Threat assessment is an increasingly common school safety tool. But inconsistent use of threat assessments and gaps in data about how they are used has fueled concerns that the policies could lead to discrimination, or criminalization of student behavior.
That’s the conclusion of a new report that analyzes the use of school-based threat assessments in Texas, which passed a law requiring schools to adopt threat assessment policies in 2019.
“What we’ve largely found over the past three years is that there is a very uneven application of these threat-assessment teams—when they are convened, how they are convened, and what the outcome is,” said Andrew Hairston, director of the education justice project at Texas Appleseed, a racial equity organization that released the report.
Through school-based threat assessment, a multi-disciplinary team, which typically includes a psychologist or a social worker and an administrator, reviews threats and reported concerns about student behavior to determine if they pose an imminent, legitimate safety risk or are transient, like a kid acting out. The team also works to evaluate whether the student needs counseling, academic support, a mental-health evaluation, or continued monitoring.
Texas began requiring threat assessments as part of a broader school safety law a year after the 2018 shooting at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, where a 17-year-old student shot and killed 10 people.
Eight other states require districts to have policies for school-based threat assessments, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, and lawmakers around the country have debated the idea after shootings, like the March attack at a private Nashville elementary school.
Done well, threat assessments give schools a process to ensure students have the help they need before problems escalate, Hairston said. That’s why Texas Appleseed initially supported Texas’ 2019 bill.
But the policy and guidance related to the law largely leave it up to local districts to define “prohibited behaviors” and to determine what constitutes an imminent threat, the report said. That leaves room for inconsistency and variation into how threat assessment is used.
Analyzing threat-assessment data
Texas Appleseed researchers analyzed state and local data on school threat assessments from the 2020-21 school year, the second in which districts were required to conduct them. Thirty-six of the state’s 1,215 districts failed to provide data to the state as required under the school safety law. (Some gaps in data may have been caused by the unpredictable circumstances of the pandemic, the authors wrote.)
In that year, Texas schools reported a total 37,007 assessed threats to the state. Of those, 7.6 percent were classified as imminent threats that were immediately referred to law enforcement. About 43 percent were categorized as “risk and intervention,” the second highest level of concern. Twenty-four percent were categorized as “no risk but intervention,” and the rest were “no risk, no intervention.”
The data does not include what specific interventions schools used—like substance abuse treatment, discipline, attendance support, or a special education evaluation.
“Of those referred to law enforcement, the data does not provide specificity as to subsequent action taken by law enforcement,” the report says. “Namely, the data does not provide identification of the [nature of the] criminal charge of the offense, if charges were filed, if the student was arrested, if the student was restrained, if the student was ultimately adjudicated for a crime, or if criminal charges were dismissed.”
That’s particularly concerning because data from districts suggest Black students are flagged for threat assessment at disproportionately high rates compared to their peers of other races, Hairston said.
In Dallas schools, one of the only districts that provided data disaggregated by race, Black students made up 31 percent of threats assessed but only represent 21 percent of enrollment.
“We concluded that local education agencies are largely not reporting the reason for a threat assessment team being convened,” the report said.
Because of that, it’s difficult to determine whether schools took adequate preventative steps, like counseling, before involving law enforcement or discipline, the report says.
Civil rights protections
The push for school-based threat assessment first gained traction following the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. The idea was underpinned by years of research that suggested attackers often share signs of their intentions beforehand.
But some civil rights organizations cautioned that schools don’t always follow consistent, evidence-based practices when they adopt the strategy. And researchers have warned that even trained law enforcement officers vary when asked to determine what constitutes an imminent threat of violence.
To address those concerns in the Lone Star State, Texas Appleseed recommends better, more complete data on how the strategy is used so that policymakers can monitor for consistency and schools can adjust their approaches.