Middle school student Julie received a worrisome e-mail on her computer. Ben, an eighth-grader from her school, was warning her not to ride the bus the next day, as Ben planned to bring a gun and shoot several students. The threat specifically targeted John, a student with whom Ben had a troubled relationship.
Julie shared the e-mail with her mother, who called the authorities as well as the school principal. The school has a safety program, which emphasizes that adults must be notified when there is a threat of violence. Those adults then need to take a number of steps. This article will outline those steps.
Assessing the Threat
The principal communicated immediately with law enforcement officials, who visited Ben’s home that evening to assess the situation. Ben was not arrested, as his father agreed to bring Ben to school the next morning for a meeting to determine the seriousness of the threat. Primary concerns were twofold: (1) assessing the severity of the threat and creating a safety plan, and (2) containing the rumors that were flying around the school. (Julie had forwarded Ben’s e-mail to a number of students, who then forwarded it to many others.)
Creating the Assessment Team
The principal convened a threat assessment team that included the school resource officer, school psychologist and two of Ben’s teachers. Ben’s school records were examined, including academics, discipline and bus behavior. His teachers were asked if they had had any concerns recently about Ben’s behavior in or out of the classroom. None had.
The team decided that the school’s resource officer and its psychologist would interview Ben upon arrival at school and the principal would meet with his father. The principal prepared a carefully worded script for teachers that provided the facts of the incident thus far and indicated that the threat was being investigated. Teachers were given guidance as to what to say in classrooms to assure students of their safety and to let them know that the principal and law enforcement officials, who were continuing the investigation, would share more information as the day progressed.
Classifying the Threat
Ben was asked to give his side of the story, and he admitted that he had a longstanding hatred of John and that he had planned to shoot John with a pistol. His father admitted that guns were readily available in his home and that Ben was experienced in using them. He also indicated that John had bullied Ben on the bus and had severely jammed Ben’s thumb earlier in the week.
The interview and assessment also yielded the information that Ben’s mother had died of cancer a month before. Hisfather worked evenings, and so Ben was largely unsupervised after school and in the evening. The threat was classified as “substantial,” and the school psychologist used the Psychological Evaluation and Threat Risk Assessment (PETRA) to determine stressors for Ben. The PETRA is a standardized self-report instrument that analyzes factors to assist in the identification, assessment and management of threats of violence by adolescents. This and other very useful threat assessment tools are available from Psychological Assessment Resources (www.parinc.org).
The principal began his meeting with Ben’s father by asking him for information about Ben. The principal assured Ben’s father that the school sincerely cared about the welfare of all students, including Ben, and that he did not view the threat of violence as in any way the result of a failure on the part of Ben’s father. The father promised to lock up the guns in the home so that they were not available to Ben. He also said he would try to change his work hours so that he could spend more time with his son. The principal explained that the police would file no charges against Ben but that he would be immediately placed in an alternative education placement (AEP) where he could be more closely supervised and could receive regular counseling services to reduce his stress. Ben also would no longer be riding the same bus. Grief counseling services were also recommended for Ben and his family, with a re-entry conference to be held after Ben concluded his time in the AEP and before he could return to the middle school.
Teachers and parents were told the outcome of the situation. A memorandum was prepared for teachers, and a letter was carefully crafted to be sent home with each student at the end of the day. The letter did not give specific names, but it did clarify that a threat had been made and that the principal and law enforcement officials had investigated the incident. The letter also stated that the student who had made the threat would be placed immediately in an AEP. Parents who had concerns were encouraged to call the principal’s office. This quick communication was very important, as the incident was the headline story in the local paper the next morning.
The principal also contacted John and his parents to let them know that John had been named as a target in the threat. He explained to them the steps that had been taken and offered counseling support to John. He also met before dismissal with the students who rode the bus with Ben to assure them of their safety.
Pinpointing Safety Issues
The threat incident was handled carefully and thoroughly, but the principal realized that more could be done to pinpoint safety issues at the school. He decided to have all staff and students surveyed with the Safe Schools Assessment and Resource Bank (SSARB). This survey instrument for grades 5-12 assesses six areas: community involvement, discipline, perceptions of school safety, school services, staff preparedness and violence, and victimization. More information is available at www.ssarb.com.
Scott Poland is a contributing writer for DISTRICT ADMINISTRATION and prevention division director for the American Association of Suicidology.