Yesterday, I emphasized how much experience matters in bringing the benefits of behavioral threat assessment to our schools.  This is true from the start – with the first phase of the threat assessment process: identifying those who might pose a threat. The first process is identifying threats and potential perpetrators.  This involves:

  1. Defining criteria that could make any given student or staff the subject of a threat assessment inquiry;
  2. Determining the areas within the school’s internal and external administrative, health services or security organizations that will be responsible for collecting, receiving and sharing information about possible subjects and conducting threat assessment inquiries;
  3. Notifying students, teachers, staff or parents who might come in contact with – or know of – potential subjects about the existence of the threat assessment program; and
  4. Educating notified individuals and organizations about the criteria for bringing a concern about potential violence to the attention of the school and the protocols defining exactly how to handle this potentially urgent and sensitive information in an effective and responsible manner.[1]

Why does experience matter so much in this process?  Because the challenges in identification of those who pose a threat are complex.  Consider a few traditional threat assessment tenets and, based on our experience, their implications for school violence prevention.

  • Traditional Threat Assessment Tenet:  There’s an enormous difference between making a threat and posing one.  And most who actually pose a threat, don’t broadcast the fact to their intended targets.  You have to understand that traditional law enforcement personnel aren’t trained to recognize this distinction.  Nor are campus or corporate security professionals – even those with decades of experience.  Implications for School Violence Prevention:  If the analysis by the schools’ multidisciplinary threat assessment team is off – and, for example, they think the person who made a threat actually poses one – the team risks running down false avenues of response and protection that may actually increase vulnerability to students and other stakeholders rather than reduce it.
  • Traditional Threat Assessment Tenet:  People generally don’t just snap prior to attacking a designated individual or individuals; targeted violence is often preceded by an attack pathway that involves planning.  Implications for School Violence Prevention:  Much of that planning often takes place online.  Would-be attackers who use the Internet to research, plan an attack, or communicate their intentions often unwittingly leave an electronic evidence trail that points directly to them.
  • Traditional Threat Assessment Tenet:  Pre-attack planning is often observable and possibly detectable if you know what to look for.  Implications for School Violence Prevention:  This is a matter of understanding behaviors and how these typically manifest themselves in a school environment – particularly among adolescents and young adults.
  • Traditional Threat Assessment Tenet:  Those who attack targeted individuals often communicate their intentions to others, including friends, family, and co-workers.  Implications for School Violence Prevention:  We need to help the broader school community – teacher, students and parents – learn how and when to share their concerns, where this information should be provided, and how it will be used.  Among the student body, we need to adherence to a “code of silence” doesn’t protect people, it increases risks for everyone.  Please see our Act #11 of this series.  Just hours after the Taft High School shooting on January 10, a Hillard Heintze analyst identified social media communications that kids in the school had been talking about the risk of a shooting on campus for weeks – and a likely hit list had been discussed as early as a full year before the event occurred.

These examples illustrate the complexity inherent in the Identification phase.  As our Act #22, we pledge to be vigilant in ensuring that the Identification phase of threat assessment capabilities extended to schools across the country are rigorous. Tomorrow, we’ll point out comparable complexity in the Assess and Manage phase of the process.

[1] R. Fein, B.Vossekuil, and G. Holden. (1995). Threat Assessment: An Approach to Prevent Targeted Violence. National Institute of Justice, Research in Action, July 1995.