Threat Concerns as Schools Reopen

Threat concerns as schools reopen

Will high levels of stress translate into high rates of violence?

As schools begin to reopen on either a full-scale or hybrid plan, there are questions about how students, who have been under unusual stress while learning from home, might react. Experts have concerns about the likelihood that stressors experienced while confined to home may exacerbate already existing mental health issues, anger, and behavioral concerns.

The 2019 US Secret Service Report on Targeted School Violence lists the top stressors experienced by students who have perpetrated violent attacks on their schools in the past. The graphic below is from the US Secret Service report, Protecting America’s Schools. You can access the full report here.

Stressors of school attackers

Many of these stressors could be seriously affecting our students at this time. All schools should have a plan in place to check in with students they already know are struggling as well as making sure all students know where to turn for help or to report concerns about a peer. This is all about prevention. We need to focus on identifying students who are struggling and intervene to help them before they ever get to the point of violence or suicide.

A second concern

Another concern I have about the potential increased risk of school violence upon returning to school, stems from the statistics below indicating the time of year prior attacks have taken place.

School attacks time of year

This graphic, from the US Secret Service report, Protecting America’s Schools shows that the highest number of school attacks have occurred during the months of return to school after a break. With the unprecedented break of being quarantined at home for months, we need to be extra vigilant and aware of what to look for in our students.

The resources Warning Signs of Violence and Warning Signs of Suicide can be helpful in increasing your staff’s awareness of these important topics. I encourage you to disseminate this information to all staff members and create a process for reporting concerns so you can act on them quickly and effectively.

Announcement & a quick favor

I’m putting together an updated online school safety training and want to make sure to include everything that would be most helpful to schools right now. Your feedback is extremely valuable and will help me get this right so it’s more useful to you. Please click on this link to complete a very brief survey letting me know your greatest needs.  Thanks so much!

STOP School Violence Funding Opportunity

STOP School Violence GrantsThe Student, Teachers, and Officers Preventing School Violence Act of 2018 (STOP School Violence Act) has announced a new funding cycle.


Applications are due June 9, 2020, and funding can be used for the following:

  • Training to prevent student violence against others and self, including training for local law enforcement officers, school personnel, and students
  • The development and operation of anonymous reporting systems for threats of school violence, including mobile telephone applications, hotlines, and internet websites
  • The development and deployment of:
    • School threat assessment and intervention teams that include coordination with law enforcement agencies and school personnel
    • Specialized training for school officials in responding to mental health crises

BJA’s STOP School Violence Grant Program is designed to improve school security by providing students and teachers with the tools they need to recognize, respond quickly to, and help prevent acts of violence.

Eligible applicants may apply under one or more of the following areas:

  1. Train school personnel and educate students on preventing student violence against others and themselves to include anti-bullying training. This can also include specialized training for school officials to respond to mental health crises.
  2. Develop and implement threat assessment and/or intervention teams and/or operate technology solutions such as anonymous reporting systems for threats of school violence, including mobile telephone applications, hotlines, and websites. Threat assessment and/or intervention teams must coordinate with law enforcement agencies and school personnel.
The National Center for School Safety is holding an informational webinar on April 30 for those interested in applying. You can register for the live webinar/Q & A here.

Key Points for Schools – 2019 Secret Service Report

School Safety Update

The Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center released its review of 2018 Mass Attacks in Public Places in July. While the full report can be viewed here, key points relevant to schools include:

  • Three attacks (11%) were carried out at high schools.
  • The findings emphasize that we can identify warning signs prior to an act of violence. While not every act of violence will be prevented, the report indicates that targeted violence may be preventable if appropriate systems are in place to identify concerning behaviors, gather information to assess the risk of violence, and utilize community resources to mitigate the risk.
  • More than half (63%) of the attacks ended within 5 minutes from when the incident was initiated.
  • Two-thirds of the attackers (67%) experienced mental health symptoms prior to their attacks. The most common symptoms observed were related to depression and psychotic symptoms, such as paranoia, hallucinations, or delusions. Suicidal thoughts were also observed. Nearly half of the attackers (44%) had been diagnosed with, or treated for, a mental illness prior to their attacks.
  • The violence in this study resulted from a range of motives, with some attackers having multiple motives. In half of the incidents ( 52%), grievances appeared to be the main motivating factor. Beyond grievances, some motives were related to the attackers’ mental health symptoms (19%), while others were connected to ideological beliefs (7%). While only two of the attacks were primarily motivated by an ideology, nearly one-third of the attackers (30%) appeared to have subscribed to a belief system that has previously been associated with violence.
  • Two-fifths of the attackers (41%) exhibited a fixation, defined as an intense or obsessive preoccupation with a person, activity, or belief to the point that it negatively impacted aspects of their lives. The behaviors that demonstrated these fixations included, but were not limited to, posting written material or videos online, stalking or harassing others, and filing lawsuits or complaints to police.
  • Most (85%) attackers had at least one significant stressor occur in their lives in the five years preceding the attack.
  • Nearly all of the attackers (93%) engaged in prior threatening or concerning communications. One-third had threatened someone (37%), including threats against the target in six cases (22%). All but four attackers (85%) made some type of communication that did not constitute a direct threat, but should have elicited concern.
  • Most of the attackers (78%) in this report exhibited behaviors that caused concern in others. Those who were concerned had various degrees of association with the attackers, from those who were close to them, to strangers in the community who may have never met the attacker before. For the majority of the attackers (70%), the concern others felt was so severe that they feared specifically for the safety of the individual, themselves, or others.
  • Because these acts are usually planned over a period of time, and the attackers often elicit concern from the people around them, there exists an opportunity to stop these incidents before they occur. Threat assessment is one of the most effective practices for prevention.

As you can see, this report echoes the previous year’s report and a great deal of research and literature on prevention efforts such as threat assessment. If you don’t already have a threat assessment protocol in place in your school district, perhaps the time is now.

Managing Someone Who Poses a Threat

how to manage someone who poses a threat
We’ve talked a lot about violence threat assessment in the past. Today, I want to talk about threat management. How, exactly, should we proceed when managing someone who poses a threat to our school’s safety?

There is no strategy that will work in every situation, or every time. We must address the specifics of each situation and the needs of everyone involved to ensure the safest outcome.

I can tell you that there are some things we always want to attend to when managing a threat.

  1. First, we need to ensure the safety of everyone involved. This means investigating the threat, notifying targets and implementing strategies to keep everyone in our buildings safe.
  2. We want to be aware of any existing connections and violence inhibitors that we can leverage to help a person of concern find alternatives to violence. This may take the form of contacting and partnering with family members, school staff or mental health providers who have a positive relationship with the subject.
  3. We want to understand the person’s perception of a situation or possible grievance, and help him or her to see that we will work to solve it to the best of our ability.
  4. We want to treat the subject with dignity, which may preserve the last bit of what is holding him or her together.
  5. If we must force a student out of school in the form of a suspension or expulsion, we need to do so with kindness and compassion, and keep the lines of communication open so we are not severing the relationship.
  6. We want to be mindful of the subject’s social media presence and communication with others, and monitor him/her for any hint of a violent mindset. This may continue for an extended period of time .
  7. If we are concerned about a student who is currently attending school, we may have to institute labor-intensive procedures such as daily check-ins or backpack checks, and even constant supervision, if necessary.
  8. It’s imperative that we continue to communicate with those in our school about any words, behavior or incidents indicative of movement toward violence in a person of concern. When we don’t do this, it’s much easier for each incident to appear isolated, and to lose sight of the true picture of the threat posed by an individual of concern. We must keep connecting the dots for each situation of concern.

To learn more about how I work with schools set up their own threat assessment teams, click here.


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.


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


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.