face of the company, often giving presentations and keynote addresses.

Prior to joining Gavin de Becker & Associates, I spent 28 years with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). I served as Commanding Officer of Detective Headquarters Division and of the LAPD’s Personnel Division. I also pioneered a new approach to specialized gang-related homicide investigations that resulted in a 98% clearance rate of these homicides. I founded LAPD’s first Threat Management Unit, and initiated the first police use of MOSAIC to assess threats.

Can you tell us a little more about MOSAIC?

MOSAIC is a threat assessment method, part of which is computer-assisted. MOSAIC is not a computer program. MOSAIC is an assessment strategy that helps ensure fairness, consistency, and thoroughness in high-stakes matters. It is a tool that helps guide assessments of risk.

MOSAIC is a way of breaking down a situation to its elements, then organizing and identifying the most important factors. Once a case is thus coded, it can be instantly compared to others where the outcome is known. The case can also be weighed against the opinions of experts in the relevant field. MOSAIC suggests to an evaluator those questions determined most valuable to the overall assessment.

At what point in your career did you begin to make threat assessment such a high priority?

Working in law enforcement brought me close to some ugly situations. I had grown up in a “Happy Days” world in a small town in New Jersey. As a young adult, I was out of the country for six years, and returned to something completely different. I had missed the transition away from the culture of my youth. In my work as a young LAPD officer, I was part of a team that investigated the particularly gruesome murder of a woman. It was 1966, and I realized that the system had failed the woman that night. Two hours earlier, a pair of officers had responded to a call to mediate a “domestic disturbance.” The term “domestic violence” had yet to be coined, and in those days, if a victim did not wish to make a report, the incident was logged as “mutual combat.” This case occurred 50 years ago and the image of that victim is still with me. You see, I was one of the officers who responded to the call earlier that night, and we left without doing anything.

That’s where my interest in threat assessment started. I believed that there had to be some way of assisting victims of violence and inappropriate pursuit before things got to the point of grave harm or murder. But, I didn’t know how to do it and I knew that the department was not geared up for this task.

Then, in 1989, actress Rebecca Schaeffer was killed by a disturbed fan, and the term “stalking” was catapulted into the American consciousness. Many in the entertainment industry were frustrated and angry. Celebrities had endured inappropriate fan behavior for years, and had no idea how to manage it. Seven years earlier, actress Theresa Saldana survived a brutal attack by an obsessive fan, only because of passerby intervention.

In response to Rebecca Schaeffer’s murder, the Conference of Personal Managers hosted a panel presentation to address their clients’ safety issues. Panel members included representatives from the LAPD, the FBI, and Mr. Gavin de Becker. While the FBI and LAPD had limited knowledge about how to deal with stalkers, Mr. de Becker talked for 90 minutes about strategies his office used to keep clients safe. It became clear that effective violence prevention strategies existed, but I couldn’t get a clear vision of how to implement them within the LAPD. Then, an audience member spoke up, saying, “I understand that you don’t have the internal process or legal support to deal with this issue, so why don’t you change that?” Before I could answer, Gavin de Becker volunteered to help by providing training and access to his MOSAIC system for assessing threats to public figures. That was the beginning of the Threat Management Unit (TMU) of the LAPD. We later collaborated with the Mental Evaluation Unit (MEU) of the department, formed with the sole purpose of helping mentally ill persons who came to the attention of police. The TMU was open for business in October 1989.

Over the next two years, the TMU gained a substantial amount of expertise and received nearly non-stop requests for insight and guidance. In response, the TMU hosted the first Threat Management Conference in March 1991. The following year, attendance at the conference doubled. Two years later, the TMU partnered with the newly formed Association of Threat Assessment Professionals (ATAP) and the two organizations have hosted the conference ever since.

How did you end up working at Gavin de Becker and Associates?

I had actually met Gavin shortly before the meeting with the Conference of Personal Managers. A detective who had discovered Gavin’s work urged me to meet with him. What was supposed to be a 20-minute meeting ended up lasting for 3 hours. The things Gavin said made so much sense to me. We had another meeting after that, followed by the panel meeting. I worked with Gavin on putting together the TMU, and we built a relationship over time. Gavin asked me to join the firm as Vice President in 1994.

What have you found to be the greatest challenges in your work with threat assessment?

The single biggest challenge is denial – people not seeing what we’re talking about. There is a sense of “not my workplace, not my school” and that’s not productive. We need to get past that in order to make a change. Any 3rd grade teacher can predict which of his/her students will end up in the criminal justice system later. Behaviors of concern warrant intervention. Rather than calling them “warning signs,” I prefer the term “behaviors consistent with escalation.”

Another challenge is a sense of unfairness. When we work with victims, they often need to make changes in their lives in order to stay safe. We frequently hear, “it’s not fair that I have to be the one to change.” It’s difficult, yes, but that is what typically needs to happen in order to prevent a situation that will likely be much worse than what they’re already experiencing.

A challenge that affects schools is that a lot of money being allocated for school safety is being put toward what to do after the shots are fired. We need to work more on prevention.

A colleague once used a metaphor that illustrates this very well. He said that in martial arts,”we can teach 52 moves to get out of a headlock. Or, we can teach people not to get into a headlock in the first place.”

Finally, it’s been challenging at times when individual egos are concerned more with who gets credit and who takes blame, than with moving forward to make change.

“That’s what I’ve been doing for 27 years – making changes.”

You recently mentioned that you are currently providing training for students at the college level. Can you tell me a little more about this work?

I do a lot of pro bono work for groups that can’t afford to have someone come in for this type of lecture, such as college classes and clubs, domestic violence groups, and women’s groups. I talk about the idea of the socialization process that teaches women they have to be nice to everyone. I explain about saying “no” and meaning it. There is this idea of letting people down easily and not hurting feelings. If you mean maybe, say “maybe.” Say, “I don’t want to do that right now, but you can check back with me in two weeks.” If you mean no, say “no.” If you allow yourself to be swayed after saying “no” you’ve just taught the other person that he/she can manipulate you. If a guy doesn’t listen to the first “no,” let him know that when you say “no” you mean it. His reaction is telling. If he continues to ask or bring up the subject, you can say, “the fact that you’re still talking about this after I’ve said “no” makes me wonder if you are trying to manipulate me.” This type of conversation can make a big difference in relationships, and it’s better to find out on a first date, about the kind of person you are with.

What advice do you have for school district staff members who want to set up threat assessment practices in their schools?

The mindset shift has to be from what we can do to someone (a suspect/person of concern), to what we can do to help someone of concern. We need to help the individual when we see behaviors that indicate struggling, before he or she breaks a rule that warrants a negative sanction. These kids self-select and come to our attention for a reason. What are we going to do about it? What do we need to do to help this child? We need to collaborate with other agencies that can help implement programming to provide this help.

Some things schools can consider implementing:

ACE scores – Adverse Childhood Experiences – what we’re now seeing is a direct correlation between higher ACE scores and domestic violence and confrontations with police officers. Let’s look at how we can use this information to intervene early and change outcomes.

We can predict to what degree a child has hope. This can be measured, and if there is no hope, there is suffering. Interventions such as Camp Hope America can significantly improve the level of hope for children who have experienced trauma related to family violence.

There is a model for comprehensive services for families experiencing violence. In the mid-1990’s, the then elected San Diego District Attorney, Casey Gwinn, found that in a worst case scenario a victim of domestic violence would have to go to 35 different locations to obtain the services they needed to leave their situations and move forward. This was a huge obstacle to success. In response, he created The Family Justice Center to bring multiple agencies together in one place. We could replicate this model to help students and others who need the assistance of a multidisciplinary framework of services.

In one North Carolina jurisdiction, police officers notify schools of domestic abuse calls that involve their students, so school staff can provide some extra attention and connection with students during the days following police intervention at their homes.

We need to look at bullying behaviors that in isolation, might not appear to be a big deal. These behaviors should be dealt with and the person doing them should receive our attention to determine what’s behind the behavior. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of pointing out that a behavior is inappropriate, and the student will stop. The students who repeat mildly inappropriate behavior after being told it’s inappropriate need our attention to find out what’s going on, before the behavior escalates.

Is there anything else you’d like my readers to know?

The biggest message I’d like to convey is to consider how we will prevent students/teachers from getting to point where violence is the last resort. We want to intervene before someone perceives that they have a lack of alternatives. The more alternatives people have to acting out violently, the less likely they will be to do so. If nothing else, let’s find some more alternatives for them to consider. Let’s give a person some degree of hope. As Gavin de Becker says, “the universal warning sign of violence is suffering.” Let’s all ask ourselves what we can do to ease the suffering of those around us.

Biography – Robert J. Martin

Robert Martin is one of the nation’s leading experts on violence prevention and threat assessment. During his 28-year career with the Los Angeles Police Department, he served as Commanding Officer of Detective Headquarters Division and of the LAPD’s Personnel Division where he managed background investigations and evaluations for 11,000 LAPD officers. He founded the first Threat Management Unit and was the recipient of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Service Excellence Award, Personnel Management Award, Olympic Planning Ribbon, and the Papal Visit Planning Ribbon.

While with the LAPD, Martin pioneered the first police use of MOSAIC, an innovative approach for evaluating threats to public figures. He was the lead developer of a similar method co-developed with the United States Marshals Service for evaluating threats to Federal Judges, followed by the development of the MOSAIC Method for Assessing Student Threats (MAST).

After pioneering a new approach to specialized gang-related homicide investigations and leading a team that boasted LA’s highest clearance rate for homicide cases (98%), Martin received the Meritorious Unit Citation and a special citation from the District Attorney for “Investigative Excellence.” Upon his retirement from the LAPD, he received citations from President Bill Clinton, the Governor of California, the Los Angeles City Council, and the Police Commission. In 1987, by a resolution of the City Council, he received a special commendation for his role in the protection of President Ronald Regan.

Martin also served as Commanding Officer of the Los Angeles Emergency Control Center during the 1994 Northridge earthquake and the 1992 Rodney King riots, when a State of Emergency was declared.

He is qualified as an expert by the Federal Court on issues related to threat assessment and is the senior founding member of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals (ATAP). He is a Senior Advisor for Gavin de Becker & Associates where he served 20 years as Vice President.

Serving as a consultant to the Chicago Behavioral Assistance Team Project Planning Committee, Martin assisted in the development of a response team to deal with mentally ill offenders. He testified before the President’s Commission on Mental Retardation and authored a chapter on the police response to the mentally ill in The Criminal Justice System and Mental Retardation. Recently, he authored a chapter on stalking in Trauma Psychology: Issues in Violence, Disaster, Health, and Illness.

Martin served on the editorial staff and as assistant to the Executive Director for the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals: Report on Police and as a ghostwriter for the Executive Director for their Police Chief Executive Report. In addition, he was a contributing author for the Model Use of Force Policy and Code of Professional Conduct of the California Peace Officers’ Association.

He was a regular lecturer on Criminal Justice matters at the California State University Long Beach, and currently guest lectures at the University of Southern California on issues related to domestic violence. He is also a member of the prestigious National Speakers Association.

Martin has been interviewed on many national news programs regarding hazards to public figures, stalking, domestic violence, and student violence. He has been quoted in the Los Angeles Times, the Herald Examiner, USA Today, the Hollywood Reporter, and the New Yorker Magazine.

He holds multiple California Peace Officers Standards and Training certificates (Basic, Intermediate, Advanced, Supervisory, and Management) and is a graduate of their Career Ethics/Integrity Facilitators Training Course.

Martin is currently the Vice Chairman of the Board of the Alliance for Hope International, the Chairman of the Board of the Operation for Hope Foundation (which raises awareness of issues related to family violence), the Chairman of the Board of IMPACT Personal Safety, a Board member of Safe and Sound Schools: A Sandy Hook Initiative, and a Board member for For The Child which provides services to abused and neglected children. He is on the Advisory Board of the Communities Against Violence Network (CAVNET), one of the largest internet-based repositories for research related to the prediction and management of violence. He is a Senior Advisor for the Violence Prevention Agency.

Real Strategies to Stem Violence

Real Strategies to Stem Violence

In the wake of the terrible mass shooting in Orlando, the national conversation about gun control has begun anew. Fear is a great motivator. So, we’re talking again (or still) about what can be done to break this seemingly never-ending tide of violence.

There are some great strategies for reducing violence, but they are not those we hear about most often in the news. If you are working this summer to make your school safer, here is what you can do.

Real Strategies to Stem Violence

Worried about mass shootings? […]  investing in threat assessment and intervention programs is probably more valuable than trying to fortify your local elementary school or hiring armed guards.

This quote comes from a recent article in The Guardian, by Lois Beckett. Lois has done the research and points out that there are a number of promising and effective solutions to violence that have nothing to do with gun control. There’s more:

“Mark Follman, a Mother Jones reporter who has led a project on mass shootings, has examined a different approach: threat assessment. Analysis shows there are often several missed chances to intervene before a mass shooting and researchers found the “weeks, months, or even years when a would-be killer is escalating toward violence are a window of opportunity in which he can be detected and thwarted”.

While this is not the only strategy suggested by Lois Beckett (a focus on various aspects of domestic violence, gangs, gun restrictions for certain populations, and suicide prevention are others), I am elated and hopeful whenever I see the practice of threat assessment and intervention mentioned.

It is a solid practice for preventing violence, and it is vastly underutilized.

If you’re still not sure what violence threat assessment is all about (and many people aren’t), read this now.

If you’d like to learn more about Mark Follman’s research on preventing mass shooting, you can see my interview with him here.

I have upcoming violence threat assessment team trainings and coaching sessions scheduled in multiple states this fall. To learn more about bringing this important training to your area, simply contact me here.

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.

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.

Shooting Tragedy at UCSB

shooting tragedy at UCSB

The tragic news of another shooting has saddened us. As we learn more about the shooter and circumstances, I find myself reflecting on the many similarities between Elliot Rodger and the warning signs of violence I teach in my training. Elliot is said to have held on to a grievance for a very long time. He experienced a sense of what we call “failure of masculinity” that troubled him deeply. He was jealous and resentful and lacked the coping skills to adequately deal with those difficult emotions. He saw himself as an outcast, having friends but never quite fitting in with the “cool kids” while growing up.

A troubling statement about the shooting tragedy at UCSB

You may have heard the following statement made by Janet Napolitano: “This is almost the kind of event that’s impossible to prevent and almost impossible to predict.”  I have to disagree. The Association of Threat Assessment Professionals (ATAP), of which I am a member, issued a statement regarding this unfortunate comment: “As you know, there is a pathway to targeted violence, and while as an Association we don’t claim to be able to predict such events, we believe they are highly preventable when pre-incident indicators are recognized, reported and acted upon. We are not in a position, nor do we have the desire to judge or second-guess the actions related to this incident, but we can certainly work to dispel the misbelief that incidents like these are completely unpreventable. Through continued education and outreach we can hope to influence change, to facilitate action and hopefully reduce the likelihood of future incidents.” I couldn’t agree more.

Seeing the warning signs before it’s too late

Warning signs

Each time we hear of another incident of targeted school violence, the following days bring news reports of warning signs that were missed along the path toward violence. Admittedly, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to predict violence. But, there are many signs of trouble that leave me nodding my head as I go through my mental list along with the reporter on the evening news.

Seeing the warning signs

In my workshops, I do not teach staff to predict violence, but to prevent it, by assessing dangerousness. Dangerousness is situational and fluid, and needs to be addressed when the signs are telling us that an individual is troubled and moving toward a decision to act in violence. Sometimes, we have a long window during which to act; other times, things move along rapidly. Knowing what to look for and having a plan in place to intervene can make the difference between life and death.

If you’d like to learn more about how to develop and implement this type of plan, simply click here.

How do I sort through the research, lists & checklists when assessing a potential threat?

 

Threat

Here’s how to sort through the research, lists and checklists used to assess a potential threat. There are a lot of different lists and checklists out there that tell us what we should consider when making an assessment of someone’s potential dangerousness.  It’s a lot to consider.

There are essentially two types of risk or threat assessment approaches: nomothetic and idiographic. In the field of criminal profiling, the goal of nomothetic study is to accumulate knowledge about general or average characteristics of offender groups.  The goal of idiographic study is to determine unique characteristics of a particular offender responsible for a specific crime (Turvey, 2012).

Essentially we are using nomothetic study when we assume that what has gone before is a reasonable gauge to determine what may come (Calhoun, 1998).  Many lists of potential school attacker warning signs and behaviors are based on this method.  We then look at an individual’s behavior and assess risk based on similarity to behaviors and patterns that have resulted in violence in the past.  We must remember, however, that “statistical information is based on what has happened in the past.  It cannot predict the specifics of any future threat beyond simply confirming that in the past, with threats of similar character, certain patterns held true” (Calhoun, 1998).

It is for this reason that I believe we also need to conduct an idiographic study of the individual at hand. What is this person’s behavior, language and writing telling us about his/her current state of mind? Has this individual first come to our attention when he or she has already begun to climb the ladder of escalation toward a violent act, perhaps by testing or breaching security?

We might look at a list that shows violent past as an indicator for for future violence, and decide on that basis that this individual is not a threat. But, there would be a flaw in this reasoning. Past violence is correlated with future violence in many situations, but it is not necessarily so in school attacks.

Does a checklist tell you what to do when a given individual makes you feel nervous, or when a teacher is overheard telling another teaching that this parent makes him or her uncomfortable but she can’t put her finger on what it is?

These are some of the many things to consider when assessing an individual of concern. The past does teach us a great deal, but we must still heed the signals of the present.

If you have concerns about someone’s behavior and aren’t sure what to do next, read this.