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.