School Threat Assessments: Avoid These 3 Mistakes When Developing Your Processes

Making any of these three mistakes could derail your threat assessment program and create liability exposures for your campus or district.

School Threat Assessments: Avoid These 3 Mistakes When Developing Your Processes

Photo via Adobe, by Niall

Editor’s Note: With so many more children experiencing mental health issues as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be wise for schools and school districts to re-evaluate their threat assessment programs.

Additionally, with so many teachers, school resource officers, counselors, administrators and other staff members leaving their jobs, many of the individuals responsible for conducting threat assessments before the pandemic may no longer be at your school or district.

That’s why Campus Safety is re-running the following article that was originally published in January 2016. Despite the evolving threats schools encounter, there are some basic principles that have remained unchanged over the years.

The three mistakes that are outlined below continue to be stumbling blocks for some K-12 threat assessment programs. This is an important reminder of what not to do.

“You’re the professional. Is this kid a threat or not?” That’s the question my director asked, fingers drumming on the athletic calendar drafts stacked on his desk. My waffling response had not provided him the level of confidence he wanted. As with most K-12 threat assessments, clear answers are few, and predictions are reckless. Threat assessments always start and often end with questions.

They run against the grain of the comfort for many of us. If the child is a threat, then we take disciplinary action, perhaps put together a safety plan and coordinate with law enforcement. If the student is not a threat, we mop our collective brow and return to finish whatever work was sidelined during the investigation. As school safety professionals, if we allow our process to end with a toggle switch conclusion and a binary type of answer, we run the risk of exposing our organizations to excessive liability, as well as our students and staff to ongoing but unmanaged threats.

Several elements of the assessment process itself deserve a deeper level of scrutiny. A well-considered, commonly applied and faithfully-executed process not only makes the initial assessment work better but also helps to protect students, staff and the organization itself from future unmanaged threats. As investigators, we work to solve the, “Is he a threat?” question; as professional assessors, we owe it to our students and to our organization to ask a few other questions as well. We can rest assured that if we don’t ask ourselves hard questions about our processes, someone’s plaintiff attorney will.

Avoid these three mistakes so your threat assessment process stays on track.

Mistake No. 1: Your Threat Assessment Process Isn’t Fair and Equitable

Is your assessment process uniform and uniformly applied for all students? Are there different thresholds for the application of interventions? Is it possible that similar behaviors would result in widely varying levels of discipline or support actions? If multiple assessment teams are used, is it possible that behavior interpreted as dangerous by one assessment team would be viewed as negligible by another?

One of two approaches lend themselves to reliable, replicable assessment results. First and best is using a single, multidisciplinary team for all assessments. A good assessment team will represent a variety of professional disciplines, including education, administration, mental health services, security, law enforcement and others as needed. As students are assessed, a body of institutional knowledge begins to develop within this single team. The team learns what works and what doesn’t work as a process of conducting the assessments and crafting safety plans.

A second approach is that of a tiered assessment. In other words, a school-level team conducts an initial assessment with a second level assessment team taking those that meet defined extraordinary criteria. Criteria for a level-2 team evaluation could include the complexity of the case, specialized resources needed, level of seriousness of the threat or a variety of other factors. At its most basic level, a school-level team conducts an initial assessment and acts as a filter to manage the least serious threats, while more serious cases are handed off to a district-level team.

This bifurcated system has several pinch points of which to be mindful. Training and exercises need to be disseminated to a much larger group than is needed for a single team. Even if a tool is used to aid in the initial assessment, continual training on the correct application of the tool is necessary for all assessors. Depending on the number of initial assessment teams, the time and expense can be prohibitive. Without thorough and uniform training, there is always the risk of a type-2 error, or the initial assessment team missing important indicators and failing to pass on the case.

Transfer of information needs to also be tightly choreographed. Valuable information can be lost as the case is moved from the initial assessment team to the second level team. As the assessment moves further away from the original, investigative facts can be clouded with layers of unintentional supposition and conjecture.

Mistake No. 2: You Don’t Document Your Process Change

Is your assessment process followed in each case? Have you changed or modified your process as a result of lessons learned? Why were process changes needed?

Normally we think of documentation in terms of an investigative file on a specific student or incident. Our process demands similar documentation as well.

Many threat assessment protocols are organic processes that grow and change with an organization. However, a due process hearing or post incident audit will quickly bring to light any inconsistencies over time. We should remember that mental illnesses and the civil legal system often proceed slowly. It’s not uncommon to have records subpoenaed many years after a student has left our care. Procedural changes that are clear now will be very murky memories when called to the stand five or 10 years from now.

That is not to say that we shouldn’t update our processes, but maintaining an accurate change log of the process allows for an easy answer to questions of perceived unfairness or accused deficiencies.

Mistake No. 3: You Create a Safety Plan You Can’t or Don’t Execute

After determining that this student was a medium level threat, what did you do?

In K-12 public education, we understand that students who begin to exhibit threatening or dangerous behavior never really go away. While expulsion may be an option in extreme cases, more often than not our responsibility to provide education to all still remains. Especially with young students who are hopefully caught early in the downward slide, expulsion may actually make them and your schools more vulnerable.

The creation of an individual safety plan is often needed to allow for education to continue in the least restrictive safe environment. A student may need additional supports to modify his or her behavior. Behavior contracts, scheduled check-in with a designated staff member, class changes, intake searches, supervised free time, no-backpack rules and a variety of other measures can be crafted together to help diminish negative behavior and stabilize the student.

Safety plans must be balanced against a school’s ability to execute them. Great harm can be done by creating a safety plan that is impossible to execute. More damaging still is a safety plan that is ignored. Therefore, campuses must thoughtfully consider what options are available as well as what options are achievable in the specific terms of the safety plan.

A reassessment schedule is a critical component of all safety plans. Scheduling follow-up assessments allows your team to monitor student behavior and evaluate if intervention supports are working. It also provides a means to reduce extraordinary measures if the student seems to have no need for them. A scheduled reassessment provides a rationale for reducing burdensome restrictions over time as student behaviors are documented to stabilize.

“Who knew what and when?” will continue to dog the threat assessment process long after students graduate from our sphere of control and move out into the wider world. In some cases, our interventions and student supports will work, but we realize that in a small number of our cases, the student will go on to commit crime or self-destructive behavior. When that terrible event happens, we need to be assured and be able to demonstrably assure others that our threat assessment process was accurate, fair, thorough and effective. It’s always best to know your answers before the question is asked.

Michael Munger formerly served as the head of safety and security for the Independent School District of Boise City, Idaho. He now serves with the Idaho Office of School Safety and Security.

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