With an increase in school shootings, such as the 1999 Columbine shootings and the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, it has become more important for educators, police and mental health professionals. This article reviews the literature on threat assessment in schools, primarily focusing on elementary and secondary schools.
Safe Schools Initiative
The Safe Schools Initiative “examined incidents of targeted school violence from the time of the incident backward, to identify the attackers’ pre-incident behaviors and communications and to explore whether such information might aid in preventing future attacks.” (Vossekuil, et. al., 2004)
The Safe Schools Initiative developed out of the same threat assessment process used and refined by the Secret Service in their examination of threats against public officials, called the Exceptional Case Study Project (ECSP) that examined violence focused on a particular individual and leading to credible threats. (Fein, et. al., 2002)
The ten key findings of the Safe Schools Initiative are listed below (Vossekuil, et. al., 2004):
- Incidents of targeted violence at school rarely were sudden, impulsive acts
- Prior to most incidents, other people knew about the attacker’s idea and/or plan to attack
- Most attackers did not threaten their targets directly prior to advancing the attack
- There is no accurate or useful “profile” of students who engaged in targeted school violence
- Most attackers engaged in some behavior prior to the incident that caused others concern or indicated a need for help
- Most attackers had difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures. Moreover, many had considered or attempted suicide
- Many attackers felt bullied, persecuted, or injured by others prior to the attack
- Most attackers had access to and had used weapons prior to the attack
- In many cases, other students were involved in some capacity
- Despite prompt law enforcement responses, most shooting incidents were stopped by means other than law enforcement intervention
Principles of Threat Assessment
There are six principles of the threat assessment process. (Fein, et. al., 2002; Vossekuil, Fein, & Berglund, 2015)
- Targeted violence is the end result of an understandable, and oftentimes discernible, process of thinking and behavior
- Targeted violence stems from an interaction among the individual, the situation, the setting, and the target
- An investigative, skeptical, inquisitive mindset is critical to successful threat assessment
- Effective threat assessment is based on facts rather than on characteristics or “traits.”
- An integrated systems approach should guide threat assessment inquiries and investigations
- The central question in a threat assessment inquiry or investigation is whether a student poses a threat, not whether a student has made a threat
Threat Assessment Screening Protocol
The “Student Threat Assessment and Management System – Level 1 Screening Protocol” (Salem-Keizer School District, 2010) provides a comprehensive process that begins with obtaining parental consent, exploring the threat and collecting information from the student and other resources (e.g. classmates), and finally – where available – having a mental health assessment conducted. All the information is documented and provided to the School Board and/or law enforcement so that follow-up action can be taken.
An important part of this document is the presence of a safety plan that allows the assessor to document the steps they have taken to mitigate the risk of danger.
This screening protocol covers the Key Questions identified by the ECSP and SSI studies as important to assessing threats, which include:
- Motives and goals for the violence
- Who the individual has talked to about their plans or thoughts
- Whether they’ve researched other cases of violence
- Have knowledge of or access to weapons
- What previous violence they may have engaged in (stalking, harassing, preparing or rehearsing attacks)
- Their mental state (including hopelessness or desperation)
- How capable are they of committing an act of violence (logistically, organized)
- Is there corroboration from other sources about the violence? Do the people around the individual have concerns?
- Are there attitudes supporting violence? (E.g. seeing it as acceptable; this is also a part of the Spousal Assault Risk Assessment tool that explores individual violence)
- Are there modifiable risk factors that could increase or decrease the individual’s level of risk?
Training in Violence and Threat Risk Assessment
The Canadian Centre for Threat Assessment and Trauma Response has developed the Violence Threat Risk Assessment (VTRA) which comes in two levels. Level 1 VTRA is designed for front-line staff including educators, administrators, police officers, mental health workers and others who may need to perform risk assessment in the educational setting.
Level 2 VTRA is designed for actual risk assessment and interviewing potentially violent individuals. It is designed as a follow up to the Level 1 VTRA. A variety of other organizations provide generic threat assessment training focusing on elementary and secondary schools.
Books on Threat Assessment
- Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide the Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates
- The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective (FBI Academy)
Threat Assessment in Post Secondary
So far we have looked at threat assessment in an elementary and secondary school environment but there is work being done on the post-secondary side (colleges and universities) as well, given well-known attacks such as the 2007 Virginia Tech Massacre.
Perloe & Pollard (2016) explains the role of counsellors at a college with a Threat Assessment and Management (TAM) team, also called (e.g. in Bolante & Dykeman, 2015) a Threat Assessment Team (TAT). Counsellors are advised to provide consultation to non-clinical members of the team and be one part of a multifacted approach, but, where possible, avoid being the treatment provider of any student of concern directly to avoid breaching confidentiality.
Perloe & Pollard also point out that forensic violence risk assessment in this context is different from the normal suicide risk assessment or violence-to-others assessment that clinicians are normally familiar with and so outside professionals may be required to competently assess risk.
Bennett & Bates (2015) note the importance of establishing a culture where reporting is encouraged. Given that the vast majority of threats never lead to an incident of violence, students and staff should know that reporting will not result in punitive measures but rather a collaborative approach to help the individual cope with their feelings.
The U.S. Department of Justice, through their Community Oriented Policing Services produced “Campus Threat Assessment Case Studies” (2008) as a training aid.
Threat assessment is an emerging field that requires a coordinated, professional response at both the elementary/secondary and the post-secondary levels.
For counsellors, specialized training in forensic violence risk assessment is important to ensure that they respond competently and effectively. For educators and police officers, building partnerships with the community and encouraging reporting so that safety plans can be put into place will help mitigate the risk of violence.
Bennett, L., & Bates, M. (2015). Threat Assessment and Targeted Violence at Institutions of Higher Education: Implications for Policy and Practice Including Unique Considerations for Community Colleges. JEP: Ejournal Of Education Policy, 1-16.
Bolante, R., & Dykeman, C. (2015). Threat assessment in community colleges. Journal Of Threat Assessment And Management, 2(1), 23-32. doi:10.1037/tam0000033
Department of Justice. (2008) Campus Threat Assessment Case Studies. Retrieved on July 30, 2016 from http://ric-zai-inc.com/Publications/cops-w0693-pub.pdf
Fein, R., Vossekuil, B., Pollack, W., Borum, R., Modzeleski, W., & Reddy, M. (2002). Threat assessment in schools: A guide to managing threatening situations and to creating safe school climates. Washington, DC: U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education.
Perloe, A., & Pollard, J. W. (2016). University counseling centers’ role in campus threat assessment and management. Journal Of Threat Assessment And Management, 3(1), 1-20. doi:10.1037/tam0000051
Salem-Keizer School District. (2010). VanDreal, J. “STUDENT THREAT ASSESSMENT AND MANAGEMENT SYSTEM – Level 1 Screening – Protocol”. Retrieved on July 30, 2016 from http://www.k12.wa.us/SafetyCenter/Threat/pubdocs/ThreatAssessmentandManagementSystem-Level1Protocol.pdf
Vossekuil, B., Fein, R.A., Reddy, M., Borum, R. & Modzeleski, W. (2004) The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. United States Secret Service & United States Department of Education.
Vossekuil, B., Fein, R. A., & Berglund, J. M. (2015). Threat assessment: Assessing the risk of targeted violence. Journal Of Threat Assessment And Management, 2(3-4), 243-254. doi:10.1037/tam0000055