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.