It’s been just a few short years since student threat assessments started being conducted at K-12 schools in the U.S. What’s their track record so far? And what are some of the lessons learned that public school districts and charter institutions can embrace moving forward?
The best place to turn for answers to both of these questions is the State of Virginia, the first in the nation to legislatively mandate threat assessment teams.
On November 12, the director of the Virginia Center for School and Campus Safety (VCSCS) under the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services published a fascinating update and analysis of the effectiveness of the state’s threat assessment program.
VCSCS Director Donna Michaelis said a recent statewide survey showed that: “During the 2017–18 school year, 80% of our K-12 public schools reported conducting at least one threat assessment. Overall, schools reported a total 14,869 threat assessments. Of these cases, 1,472, or about 10%, reached the highest threat level classification at some point in the threat assessment process.”
“When we analyzed the data further,” Michaelis continued, “less than 1% of the 14,869 reported threats actually resulted in a related act being carried out. In total, school officials reported that only 42 of our threat assessment cases included an event taking place, such as a student attempting to harm themselves or others. We believe that’s a pretty good success rate for our teams.”
“The data speaks for itself,” Michaelis wrote. “Threat assessment has been very effective in Virginia.”
Virginia mandated threat assessment teams after two of the most horrific school attacks in the U.S.: first, for higher education in 2007 following the Virginia Tech shooting, and then K-12 schools in 2013 following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. It based the programs on recommendations issued jointly by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Secret Service following an earlier mass shooting: Columbine High School in 1999.
Other states have started down the same path, especially in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February 2018.
We described in Part 1 of this post why student threat assessments are a valuable addition to any district or state’s school safety program, noting that they can help “pinpoint the highest-risk individuals among the student population in time to initiate a positive intervention and thus prevent a grimmer outcome.”
And a National Public Radio report broadcast today also notes that prevention in the form of threat assessments and similar early efforts focused on the school climate can be as or more effective than active shooter drills.
As for lessons learned, one of the main ones at VCSCS has been the need for multidisciplinary threat assessment teams and multiple avenues for reporting threatening behaviors. In her recent update, Michaelis said the Virginia teams “require members with expertise in school administration, instruction, counseling, and law enforcement.”
In addition: “Students, parents, and staff have multiple avenues to report concerning behavior to our threat assessment teams, including in-person meetings, anonymous comment boxes, email tip lines, and phone or text message systems. These teams then work together to assess the individual’s behavior and intervene with those whose behavior may pose a threat.”
Other lessons learned, according to Michaelis:
- It is critical that proposed threat assessment legislation be fully vetted and reviewed by educators before implementation, so everyone understands the width and breadth of what is trying to be accomplished.
- It is important that a state agency be given the directive to develop model policies and procedures, handle data collection and conduct training.
- It is better to do more specific, targeted training at an individual school, rather than organizing statewide sessions where there are 50 representatives from 50 different divisions.
- One person cannot be solely responsible for going back to their division and implementing a threat assessment team. A more effective training model is one that includes an entire school staff or division.
But perhaps the biggest lesson learned for VCSCS was the need for a proactive community outreach program for students, parents and their surrounding communities, many of whom are concerned that the assessments are tantamount to ‘spying on the kids.’
Michaels said, “we knew that some parents would see this as ‘big brother,’ or schools labeling their child and this label possibly following them into college or the community. To address this concern, we created a marketing campaign, Virginia CARES, to better explain threat assessment teams to our parents.”
The message, she stressed, is that “the goal of threat assessment is to prevent a child from committing an act of violence against themselves or others and to get them the help they need; it is not meant to be a disciplinary process.”
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Note: If you’re responsible for school safety, it’s well worth reading Michaelis’s informed and insightful update in full. Notes From the Field: The Value of Threat Assessment Teams can be found on the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice (NIJ) website.