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?



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.

School Threat Assessment – What You Need to Know

School threat assessment

When you hear a student threaten another student verbally or through writing, email or social media, should you be concerned that violence will follow? The answer depends on several things.

School Threat Assessment – What You Need to Know

First, it is always imperative to conduct an investigation. You will need to gather information about the individual, circumstances, relationship between the threatener and the target and any previous threats or violence perpetrated by the threatener (subject). It’s critical that you include staff members, law enforcement and agency staff representing various disciplines on your threat assessment team. This will enable you to collect information from a number of individuals who have experience with the subject, and to view your data through multiple lenses.

Does the subject have a history of violence? Does he/she have a pattern of making threats or of inappropriate communication, with no action toward violence? A threat is like a promise – a statement that a future action will take place. But, promises are often easier to make than to keep. Sometimes, it is the same way with threats.

What we want to pay particular attention to are the behaviors engaged in by a subject of concern. Does the subject display a contextually inappropriate fascination with violence, weapons or previous attacks? Is the subject increasing his/her target practice? Has the subject been seen on school grounds at odd times and in unusual places? Has the subject spoken to others about a desire to inflict violence or a plan to do so? Has he/she taken steps to acquire weapons? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, make it your mission to find out. Convene your threat assessment team and gather information on any and all incidents and observations involving the subject of concern. To not do so risks letting critical information fall through the cracks.

If a picture of progressive actions toward violence begins to emerge, your concern should be elevated. Keep investigating, take appropriate safety measures and involve the student’s parents or guardians. Law enforcement will want to consider a search warrant if parents are not forthcoming with information or cooperative with a search of the subject’s home. If you see steps toward intended violence, an attack has already begun and it is vital to intervene before it’s too late.

Need help assessing a potential threat? Learn more here.