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Threat Assessment Plans

Every district needs an action plan for averting violence.

With every new case of school violence, district leaders are urged to be proactive in hopes of averting potential violence. And experts say part of that proactive work comes from a threat assessment plan that every district should have.

Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates, a document written in May by the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education, explains a process for identifying, assessing and managing students who may pose a threat of violence in schools.

"Get a copy of it," advises William Modzeleski, associate assistant deputy secretary of the Education Department's Offi ce of Safe and Drug Free Schools. "It's the best writing on how to engage in threat assessment in schools."

While every district that receives funds from the U.S. Education Department for school safety is required to have a crisis management plan-which includes plans for any emergency, such as natural disasters and terrorist acts-districts are not yet required to have a threat assessment plan. A threat assessment plan will vary from district to district, but overall it is a structured plan that is set in motion after someone witnesses or hears a threat. That person then is encouraged to report it to a teacher or other adult. From there, the incident could be reported to the school principal and then to the security director's office for review. If it involves a middle or high level risk, such as an assault or death threat, then it is reported to law enforcement agencies.

Modzeleski and others shared such security and safety scenarios at a recent daylong District Administration seminar, New Paths to School Safety and Security, which was sponsored by 3Com, IPVideo Corporation, A+ Technology Solutions, Inc., OnSSI and Canon. Roughly 40 district managers, including security directors, also heard from Willie Freeman, director of security and chief investigator for Newark (N.J.) Public Schools, and Scott Poland, an internationally recognized expert on school psychology issues related to violence prevention and crisis response.

Threat Assessment Evolution

Th reat Assessment in Schools is based on a plan that was created by the U.S. Secret Service to protect the president of the United States. The roughly 100-page guide, which is a modified version of the original Secret Service threat assessment process, is an outgrowth of the Secret Service/ Education Department's Safe School Initiative, created after the Columbine High School attack in 1999. Such assessment plans have taken hold in some districts, but even fi ve years after the federal threat assessment plan was created, some administrators say that others are still not taking violence seriously or moving quickly enough. Michael Kell, security director of the School District of Springfield Township in Erdenheim, Pa., says his district, with 2,500 students in a bedroom community of Philadelphia, is still reeling a year after a student walked into the high school with an AK-47, prayed the lobby with bullets, and killed himself. Administrators are using threat assessment plans to avoid future problems.

"The school administration's credibility will be jeopardized by one incident," Kell says. "You have to be diligent. We still have school district leaders with the mindset that it can't happen to them. If it's happened in Springfield Township, it can happen anywhere."

The threat assessment plan uses specific strategies to determine both the credibility and seriousness of a threat and the likelihood it will be carried out, according to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).

Public safety and mental health experts say there are some basic components of effective threat assessment procedures that any district can use. "When you're looking at threat management in schools, you need to be consistent" in every grade and school building, Kell says. "You need to have consistent, rational and well-structured systems in place, and you need to communicate that to the parents."

Create Policies

Districts must first create policies so that administrators consult with the school's legal counsel about issues related to investigating potential threats, the guide states. Under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which protects the privacy of education records, a school cannot disclose identifiable information about a student from records without written parental consent unless the information could be used to protect the health or safety of the student or others.

Schools should have clear policies on collecting and reacting to information on potentially threatening situations, such as one student's disclosure of another student's plan to blow up the school, and to determine if the information merits further attention. A formal policy for threat assessment should include the policy purpose, the staff members' roles, and the types of information that may be gathered during the assessment.

Evaluate Threats

According to Scott Poland, who is also past president of NASP and now chairman of NASP's National Emergency Assistance Team, district leaders should also consider four factors for potential violence to erupt in or around school: personality, family dynamics, school culture and social dynamics.

If a student makes a threat of violence and is inclined to watch violent films and mistreat siblings and pets, if there is abuse, neglect or mental health issues at home, and if the student is constantly bullied and harassed and has poor self-esteem, this should raise some flags for administrators, Poland says. Students who have just one or a few of these traits should not normally be considered a potential security risk, but having all of them can mean a student is unstable and possibly ready to take his or her anger and depression out on others.

District leaders must evaluate a threat by first talking to the student who made the threat, as well as to the recipient and to any witnesses. Such steps must be documentedin writing. Security officers must also consider the circumstances and type of threat, and then they must consider if the threat is substantial, advises Poland.

According to Th reat Assessment in Schools, administrators must consider six underlying principles in threat assessment:

1. Targeted violence results from an understandable process of thinking and behavior. Attackers almost always think or plan their attacks in advance.

2. Targeted violence stems from interaction with the person, situation, setting and target. Special attention must be paid to students who are bullied or humiliated, especially in public; students need to know they can get help, and they need to develop trusting relationships with adults. A student's choice of a potential target must be considered, such as "the jocks," when assessing a threat.

3. An investigative and inquisitive mindset is critical. Check facts and be fair. Ask yourself if the information presented makes sense.

4. Effective assessments are based on facts, not characteristics or traits. Profiling students who wear trench coats, for example, can shift attention away from more reliable means of assessing risk.

5. An integrated systems approach should guide threat assessment investigations. Relationships with agencies and services within the school and community, such as the courts and religious organizations, are critical in identifying and assessing bits of information on potential attackers.

6. Every threat should receive prompt attention. It's important to distinguish a student posing a threat from one making a threat. Students may make threats to get attention or express frustration, or they may be simply joking.

Modzeleski says that students who know about a potential threat and don't inform an adult usually have little or no connection to school and feel they will be questioned or held responsible. "If we want kids to come forward, the environment of the school has to change to one of mutual trust and understanding," he says. Reaching out to every student is important, Modzeleski advises.

Freeman adds that schools could benefit from having mentoring or buddy systems to keep students connected to others. "It's not all about the money," he says.

Springfield's Tragedy

December 12, 2006, lives in infamy at Springfield Township High School, and it forced administrators to take threat assessments more seriously, including giving Kell the additional duty of coordinator of school safety and security.

An 11th-grade student walked into school with an AK-47 assault rifle in his gym bag, shot five rounds in the lobby, which was packed with students, and then took his own life. No one was injured.

The seemingly average student had family issues, including a mother who was sick with cancer, and had a recent drop in grades, Kell says. But there was no key tip that led administrators to think something was seriously wrong with him, Kell says. "I had a lengthy discussion with him the Thursday before," Kell recalls. "He was excited about joining the National Guard. He was active in scouting, theater, and he seemed to have many friends."

The district's threat assessment plan had been in place for at least eight years, but it was followed for more suicidal situations, or if students were more a threat to themselves or others. The student in the December incident did not appear to be suicidal, Kell adds.

The Plan Worked

But last October, the district's threat assessment plan did work. A special needs student told another student that she would shoot him if he came to her home.

A third student who overheard this used his hand to mimic a handgun in retelling the story to others in a classroom, and the teacher immediately told her principal, who told Kell.

Kell used the four-factor approach in the threat assessment plan, which took him only an hour. "You first have to look at the personality and the behavior of the student," Kell says. "I can't function in a vacuum. I need to bring in the teacher, some students who know [the student in question], and look at what they say."

Then he considered the student's family. "The family system is a little troubled," he says, noting without elaboration that mental health care was involved.

Kell discovered that the student who threatened the other had been teased by classmates and treated as an outcast. Kell then met with her mother, who told Kell that the family did not have weapons in the house.

If the four-pronged approach reveals a middle- to high-level risk, Kelly informs the local juvenile detective and an investigation is activated. After the investigation, Kell learned the girl actually said, "If you come to my house, my father will shoot you," in reaction to the boy who was arguing with her.

The high school threat assessment team, including a social worker, principal, counselor, support teacher and Kell, is designed to come to know the quirks and personalities of every student so if there is a behavioral change, they can try to address it before it's too late. In this case, the team eventually determined that the student was "not necessarily a threat to others," Kell says. "We do this now because of everything we've gone through."

Threat Assessment Teams

Every district should have threat assessment teams that include teachers, security officers, community law enforcement members, mental health representatives, and administrators. It is the team's responsibility to gather pieces of information on the potential threat from teachers, guidance counselors, friends, after-school program staff and part-time employers. The team may also consider keeping the information collected in a central location, the guide states.

Freeman adds that many students, especially in high school, "know everything" going on in school and could be useful on the threat assessment team. He also adds that cafeteria and custodial workers overhear a lot of student chatter at lunch or in hallways and could be part of the team. "People often overlook them" as sources of information, Freeman says.

Some districts could use a multidisciplinary team to respond to situations ranging from suicides to meeting special education needs, the guide states. But the roles and responsibilities of the team members should be clearly defi ned, and team members should be trained in the threat assessment process.

Kell says the Springfield Township district has a core group of fi ve members on its team, supplemented by a teacher representative from each school. Training is ongoing. With hours of threat assessment training under his belt, Kell trains the members, using Threat Assessment in Schools and a companion training CD.

"We as a district are very sensitive to what kids might be going through, whether it's a low, high or medium threat," he says. "We still want to respond the same way. You have to treat everything seriously."


Crisis Plans Bring in the Outside World

At Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical High School in Jamaica, N.Y., which is part of the New York City public schools, Adam H. Boxer, assistant principal of school safety and security, is devising his own safety plan specifi c to his school. It will need board of education approval.

Boxer was among the 40 educators who attended DISTRICT ADMINISTRATION's October seminar on New Paths to School Safety and Security.

Every school in the New York City public district has a crisis intervention team that assists in post-trauma if, for example, a principal passes away, but Boxer's plan would address serious violence, such as an intruder with a gun on school grounds, or a bomb.

Verbal threats, which Boxer says would not be handled under a threat assessment plan, would still be handled by one of 10 deans at Edison.

In September a student at St. John's University was apprehended just 50 feet from Boxer's building while he was carrying a gun in a bag, which subsequently caused the campus to go into lockdown. This led him to think, "What if this happened here?"

He is devising plans to address seven to 10 potentially violent scenarios. One plan involves communicating with the outside world if there were a school lockdown and the phone lines and computer lines were down. He says he would want to have people outside the district, such as possibly his wife, authorized to access codes that he could send via his personal digital assistant. For example, a "Code Black" could mean the school is in lockdown and that emergency personnel are needed. These people would have on their work or home computer aerial photographs and blueprints of the school building so that emergency personnel, including police or firefighters, could use them to access certain areas of the building.

"I hope to show it to the supervisors," Boxer says, "and possibly use it as a guideline for other schools."

Angela Pascopella is senior features editor.