What does the threat assessment process look like?

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Written By: J. Lasswell
December 13, 2022

An event is reported, the event is considered alongside the threatener’s behavioral history, all witnesses are interviewed, the threat is classified, and a response to the action is administered.

Make no mistake, teachers won’t be able to educate and students won’t be able to learn at their full potential until they feel safe - unfortunately, the lack of safety is becoming a defining feature of the American educational system.

This may be the first year you’re hearing about threat assessments. The term is becoming more recognizable as regular people are confronted with the fact that schools are vulnerable when they aren’t actively managing their threats. This relatively novel idea of a implementing a context-based effort to manage behaviors at school takes the place of the previous “zero-tolerance policy,” which research has proven to be vastly ineffective in achieving the goals of a healthy school disciplinary system.

Where the zero-tolerance policy fails to address an individual student’s conduct history, threat assessments take an ongoing, objective approach which seek to identify relevant information in a student’s behavior that suggests grander behavioral problems - ideally, before something harmful transpires.

What exactly is a threat assessment?

A Threat Assessment is part of a larger behavioral management system in which schools identify threatening behavior, inquire objectively, assess with a threat assessment team and manage through intervention. The assessment itself is simply the part of the process where information is recorded and analyzed. 

Threat Assessments are not a means to target troublesome individuals, but rather a means to have a holistic view of the landscape of threats in a school community. Threat assessments are facilitated by a threat assessment team, which is a multidisciplinary array of school administrators, guidance counselors, school resource officers, and even law enforcement.

Threat assessments are designed to support unbiased, objective reporting from varying sources, targeting events that suggest future threatening behavior, rather than seeking recompence for a previous action. No single person within the threat assessment process makes a decision regarding a person’s behavioral management alone. The threat assessment team is “multidisciplinary” for this reason - the team will intrinsically yield multiple perspectives and ideas, resulting in disciplinary actions that are nuanced and fair.

Recently, we’ve been able to see the impact of threat assessing when New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced the state was ramping up its law enforcement presence in Jewish and LGBTQ+ communities after a string of threats were caught by their system. That’s right, threat assessments are used by businesses, municipalities, or any other entity that deals with large groups of people. We’ve also seen the aftermath of threat assessing left untended, such as what would result in the death of four high school students in Oxford, Michigan this past year. These recent events not only remind us of how valuable threat assessments can be but how necessary it is for all schools in any community to have a competent behavioral management system. 

What constitutes a threat?

A threat is an expression that shows intent to harm someone. This can be expressed through speech, writing, or action and can be both explicitly stated or implied. Threats aren’t always directed at others; often, threats are an expression of self-harm or suicide and are regarded with the same significance as any other threat of violence. 

Threats can be defined as either transient or substantive: a transient threat is passive, is unlikely to happen, and lacks sustained intent; a substantive threat has clear intent and is validated by relevant past experiences or imminent risk. 

Most people would imagine a threat being one student verbally threatening violence to another, or a student cocking his fist back at a teacher, but threats can take many forms. A threat could be a note found in the bathroom at random, a rumor passed between dozens of students, a concerning Instagram post, or even a parent noticing concerning behavior from their student. Fortunately, threat assessments are designed to gather contextual information to determine the credibility of the threat, the severity of the potential behavior of the subject, and the influence a threat has on the whole of the school population. 

How does a threat assessment work?

  1. An event is reported

When a threat is reported, it is logged onto the school’s threat assessment system and the threat assessment team is alerted. 

  1. The event is considered alongside the threatener’s behavioral history

A competent threat assessment system will have the entirety of a student’s behavioral history available so the threat assessment team can recognize patterns, providing context for later decisions. 

  1. All witnesses are interviewed

The threat assessment team administers interviews with the victim, the threatener, witnesses, relevant staff, parents, or anyone else that witnessed the event. The interviews are to gain objective information about the event, regardless of the emotional impact or severity..

  1. The threat is classified 

The threat in question is designated as transient or substantive, and the severity of the threat is realized. This is done in adjacency with the contextual information found in the report, behavioral history, and interviews.

  1. A response to the action is administered

After the assessment has been completed, a response is administered to the threatener and/or the people adjacent to the event. 

How are threat assessments resolved?

There are many avenues for a response that the threat assessment team has at their disposal, but the information provided by the assessment will inform the decision. Responses could be remedial, such as a conflict mediation or a formal apology. Certain responses involve the threatener’s parents, a mental health service, or even law enforcement. In some channels of response, threateners can even be referred for expulsion.

Threat Assessments are a part of a larger behavioral management system that accounts for and manages the full range of student behaviors at school, not necessarily threatening behaviors. These systems are defined by behavioral interventions, Personal Plans for Improvement, guidance counseling, and other such actions that serve to address the elements in a student’s life that are fundamental. Most students (and educators) have lulls in their mental health, home-life issues, or social issues; basing a system on punishing a student for a bad day does nothing more than confuse the overall effectiveness of a school’s behavioral management. 

Make no mistake, teachers won’t be able to educate and students won’t be able to learn at their full potential until they feel safe - unfortunately, the lack of safety is becoming a defining feature of the American educational system. And yes, when compared to the zero-tolerance policy, it takes more effort and cooperation from a large team for a school to implement a competent threat assessment system. However, it’s no surprise the system relying on a greater variety of people and perspectives engaged in the understanding of student behavior is more impactful - in fact, it may be what was missing all along. 

If you are interested in finding a comprehensive threat assessment for your school, you can learn more here