Threat Assessment in Education

Introduction

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):

  1. Incidents of targeted violence at school rarely were sudden, impulsive acts
  2. Prior to most incidents, other people knew about the attacker’s idea and/or plan to attack
  3. Most attackers did not threaten their targets directly prior to advancing the attack
  4. There is no accurate or useful “profile” of students who engaged in targeted school violence
  5. Most attackers engaged in some behavior prior to the incident that caused others concern or indicated a need for help
  6. Most attackers had difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures. Moreover, many had considered or attempted suicide
  7. Many attackers felt bullied, persecuted, or injured by others prior to the attack
  8. Most attackers had access to and had used weapons prior to the attack
  9. In many cases, other students were involved in some capacity
  10. 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)

  1. Targeted violence is the end result of an understandable, and oftentimes discernible, process of thinking and behavior
  2. Targeted violence stems from an interaction among the individual, the situation, the setting, and the target
  3. An investigative, skeptical, inquisitive mindset is critical to successful threat assessment
  4. Effective threat assessment is based on facts rather than on characteristics or “traits.”
  5. An integrated systems approach should guide threat assessment inquiries and investigations
  6. 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 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.

Conclusion

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.

References

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

Cite this article as: MacDonald, D.K., (2016), "Threat Assessment in Education," retrieved on April 24, 2018 from http://dustinkmacdonald.com/threat-assessment-education/.
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Basic Homicide Risk Assessment

Introduction to Homicide Risk Assessment

All mental health professionals in the US and Canada have an ethical duty to warn, the requirement to warn someone who is at risk of harm of that harm. This leads clinicians to conduct homicide risk assessments to determine the level of danger to others.

In therapy or crisis intervention, the clinician is required to breach a client’s confidentiality in order to make notifications for both homicide risk and suicide. The homicide notification was codified in Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California (1976), a famous case where a psychologist was held liable after failure to take adequate steps to protect a woman that a client had confessed the desire to kill, when he did.

Borum & Reddy (2001) enumerated a variety of steps to performing a homicide risk assessment in a Tarasoff-style risk assessment, which is differentiated from a more long-term risk assessment by a focus on on clinical judgement than on an examination of actuarial risk factors. The ACTION steps below are used to perform the assessment.

To start, it’s important to clarify the difference between making a threat, and posing a threat. Someone who says they wish to hurt someone may not pose intent or take action that demonstrates an actual risk. Preparatory behaviours help guide the risk assessment, and include selecting a target, choosing the method, time and place of violence, acquiring means, and so on.

The goals of the Tarasoff homicide risk assessment will be:

  1. Is the client headed towards a violent act?
  2. How fast is the client moving towards that act, and do opportunities exist for intervention?

ACTION Steps for Tarasoff Homicide Risk Assessment

Attitudes in support of violence

Is the client demonstrating any antisocial attitudes or beliefs? If the client is at risk of harming their partner, do they hold misogynistic or patriarchal beliefs? The goal here is to determine whether the client believes that violence is a justified or normal response to this situation. The more justified the client believes he or she is, the higher the risk of violence.

Borum & Reddy also identify other factors to explore under attitudes:

  • Hostile attribution bias
  • Violent fantasies
  • Expectations about success of violence
  • Whether the client feels it will accomplish their goal

Capacity to carry out threat

Does the client have access to the means, and the intellectual capacity to carry out a criminal, violent act? They also need access to the target and opportunity. Stalking often precedes violent acts (Meloy, 2002) and this can lead to an individual learning about the target’s schedule and whereabouts.

Thresholds crossed in progression of behaviour

Any presence of lawbreaking indicates a “willingness and ability to engage in antisocial behavior to accomplish one’s objective.” Additionally, any kind of plan and preparatory behaviours to achieve this plan should be explored.

Intent to act vs. threats alone

It’s important to clarify the difference between an actual intent to act versus simple threats. On the distress line, we clarify with callers who make violent comments whether they actually intend to harm the person they’re speaking about, or whether their comments are a result of frustration.

Questioning the client helps suss out their intent, in addition to any preparatory behaviours, alternative plans to accomplish their aim (that may or may not involve violence.) A client who believes there is no other way to meet their goals are more likely to turn to violence.

Other’s knowledge of the client

Knowing how others respond to the client’s planned actions will help assess their potential for action. If many people around them respond negatively to their plan they may be less likely to follow through. On the opposite side, if their supports provide little resistance this can increase risk. The client’s self-report can also help inform their attitudes.

Non-compliance with strategies to reduce risk

Is the client willing and interested in reducing their chance of committing a violent act? If they have previously breached legal requirements like parole or court orders, or demonstrate a willingness to do so in the future, this raises their risk.

Appreciating the gravity of their mental health status and desire for treatment may also be important.

Further Reading

See the original article by Borum & Reddy for a more detailed review of the risk factors and additional items, or a book like Clinician’s Guide to Violence Risk Assessment by Mills, Kroner & Morgan.

Bibliography

Borum, R. & Reddy, M. (2001) Assessing violence risk in tarasoff situations: A fact-based model of inquiry. Behavioral Sciences and the Law. 19:375-385. doi: 10.1002/bsl.447

Meloy, J. (2002). “Stalking and violence.” In J. Boon and L. Sheridan (eds.) Stalking and psychosexual obsession: Psychological perspectives for prevention, polcing, and treatment. West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd

Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California, 131 Cal. Rptr. 14 (Cal. 1976)

Cite this article as: MacDonald, D.K., (2016), "Basic Homicide Risk Assessment," retrieved on April 24, 2018 from http://dustinkmacdonald.com/basic-homicide-risk-assessment/.

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Youth Violence Assessment and Prevention

The following notes come from “Youth Violence: Theory, Prevention, and Intervention” by Kathryn Seifert, which I read before participating in the SAVRY (Structured Assessment of Violence Risk in Youth).

Youth Violence – Prevalence and Trends

Four Types of Violence

  • Situational
  • Relationship
  • Predatory
  • Psychopathological

There are two types of violence, instrumental and reactive violence. The goal of instrumental violence is to achieve a goal where reactive violence is in response to a situation.

Violence Prevalence

  • Teens and young adults experience the highest rate of violence
  • Juvenile homicides ~5%
  • Juvenile sexual violence 20%
  • 25% of adolescents report dating abuse, 10% report physically hurt last 12 months

Rate of Violence Affected By

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Socioeconomic Status (SES)

Young girls are greater victims though young boys engage in more violence-related behaviour (perpetrators)

Community Predictors of Violence

  • Poverty
  • Community disorganization (presence of crime, drugs, gangs, poor housing)
  • Availability of drugs, guns
  • Adults involved in crime
  • Exposure to violence, racial prejudice

Violence Classifications

Violence may be classified based on its:

  • Purpose
  • Mechanism
  • Target

Purpose of Violence

  • Instrumental – to accomplish a goal (e.g. robbery for money)
  • Situational – Emotions getting out of control; rare without other risk factors
  • Predatory/psychopathic – No goal but to harm people

Target of Violence

  • Self-directed – Suicidal behaviour
  • Interpersonal – Against another person; in family or community (instrumental, situational, psychopathic); always occurs within existing relationship
  • Collective – Violence within groups

Dating Violence – Need for control in relationship

Types of Violence

Family Violence

  • Adult family members use violence to control
  • Patricide risk factors, severely abused, dangerously antisocial and severely mentally ill
  • Usually abuse, DV or parental substance abuse/mental illness in home

School Violence

  • Lack of counsellors, support services
  • No sense of community
  • Bullying, marginalized groups
  • Risk factors, history of childhood trauma, school behaviour problems, trouble interacting with prosocial peers, history of aggression, delinquency, substance abuse, lack of appropriate parental discipline, high conflict and low warmth within the family, other behavior problems, especially those that start before the age of 13 years

Homicidal Youth

  • History of family violence, abuse and neglect, mental illness, neurological defects, antisocial behaviour, substance abuse
  • Significant population with psychotic symptoms, gang participation, substance abuse
  • Skill deficits in anger management, impulse control

Gang Violence

  • Median age 17-18
  • More structured gang is, more likely to engage in criminal activity
  • Protective factors: positive role models, organization, absence of substance use and criminality
  • Risk factors: Marginalization, dropped out, rejected by prosocial peers, no opportunities for success
  • Affiliation and acceptance

Hate Crimes

  • Bias motivated
  • 63% of offenders were white, 21% were African American
  • Correlation b/w youth bullying and violence related to hate; attachment problems

Theoretical Perspectives on Youth Violence

Social Learning Theory

  • Most behaviour learned from modeling
  • Ignores DNA, brain development, learning differences that might impact ability to imitate

Intergenerational Transmission of Violence

  • Learn from early home environment; witnessing b/w adult caregivers, experiencing it themselves or both
  • Children victimized are strong candidates for prevention programs

Routine Activity / Event-Centered Theory

  • All crime is a crime of opportunity
  • Underestimates violent crime/offenders, does not examine social causes of crime

Social Exchange Theory

  • Calculated exchanges b/w costs and benefits
  • Assumes people take rational approach to emotional decisions

Psychopathy

  • No empathy, remorse
  • PCL-R; Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (two factors: personality traits and anti-social behaviours)
  • May be developmental disorder
  • DSM-IV does not use term; classifies psychopathic behaviours under ASPD
  • Risk factors include impulsivity/conduct problems, callous/unemotional traits, narcissism
  • 20-30% in children and adults

Neurobiological Theories of Violence

  • Early trauma affects neurotransmitter regulation, brain structure and development
  • Severe chronic stress in childhood can lower arousal point, making it harder to return to homeostasis = Developmental trauma disorder

Developmental Trauma Disorder

  • Behaviourally re-enact trauma as perpetrators or frozen avoidance reactions
  • Not the same as PTSD
  • Behaviour Objective Sequence

Subculture of Violence Theory

  • Within larger societies, subgroups may develop which encourage crime and violence
  • Incomplete view of violence; potentially racist

Feminist Theory

  • Males way of maintaining control of women
  • Do not account for female perpetrators, other individual factors,

Social Structure Theories

  • Relationship between different groups in a society
  • Grievances violating one’s sense of justice
  • Social distance

Strain Theory

  • Strain as failure to achieve positively valued goals
  • Strain as removal of positively valued stimuli
  • Strain as potential of negative stimuli
  • Power prevention technique = teaching people to deal more positively with strain, increasing opportunities to succeed

Control Balance Theory

  • Amount of control people are subjected to vs the amount of control they can exercise
  • Imbalance of control (either not enough power or too much power)

Systems Theory

  • Interplay of various systems
  • Violence caused by many interacting factors
  • Risk factors: high levels of conflict in the family, community and cultural norms that encourage violence, racial and sexual norms that preclude individual from participating in society.

Life Course Theories

  • Follows individual through life; positive and negative influence can change trajectory
  • Biological, psychological and social trajectories
  • Childhood diagnosis of conduct disorder correlated with adult ASPD
  • Early starters vs late starters

Reciprocal Theory of Violence

  • Properties of violence including negative emotional states, alienation, shame, denial, humiliation and lack of empathy, compassion
  • Nine Structural Pathways to violence

Dynamics of Youth Violence

Individual Factors that Affect Youth Violence

  • Parental substance abuse
  • Insecure attachment w/mother
  • Conduct problems
  • Lack of empathy
  • Cognitive dysregulation
  • Dysregulated behaviours
  • Belief in legitimacy of aggression
  • Childhood trauma
  • Parent rating of hyperactivity
  • Low academic performance; school problems
  • Deliquent peers
  • Availability of drugs
  • Early initiation of violence, delinquency, moderate-to-severe behaviour problems
  • Home or family maladjustment

Domains of Violence

  • Physiological
  • Cognitive
  • Psychological
  • Developmental

Physiological

  • Genetics
  • MAO-L increases aggression

Neurobiological Factors

  • Abnormalities in amygdala, hypothalamus
  • Alcohol exposure

Cognitive Factors

  • Low IQ linked to violent, aggressive behaviour

Psychological Factors

0-2 Years of Age

  • Attachment issues predict later violence and aggression
  • Secure, Anxious/Avoidant and Disorganized/Dismissive
  • Mirror Neurons in infants

Toddlers (3-4)

  • Master environment
  • Autonomy vs shame and doubt
  • Theory of Mind important at stage; take perspective of others

Early School Years (5-6)

  • Initiating activities
  • Interact with groups of children
  • Self-soothing, emotional regulation
  • Risk factors: absence of attachment figure, single parent, use of corporal punishment, preference for violent video games, exposure to verbal aggression, aggressive peers, victimization

Middle Childhood (7-10)

  • Preadolescence and Adolescence
  • Puberty
  • Peer group supplants family group as influence
  • Family risk factors decrease in importance
  • Risk factors, poor affect regulation, early onset of puberty, increased arousal patterns

Behaviour

  • Greatest predictor of severe and chronic violent behaviour is early onset of behaviour problems, aggression, disregard for rules, delinquency, substance abuse
  • Late onset antisocial behaviour tends to stop in adulthood, early onset tends to continue
  • Interventions must include family therapy, reduction of home violence

Temperament

  • Behaviour or emotional problems
  • Attract victimization

Mental Health

  • Mental illness alone not a predictor
  • Personality disorder places one at risk
  • Skill building, DBT
  • Substance use: age of onset, perception of drug use among peers

Traits of Violent Preadolescent Boys

  • CARE2 Assessment Tool
  • Family history of violence
  • Skill deficits in problem solving and anger management
  • Twice as many assaulters harming animals, delinquency, fire setting, school behaviour problems, attachment issues
  • 3x as many bullying others
  • Less resiliency

Chronic Violent Teen Boys

Risk Factors

  • Uninvolved parents
  • Ineffective/inappropriate discipline
  • Psychological or substance abuse families
  • Low warmth, high conflict
  • Childhood trauma

Protective Factors

  • Nurturing, supportive caregiver
  • Appropriate discipline
  • Achievable future goals

Chronic Violent Teen Girls

Risk Factors

  • Moderate to severe behaviour problems
  • No remorse
  • Bullying
  • Poor emotional regulation, impulsivity, psychiatric problems, truancy, attachment problems
  • Enuresis
  • Anger management, deficient problem solving skills

Environmental Factors That Impact Youth Violence

Environmental Factors Affecting Youth Violence

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Special Issues in Youth Violence

Bullying

Four Phases of Bullying

  1. Rejecting phase, identifying with the victims
  2. Performing phase, moving towards becoming a bully
  3. Perpetuating phase, enjoying being a bully
  4. Withdrawing phase, moving away

Bullying Interventions

  • Emotional skills training, teaching children and adolescents how to recognize and regulate emotional states
  • Social skills training
  • Reduce prejudice and discrimination
  • Problem solving, resiliency, prosocial skills

Suicide

  • Most teens would tell their friends first
  • 80% gave verbal clues
  • Friends and peers more aware of clues
  • How a young person responds (perception of stressor, social supports, resources available, skills to cope with stress)
  • Having youth identify three protective factors, linked to 70-85% reduction in suicide attempts
  • Inability to correlate death to permanent and ireverssible final state
  • Yellow Ribbon, ASIST, QPRT

Assessment, Prevention and Intervention

  • By clinical judgement only at chance
  • Youth change rapidly so assessments only valid <6 months
  • Self-report tools less helpful
  • Attachment to caregivers important

Areas of Assessment

  • Youth
  • Caregiver
  • School
  • Peers
  • Community Environment

Risk Assessment Tools

  • SAVRY
  • CARE2
  • Youth Level of Service—Case Management Inventory
  • Positive Achievement Change Tool
  • Psychopathic Checklist—Youth Version
  • Early Assessment Risk for Boys and Girls (EARL20/EARLY21G)

Motivational Interviewing techniques useful

Trauma issues important

Interventions

  • Skill building behavior management programs, cognitive-behavioral therapy, social skills training, “challenge” programs (i.e., wilderness therapy), academic training (GED programs, tutoring), and job-related skills
  • Botvin Life Skills Training
  • Aggression Replacement Training Skillstreaming, anger control, moral education
  • Behavioral Objective Sequence Adaptive, Personal, Task, Interpersonal, Self-management, Communication
  • Individual therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Multimodal Therapy
  • Multisystemic Therapy
  • Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care
  • School-based Mental Health Care
  • Gang Interventions
  • Victim-Offender Mediation



Cite this article as: MacDonald, D.K., (2016), "Youth Violence Assessment and Prevention," retrieved on April 24, 2018 from http://dustinkmacdonald.com/youth-violence-assessment-and-prevention/.

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