Threat Assessment in Education


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.


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

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

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 November 17, 2017 from
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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.


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 November 17, 2017 from

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Predicting Your Helpline Call Answer Rate

One role of helpline managers is to manage their workers so that they can answer the most calls possible within the available resources. Even helplines that run 24-hours and have 100% coverage can’t answer 100% of the calls that come in if they have more callers calling in than workers available.

Using a system like Chronicall can give you real-time information on the calls that you answer and don’t and prepare more detailed results (for instance, noting where calls are not answered because the worker is already on a call.)

Given a series of values that are related to each other, regression allows us to predict values where we either don’t have the data or where we want to know the “average” of a piece of data.

For this task, we assume all you have is the data about how many hours your helpline is covered (either in hours or percentages) and the percentage of calls that you answer.

Hours Covered (out of 24) Call Answer Percentage
24 80
24 78
24 82
24 76
24 79
22 75
22 85
22 76
20 82
20 80
19 70
18 74

While we can use the regression formulas by-hand, Excel provides simple techniques for deducing the formula. The first step (for the purpose of this article) was to do the calculations by hand to demonstrate. You can see the regression article for full details on how to do this.

Regression By Hand

Hours Covered (out of 24) [X] Call Answer Percentage [Y] X2 Y2 XY
24 80 576 6400 1920
24 78 576 6084 1872
24 82 576 6724 1968
24 76 576 5776 1824
24 79 576 6241 1896
22 75 484 5625 1650
22 85 484 7225 1870
22 76 484 5776 1672
20 82 400 6724 1640
20 80 400 6400 1600
19 70 361 4900 1330
18 74 324 5476 1332
263 937 5817 73351 20574

b = (12*20574 – 263*937) / 12*5817 – 263^2
b = 0.71969

a = 937 / 12 – 0.71969 * (263/12)
a = 62.3101

So our final equation is:

Y’ = a + bX
Y’ = 62.3101 + (0.71969)X

Using Excel

We can use Excel to simplify this calculation. Starting with an Excel spreadsheet containing our X and Y values:


Next, we use Excel’s LINEST function. This requires you to select TWO cells at once. The first required value (called an “argument” in Excel) is the known Y values. In this case, it is C2 through C13. The next value is the known X values (B2 through B13.)


The third argument is whether to set b to zero, or to calculate it normally. Since we’re using the equation Y’ = a + bX and not the equation Y = mx + b, we’ll set it to TRUE. The final argument asks whether we want additional statistical information included, so we set this to FALSE.


So our final equation is:


After we’re done typing this, instead of hitting enter like normal, we hit Ctrl-Shift-Enter. This is very important! If we neglect to do this, Excel will only give us part of the information we need. If we’ve done this correctly, Excel will put brackets around the formula, like this:step4

And you’ll notice that both cells you selected are filled in. The first cell holds the b value and the second cell holds the a value. Putting them into the formula, we have:

Y’ = 62.31024 + (0.719685)X

So, if we want to calculate what our answer percentage will be if we have 21 hours of coverage:

Y = 62.31024 + (0.719685)21 = 77.42

This falls right in line with our expected values, and this technique can be used with any other data where you need to predict values in a linear fashion.

Cite this article as: MacDonald, D.K., (2015), "Predicting Your Helpline Call Answer Rate," retrieved on November 17, 2017 from

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Least-Squares Regression

Regression is a technique used to predict future values based on known values. For instance, linear regression allows us to predict what an unknown Y value will be, given a series of known X and Y’s, and a given X value.

Given the following, it’s easy to see the pattern. But assuming no obvious pattern exists, regression can help us determine what the Y value will be given our known X values.

2 3
4 6
6 9
8 12
10 15


The X value is known as the independent variable, the “predictor variable”, while the Y value is the value you’re being predicted.

The linear regression (or “least squares regression”) equation is Y’ = a + bX

  • Y’ (Y-prime) is the predicted Y value for the X value
  • a is the estimated value of Y when X is 0
  • b is the slope (the average change in Y’ for each change in X)
  • X is any value of the independent variable

There are additional formulas for both a and b.

a b

Let’s take a look at the following data-set, that compares the number of calls made for a product against the number of sales:

Calls (X) Sales (Y)
20 30
40 60
20 40
30 60
10 30
10 40
20 40
20 50
20 30
30 70
220 450


First we need to calculate the sum of X-squared, Y-squared and X*Y:

Calls (X) Sales (Y) X2 Y2 XY
20 30 400 900 600
40 60 1600 3600 2400
20 40 400 1600 800
30 60 900 3600 1800
10 30 100 900 300
10 40 100 1600 400
20 40 400 1600 800
20 50 400 2500 1000
20 30 400 900 600
30 70 900 4900 2100
Total 220 450 5600 22100 10800


Returning to our formula, let’s start with b first:


The top of the equation looks like this: b = 10(10800) – 220 * 450 / n(∑X2)-(∑X)2. We’ve simply filled in the values from our chart.

b = 10(10800) – 220 * 450
b = 108,000 – 99,000
b = 9,000 / n(∑X2)-( ∑X)2

Now we have to do the bottom half of the equation:


=10(5600)-(220) 2
=56,000 – 48,400

Returning to our equation:

b = 9,000 / 7,600
b = 1.1842

Now let’s move on to a:


a = 450 / 10 – 1.1842 * (220 / 10)
a = 45 – (1.1842 * 22)
a = 45 – 26.0524
a = 18.9476

So, going back to our original regression equation, Y’ = a + bX and plugging our numbers, we get:

Y’ = 18.9476 + (1.1842)X

To use this equation, we now put our desired value in for X. With an estimated 20 calls:

Y’ = 18.9476 + (1.1842)*20
Y’ = 18.9476 + 23.684
Y’ = 42.63

So, a salesperson who makes 20 calls will expect to make 42 sales.

Cite this article as: MacDonald, D.K., (2015), "Least-Squares Regression," retrieved on November 17, 2017 from

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Delphi Technique


There are a number of techniques for making predictions or analysis. It is particularly useful in governments, public policy, and other areas where facts may be disputed but generally based on a set of common foundational knowledge. Examples of this type include economics (where the same economic principles may be expressed differently by country), and psychology (where, for instance, suicide risk assessments may coe to different results but be based on the same risk factors.)

The Delphi technique is a simple but very powerful technique to leverage the power of experts to make decisions, particularly in areas where prediction or forecasting are important. It was named for the Delphi Oracle that figured in Greek mythology, a priestess famous for her prophecies.

How the Delphi Technique Works

The Delphi technique involves selecting a panel of experts to answer the question at hand. This is usually one with some debate; for instance, suicide risk assessment methods have been tested by presenting cases to experts who make their decisions in a method similar to the Delphi Technique.

Once you have a decision that needs to be made, a panel of experts, and a question to be answered, each expert receives the question and information requires independently. After answering, their judgements are displayed to all of the panelists.

In some variations, the experts are shown who among them made each contribution, but in others this information is kept anonymously. Then, the experts complete a second round; having seen the decisions (and usually, the rationalizations) that led to each of the expert’s decisions, they are free to revise their original forecast.

This process repeats until there is either complete agreement in the process (a rarity, indeed), or the experts are no longer willing to revise their predictions. This technique can also be used with non-experts, but is primarily designed to harness their specialized knowledge.

Examples of the Delphi Technique

One practical example of how the Delphi technique was applied was in validating the Suicide Intervention Response Inventory, a tool to evaluate the responses of helpline volunteers. The questions involved were given to a series of experts and their responses were used to formulate the “expert” answers. A person’s score then, is the degree of variance from their responses and the expert panel’s average response.

Cite this article as: MacDonald, D.K., (2015), "Delphi Technique," retrieved on November 17, 2017 from

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