School Climate & Safety

What Schools Need to Know About Threat Assessment Techniques

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 03, 2019 10 min read
A computer screen displays an excerpt from the threat-assessment program developed by Dewey G. Cornell, an education professor at the University of Virginia.
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Armed teachers and bulletproof backpacks may have captured the headlines, but quietly, another school safety strategy has been rapidly expanding: behavioral threat assessment.

In the 2019-20 school year, schools in Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, and Texas must begin using threat assessment in their schools. Washington state schools will join them in 2020-21. In both media narratives and in political debates, school safety has tended to cleave into two contrasting camps, one supporting the “hardening” of schools, which can include installing security defenses and hiring more school resource officers or police, and the other seeking to improve school climate.

Threat assessment falls between those two poles. It’s a prevention-based strategy that, in theory, means serious threats are stopped, while less serious ones trigger a review of a student’s mental-health, behavioral, or academic supports. Read on to learn about threat assessment’s origins, how it’s practiced, and why some privacy experts still have questions.

What is threat assessment?

Picture a case in which a student says to another student: “I’m going to beat you up after school.”

Rather than getting hung up on the words, a team at the school sets out to determine whether the student who made the comment actually intends violence. An administrator interviews the two students about the incident, using a form to guide the questioning. Another reviews the disciplinary history of the student who communicated the threat. A school psychologist reviews notes from her case files.

In Scenario A, the student acknowledges he lost his temper, was bummed out about a poor test score, and was blowing off steam. The team quickly determines he doesn’t pose a threat. They plan to have the two students meet so the one who made the threat can formally apologize. Administrators make a note to check his academic progress over the next month.

In Scenario B, the student is evasive. His records show a history of aggressive actions. A school resource officer says another student warned him about a fight after school. The team decides the threat is real, alerts the other student’s family, and begins to sketch out an in-school suspension plan. They’ll conduct a thorough mental-health screening and meet with his mom to discuss treatment.

Threat assessment is this process of distinguishing “transient” threats from serious ones in a systematic, data-informed way. The question, proponents say, isn’t so much whether a student has made a threat as whether he or she poses one.

The idea emerged from the broader discipline of behavioral threat assessment developed by the U.S. Secret Service.

The core concepts underpinning threat assessment are triage and risk management. But it wasn’t until after a series of school shootings in the 1990s that researchers started looking at its application to K-12 education.

In a seminal 2002 publication, the Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education concluded that the perpetrators in many of those incidents telegraphed their plans ahead of time, yet that information was not shared with administrators or police.

The wrinkle with threat assessment? Doing it effectively within the confines of layered education policies.

“There are a lot of people doing threat-assessment trainings doing a great job. But then the K-12 people walk out, and they still have to create a system that is compliant with special education law and discipline rules and the civil rights of juveniles,” said John Van Dreal, until recently the director of safety and risk-management services for the Salem-Keizer district in Oregon. The school system created a threat-assessment approach that is now used to train other districts.

In theory, threat assessment is incompatible with “zero tolerance” laws enacted in the 1990s forcing schools to use out-of-school suspensions or other punishments for certain infractions, regardless of context. Threat assessment can lead to suspension if, in serious contexts, that’s what’s needed to keep students safe. But in other instances, the threat might be indicative of problems better handled thorough counseling, mediation, or other supports.

“My hope is the response to threats becomes more nuanced and more individualized, just like students with [individualized education programs]: Each one is unique to that child,” said Talisha Lee Bond, a school psychologist with the District of Columbia schools and a threat-assessment trainer for the Comprehensive Student Threat Assessment Guidelines, which were developed by Dewey G. Cornell, a forensic psychologist and professor of education at the University of Virginia.

It remains unclear whether that goal will remain as threat assessment expands nationally, however. Much is dependent on context. In Florida, for example, the same bill that mandates threat assessment also strengthens its zero-tolerance policies.

Is threat assessment a type of profiling?

This is often an area of concern for parents. And it’s no wonder: The concept of threat assessment comes from law enforcement, which has long faced complaints about racial profiling.

Early attempts to create “early warning” checklists, based on factors like interest in “violent” music or media, a “history of tantrums,” or the fact that a student “is often depressed,” were far too broad to be useful. The federal government concluded in its 2002 report that there is “no accurate or useful ‘profile’ of students who engaged in targeted school violence.” Instead, threat-assessment practitioners stress that the trigger must be some kind of threatening behavior.

Educators say it’s an important distinction.

“I don’t want to start profiling kids, so it’s a delicate balance,” said Cynthia Womack, an elementary school principal in Harford County, Md., at a recent threat-assessment training there. “You have to treat it case by case.”

Washington state’s law mandating threat assessment explicitly says that it should be prompted by a student’s behavior, not demographic or personal characteristics. Research on the guidelines Cornell developed found that his program reduced disparities in suspensions between black and white students. Nevertheless, much hinges on what school officials define as threatening behavior, and there is significant concern in particular about how threat assessment could affect students with behavioral disabilities, who are more likely to be referred for threat assessment.

In 2018, for example, the Oregonian newspaper detailed the story of a high school boy on the autism spectrum whose clothing choices, demeanor, and interest in weapons apparently caused his district to begin a threat assessment, even though he had not communicated a threat to anyone. Federal data also display some patterns worth noting. Schools with higher proportions of nonwhite students were more likely than those with fewer students of color to report using threat assessment teams.

Is threat assessment common?

Increasingly, yes. Until recently, the only state to mandate threat assessment in all its districts was Virginia, beginning in 2013. Now, even states that don’t mandate threat assessment for all schools often allow for the use of school safety funds to support threat assessment. Such language is also included in the 2018 federal STOP School Violence Act, which authorizes school safety grants.

According to the most recent U.S. Education Department data, 42 percent of districts reported using threat assessment in 2015-16. But a majority of them said their threat-assessment teams met “on occasion” rather than once a month or more frequently, raising questions about implementation.

States stand to play an important role in threat-assessment work. The safety legislation in Florida, Washington state, and Maryland all establish or give new responsibilities to state safety offices or centers, sometimes requiring them to disseminate model threat-assessment policies that local school boards must adopt or consult.

That said, schools are often less familiar with the concept than they are with safety plans or audits. “Some districts had never heard of it,” said Celina Bley, the associate director of training and education for the Texas School Safety Center, which has been offering training to meet the requirements of the state’s new law.

Who sits on a threat-assessment team?

State laws specify who must be on the threat-assessment team, typically administrators, mental-health personnel, and SROs. On their own, school districts often include teachers, school nurses, and IT officials.

Each team member brings a different lens to the table. Administrators, for example, know students’ prior disciplinary histories. School psychologists and counselors know whether students have received therapy, medication, or have recently experienced stress. Teachers know whether their grades have suddenly slipped. Most states report having shortages of school counselors and psychologists, though; they will have to coordinate with teams at several schools.

“One of the things we talk about when we deal with smaller districts in rural parts of the country or state is that you might need to look to the outside,” said Cynthia Marble, a senior consultant with SIGMA Threat Management Associates, a for-profit training firm. “If you have no one who is a mental-health professional, you may need to see in the community who you can bring in as part of your team.”

What does the training look like? Who provides it?

The two best-known models, Salem-Keizer’s and Cornell’s, are substantially similar in approach. The main difference is emphasis. Salem-Keizer puts more attention on the role of community organizations—like city or county law enforcement and social services—when dealing with serious threats, while Cornell’s guidelines emphasize the school-level teams.

Training for school teams typically takes one to two days, with participants learning about the research on threat assessment, examining case studies, and engaging in some role-play. They also receive tools and forms they can tailor to their schools.

There are a variety of other for-profit threat-assessment trainers; the U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center also offers training.

What does research say about threat assessment?

Although most providers claim to be “evidence-based,” empirical research on threat assessment in schools is limited. By far, the most well-studied model is Cornell’s. The two most rigorous studies on the method, both of Virginia schools, found benefits to the approach. In a randomized experiment, students in the treatment schools using the training were four times more likely to receive counseling than those in the control group. They were also less likely to receive long-term suspensions or to be placed in an alternative school.

Another study compared two sets of high schools, one that used the guidelines and another that did not. It found that rates of long-term suspensions dropped in the schools using threat assessment in the year after training.

The studies also provide some preliminary evidence that fidelity of implementation was linked to stronger results, though the authors conclude more research is needed on that front.

Are there privacy concerns with threat assessment?

Yes. By its definition, information gathered as part of threat assessment is shared with team members, so the first step in most threat-assessment protocol—the interview with the student making the threat—is not confidential.

That is the case even when it’s conducted by a school psychologist or counselor.

Schools using threat assessment still have to abide by federal privacy laws, including the Family and Educational Rights and Privacy Act, but that law does not give students or their families a private right of action if violated.

Unique among the new state laws, legislation in Florida from this year authorizes a state threat-assessment database. Presumably, it would be linked to another massive state school safety database that compiles juvenile-justice, mental-health, and foster care records, among others, and that has generated concern among student-privacy advocates.

In other states, paperwork generated from threat assessment is usually kept at schools, noted Michelle Morton, the juvenile-justice policy coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. Once digitized, it’s not clear how long those records will be maintained, or by whom.

“Our concern is this labeling someone as a threat and having that as part of their file that’s going to follow them wherever they go,” she said.

In addition, some of the school safety laws indemnify members of threat-assessment teams.

In Tennessee, for example, the law specifically excuses team members and any “decisions, opinions, actions, and proceedings rendered, entered, or acted upon” from liability, which could give students who are accidentally swept up in an investigation little recourse to protest the results.

An alternative version of this article appeared in the September 4, 2019 edition of Education Week.
A version of this article appeared in the September 04, 2019 edition of Education Week as What Are Threat Assessments and How Do Schools Use Them?


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