School Climate & Safety

Do Schools Use Threat Assessment Fairly? In This State, There’s Little Data So Far

By Evie Blad — April 13, 2023 4 min read
Photo of teenage boy with backpack waiting outside of school.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

See Also

A computer screen displays an excerpt from the threat-assessment program developed by Dewey G. Cornell, an education professor at the University of Virginia.
A computer screen displays an excerpt from the threat-assessment program developed by Dewey G. Cornell, an education professor at the University of Virginia.
Cat McGrath for Education Week

“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.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Your Questions on the Science of Reading, Answered
Dive into the Science of Reading with K-12 leaders. Discover strategies, policy insights, and more in our webinar.
Content provided by Otus
Mathematics Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Breaking the Cycle: How Districts are Turning around Dismal Math Scores
Math myth: Students just aren't good at it? Join us & learn how districts are boosting math scores.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How To Tackle The Biggest Hurdles To Effective Tutoring
Learn how districts overcome the three biggest challenges to implementing high-impact tutoring with fidelity: time, talent, and funding.
Content provided by Saga Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety 'A Universal Prevention Measure' That Boosts Attendance and Improves Behavior
When students feel connected to school, attendance, behavior, and academic performance are better.
9 min read
Principal David Arencibia embraces a student as they make their way to their next class at Colleyville Middle School in Colleyville, Texas on Tuesday, April 18, 2023.
Principal David Arencibia embraces a student as they make their way to their next class at Colleyville Middle School in Colleyville, Texas, on Tuesday, April 18, 2023.
Emil T. Lippe for Education Week
School Climate & Safety Most Teachers Worry a Shooting Could Happen at Their School
Teachers say their schools could do more to prepare them for an active-shooter situation.
4 min read
Image of a school hallway with icons representing lockdowns, SRO, metal detectors.
via Canva
School Climate & Safety Michigan School Shooter's Parents Sentenced to at Least 10 Years in Prison
They are the first parents convicted for failures to prevent a school shooting.
3 min read
Jennifer Crumbley stares at her husband James Crumbley during sentencing at Oakland County Circuit Court on April 9, 2024, in Pontiac, Mich. Jennifer and James Crumbley, the parents of Ethan Crumbley, are asking a judge to keep them out of prison as they face sentencing for their role in an attack that killed four students in 2021.
Jennifer Crumbley stares at her husband James Crumbley during sentencing at Oakland County Circuit Court on April 9, 2024, in Pontiac, Mich. The parents of Ethan Crumbley, who killed four students at his Michigan high school in 2021, asked a judge to keep them out of prison.
Clarence Tabb Jr./Detroit News via AP
School Climate & Safety Civil Rights Groups Seek Federal Funding Ban on AI-Powered Surveillance Tools
In a letter to the U.S. Department of Education, the coalition argued these tools could violate students' civil rights.
4 min read
Illustration of human silhouette and facial recognition.
DigitalVision Vectors / Getty