At one middle school a student has threatened to kill a classmate. An assistant principal hurriedly checks the situation and concludes that he knows the student who has made the threat and that there is nothing to worry about.
Threat assessment (TA), which is a process that evaluates the potential for violence to occur, has received much attention in recent years after highly publicized school shootings. The U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Secret Service and the FBI have made recommendations and agree that each threat must be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly. A multidisciplinary approach is recommended and, at a minimum, various school staff should be on a “TA team,” including a teacher who knows the student in question, a school mental health professional such as a counselor or school psychologist, a school administrator, and a school representative, such as a school resource officer or local law enforcement officer.
Here’s how best to proceed to gather important information for a comprehensive evaluation.
Assessing a Threat
The most commonly asked question is: “Could the person who made the threat actually carry out an act of violence?” It is important to understand that most threats are made when someone is angry and wants to cause disruption or fear. Students make countless threats each year, with the most common being when a male student threatens to beat up another male student.
Threats can be classified into two categories: transient or substantial. A transient threat is made in a moment of anger or passion and dissipates quickly. A substantial threat involves planning, a longstanding grudge, and the means to carry out the threat. For example, a thorough investigation of the student mentioned at the beginning of the story might have concluded that he made the threat because he was angry for a moment in a physical education class when a foul occurred in a basketball game. The student could have later apologized and had no specific plan to carry out the threat and no prior history of problems with the intended victim. This threat would be considered transient.
Or the investigation might have found a long-standing grudge and that the boy who made the threat lost a fight to the intended target in a prior week. The assessment could have also revealed that the student planned to shoot the other boy at a bus stop before school and that he had access to a gun at home. This threat would be classified as substantial.
There are standardized measures that can be helpful in risk assessment. TA procedures gather information about the mental state and current stressors that the student feels, review school records to uncover any pattern of violence and discipline history, and determine if there is a problem with peer relations and other relationships at school, and if family factors might contribute to the student’s stress. The procedures also determine the level of the student’s family functioning and support, and the coping and protective factors in the student’s life.
How should school personnel respond when a threat is made? The wisest decisions are made with a team approach and an established series of questions and strategy to determine the seriousness of a threat. The approach should be fair and rational and needs to be documented in the school district’s policies. The school’s TA team needs to interview the student who made the threat, the recipient of the threat, and any students who witnessed the threat.
The consequences for such transient and substantial threats do not need to be the same. Administrators can review the discipline history in each situation and provide more severe consequences when a substantial threat has been made.
Dealing with Special Education Students
If the student who made the threat has a disability, then a special education committee would need to examine whether or not the behavior is related to the student’s disability. It is important that teachers be involved in this process, as they will know which students have disabilities. The school’s mental health professional can assist the committee in determining whether the behavior in question was a direct result of the disability.
But the role of school mental health professionals is often confusing in TA. One question is whether it’s necessary to obtain parental permission for the school psychologist to get involved and gather any type of assessment data on the student who has made a threat. The U.S. Department of Education has stated that parental permission is not needed in this type of emergency situation but that parents should be notified in a timely manner.
Mental health professionals are often asked, “Is this student actually capable of violence?” Mental health professionals have not been very successful at determining who would actually carry out a violent threat. Former New York Yankee Yogi Berra once commented, “Prediction is really hard—especially if you are talking about the future!” The purpose of the mental health professional’s involvement in TA in schools is to reduce the stress on the student who has made the threat and to make recommendations to promote safety for all concerned.
It is very important to receive a supportive response from the parents of the student who has made the threat. They need to be allowed the chance to provide information about their child without being made to feel that they are somewhat at fault. Parental cooperation is needed for increased supervision and in securing any services needed outside of school. Cooperation will be more likely when school personnel are sincere about helping the student who has made the threat in addition to ensuring the safety of all students.
The next Crisis Response column will cover the importance of effective communication with staff members, students and parents, and explain how to conduct a thorough threat assessment.
Scott Poland is a contributing writer for DISTRICT ADMINISTRATION and prevention division director for the American Association of Suicidology.