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The Case for Student Threat Assessments – Part 1

As the U.S. grapples with yet another school shooting – this one just north of Los Angeles – a new report published by the U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) states that many campus shootings over the past decade could have been prevented if education leaders had programs in place to systematically assess potential threats in advance.

In Protecting America’s Schools: A U.S. Secret Service Analysis of Targeted School Violence, NTAC studied 41 incidents of targeted violence occurring at K-12 schools in the U.S. from 2008 to 2017.

Among its findings:

  • There is no single profile of a student attacker, nor is there a profile for the type of school that has been targeted.
  • Attackers usually had multiple motives, the most common involving a grievance with classmates.
  • Nearly every attacker experienced negative home life factors, and most were victims of bullying.

Three additional findings in particular stand out:

  • Most attackers had experienced observable psychological, behavioral or developmental symptoms prior to the attacks.
  • All attackers experienced social stressors involving their relationships with peers and/or romantic partners – half of them within two days of an attack.
  • All attackers exhibited concerning behaviors, most elicited concern from others and most communicated their intent to attack either to fellow students, school personnel or family members.

The NTAC report (download it here) goes on to note: “While every situation is unique and should be treated as such, one common factor across all of these tragedies is that there appears to have been an opportunity to identify and intervene with the attacker before violence occurred.”

In other words, while most attacks are over in a few short minutes – and thus are nearly impossible to stop once they’re underway – there are many student behaviors that are knowable well in advance, and it’s logical to conclude that that’s where to focus in order to create opportunities for prevention.

The focus, NTAC says, should therefore be on systematically collecting the known information while it is still actionable, and then getting it into the hands of the professionals who benefit most from it. This collection mechanism in the case of K-12 schools is the student threat assessment.

“The goal of a threat assessment,” NTAC says, “is to identify students of concern, assess their risk for engaging in violence or other harmful activities, and deliver intervention strategies to manage that risk.”

The Secret Service, which knows a thing or two about best practices for assessing threats thanks to its mission of protecting U.S. presidents and other government VIPs, has spent more than two decades studying school safety, and has long been a vocal advocate for student threat assessments (STAs).

In addition to its latest report, the center published a definitive guide to STAs in July 2018: Enhancing School Safety Using a Threat Assessment Model: An Operational Guide for Preventing Targeted School Violence, which “encourages schools to set a low threshold when identifying students who might be engaging in unusual behavior, or experiencing distress, so that early interventions can be applied to reduce the risk of violence or other negative outcomes.”

Nor is NTAC only agency to advocate for STAs. The U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice (NIJ), also a longstanding thought leader in school safety mitigation, has extensive resources on student threat assessments on its website. These include the much older (September 1995) but still relevant Threat Assessment: An Approach To Prevent Targeted Violence, which can be found here.

In its new report, NTAC recommends a collaborative multidisciplinary STA approach that involves a diverse group of stakeholders, rather than a single department. “The fact that half of the attackers had received one or more mental health services prior to their attack indicates that mental health evaluations and treatments should be considered a component of a multidisciplinary threat assessment, but not a replacement,” the report states. “Mental health professionals should be included in a collaborative threat assessment process that also involves teachers, administrators, and law enforcement.”

Some states already have STA programs. The oldest one, dating to 2013, is in Virginia. There also has been recent legislation in Florida, Oregon and several other states calling for mandatory threat assessment teams in K-12 schools.

In the same way that a school safety assessment can alert security professionals to threats and vulnerabilities at physical campuses, the STA – if well designed, implemented and communicated – can pinpoint the highest-risk individuals among the student population in time to initiate a positive intervention and thus prevent a grimmer outcome.

At this writing it’s still unclear what prompted the most recent school shooter to launch his 16-second rampage near L.A., and it’s possible he won’t fit the profile of someone whose behaviors were knowable in advance. But with the majority of shooters exhibiting early indications to others in their communities, school leaders would be remiss not to implement the kinds of assessments advocated by two of the most experienced U.S. national security and law enforcement agencies.

As the Secret Service’s NTAC concludes: “A multidisciplinary threat assessment team, in conjunction with the appropriate policies, tools, and training, is the best practice for preventing future tragedies.”

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This is the first of two blog posts examining STAs. In Part 2 we’ll look at the experiences of the above-referenced STA program in Virginia, the first U.S. state to legislatively mandate statewide student threat assessments for K-12 schools and higher-ed institutions.

Note: For the past five years, Haystax has helped U.S. states and individual school districts protect their students, staff and facilities with a variety of domain awareness, assessment and incident reporting apps. Find out more about how the Haystax for School Safety solution can keep your schools safe from threats and natural hazards by reading our new white paper, Managing School Safety in the 21st Century. Or arrange for a personal demo by clicking here.

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