Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 7
EDWEEK EXPLAINS THREAT ASSESSMENT
What Are Threat Assessments
And How Do Schools Use Them?
own, school districts often include teachers,
school nurses, and IT officials.
By Stephen Sawchuk
Armed teachers and bulletproof backpacks
may have captured the headlines, but quietly,
another school safety strategy has been rapidly
expanding: behavioral threat assessment.
In the 2019-20 school year, schools in Florida,
Kentucky, Maryland, and Texas must begin
using threat assessment in their schools. Washington state schools will join them in 2020-21.
Read on to learn about threat assessment's origins, how it's practiced, and why some privacy
experts still have questions.
What does the training look like?
Who provides it?
Picture a case in which a student says to another student: "I'm going to beat you up after
Rather than getting hung up on the words, a
team at the school sets out to determine whether
the student who made the comment actually intends violence. An administrator interviews the
two students about the incident, using a form to
guide the questioning. Another reviews the disciplinary history of the student who made the
threat. A school psychologist reviews notes from
her case files.
In Scenario A, the student acknowledges he
lost his temper, was bummed out about a poor
test score, and was blowing off steam. The team
quickly determines he doesn't pose a threat.
They plan to have the two students meet so the
one who made the threat can formally apologize. Administrators make a note to check his
academic progress over the next month.
In Scenario B, the student is evasive. His records show a history of aggressive actions. A
school resource officer says another student
warned him about a fight after school. The
team decides the threat is real, alerts the other
student's family, and begins to sketch out an inschool suspension plan. They'll conduct a mental-health screening and meet with his mom to
Threat assessment is this process of distinguishing "transient" threats from serious ones in
a systematic, data-informed way. The question,
proponents say, isn't so much whether a student
has made a threat as whether he or she poses one.
The idea emerged from the broader discipline
of behavioral threat assessment developed by
the U.S. Secret Service.
In a seminal 2002 publication, the Secret
Service and the U.S. Department of Education
concluded that the perpetrators in many of those
incidents telegraphed their plans ahead of time,
yet that information was not shared with administrators or police.
The wrinkle with threat assessment? Doing it
effectively within the confines of layered education policies.
"There are a lot of people doing threat-assessment trainings doing a great job. But then the
K-12 people walk out, and they still have to create
a system that is compliant with special education
law and discipline rules and the civil rights of juveniles," said John Van Dreal, until recently the
What is threat assessment?
director of safety and risk-management services
for the Salem-Keizer district in Oregon. It created a threat-assessment approach that is now
used to train other districts.
In theory, threat assessment is incompatible
with "zero tolerance" laws enacted in the 1990s
forcing schools to use out-of-school suspensions
or other punishments for certain infractions, regardless of context.
"My hope is the response to threats becomes
more nuanced and more individualized, just
like students with [individualized education programs]: Each one is unique to that child," said
Talisha Lee Bond, a school psychologist with
the District of Columbia schools and a threatassessment trainer for the Comprehensive
Student Threat Assessment Guidelines, which
were developed by Dewey G. Cornell, a forensic
psychologist and education professor at the University of Virginia.
Is threat assessment a type of
This is often an area of concern for parents. And
it's no wonder: The concept of threat assessment
comes from law enforcement, which has long
faced complaints about racial profiling.
Early attempts to create "early warning"
checklists, based on factors like interest in "violent" music or media or a "history of tantrums,"
were far too broad to be useful. The federal government concludes in its 2002 report that there
is "no accurate or useful 'profile' of students who
engaged in targeted school violence." Instead,
threat-assessment practitioners stress that the
trigger must be some kind of threatening behavior.
Educators say it's an important distinction.
"I don't want to start profiling kids, so it's a delicate balance," said Cynthia Womack, an elementary school principal in Harford County, Md., at
a recent threat-assessment training there. "You
have to treat it case by case."
Washington state's law mandating threat
assessment explicitly says that it should be
prompted by a student's behavior, not demographic or personal characteristics.
Nevertheless, much hinges on what school of-
ficials define as threatening behavior, and there
is significant concern in particular about how
threat assessment could affect students with
behavioral disabilities, who are more likely to be
referred for threat assessment.
In 2018, for example, the Oregonian newspaper detailed the story of a high school boy on
the autism spectrum whose clothing choices,
demeanor, and interest in weapons apparently
caused his district to begin a threat assessment,
even though he had not communicated a threat
Is threat assessment common?
Increasingly, yes. Until recently, the only
state to mandate threat assessment in all its districts was Virginia, beginning in 2013. Now, even
states that don't mandate threat assessment for
all schools often allow for the use of school safety
funds to support threat assessment. Such language is also included in the 2018 federal STOP
School Violence Act, which authorizes school
According to the most recent U.S. Education
Department data, 42 percent of districts reported
using threat assessment in 2015-16. But a majority of them said their threat-assessment teams
met "on occasion" rather than once a month or
States stand to play an important role in threatassessment work. The safety legislation in Florida, Washington state, and Maryland all establish or give new responsibilities to state safety
offices or centers, sometimes requiring them to
disseminate model threat-assessment policies
that local school boards must adopt or consult.
That said, schools are often less familiar with
the concept than they are with safety plans or audits. "Some districts had never heard of it," said
Celina Bley, the associate director of training and
education for the Texas School Safety Center.
Who sits on a threat-assessment
State laws specify who must be on the threatassessment team, typically administrators,
mental-health personnel, and SROs. On their
The two best-known models, Salem-Keizer's
and Cornell's, are substantially similar in approach. Training for school teams typically takes
one to two days, with participants learning about
the research on threat assessment, examining
case studies, and engaging in some role-play.
They also receive tools and forms they can tailor
to their schools.
There are a variety of other for-profit threatassessment trainers; the U.S. Secret Service's
National Threat Assessment Center also offers
What does research say about threat
Although most providers claim to be "evidence-based," empirical research on threat assessment in schools is limited. By far the most
well-studied model is Cornell's.
The two most rigorous studies on the method,
both of Virginia schools, found benefits to
the approach. In a randomized experiment,
students in the treatment schools using the
training were four times more likely to receive
counseling than those in the control group.
They were also less likely to receive long-term
suspensions or to be placed in an alternative
Another study compared two sets of high
schools, one that used the guidelines and
another that did not. It found that rates of
long-term suspensions dropped in the schools
using threat assessment in the year after
Are there privacy concerns with
Yes. By definition, information gathered in
a threat assessment is shared with team members, so the first step in most threat-assessment
protocol-the interview with the student making the threat-is not confidential. That is the
case even when it's conducted by a school psychologist or counselor.
Unique among the new state laws, legislation in Florida from this year, calls for creating
a state threat-assessment database, presumably linked to another massive school safety
database that has concerned privacy experts.
In other states, paperwork from threat assessment is usually kept at schools, said Michelle Morton, the juvenile-justice policy coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union
of Florida. Once digitized, it's not clear how
long those records will be maintained, or by
"Our concern is this labeling someone as a
threat and having that as part of their file that's
going to follow them wherever they go," she
EDUCATION WEEK | September 4, 2019 | www.edweek.org | 7
Education Week - September 4, 2019
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - September 4, 2019
Education Week - September 4, 2019
Quality counts: Grading The States
Open-Source Science Curriculum Makes Debut
Are Schools Required To Be Trauma-Sensitive?
Google Tool Fuels Debate About Teaching Writing
In Battle Against Bullies, Schools Target Parents
Teacher-Drivers Keep Wheels On the Bus Going Round
What the Research Says
What Are Threat Assessments And How Do Schools Use Them?
The Challenges Ahead For Advanced Placement
School Leaders: Avoid This Move
Letters to the Editor
EdWeek Top School Jobs
You Skipped a Step’
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - CA1
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - CA2
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - Google Tool Fuels Debate About Teaching Writing
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 2
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - Briefly Stated
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 4
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - In Battle Against Bullies, Schools Target Parents
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - What the Research Says
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - What Are Threat Assessments And How Do Schools Use Them?
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 8
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 9
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 10
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 11
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Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 18
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 19
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 20
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 21
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 22
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - The Challenges Ahead For Advanced Placement
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - School Leaders: Avoid This Move
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - Letters to the Editor
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 26
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - EdWeek Top School Jobs
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - You Skipped a Step’
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - CA3
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - CA4
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - CW1
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - CW2
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - CW3
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - CW4