White House Conference Encourages Participants to Take Threats Seriously

In fall 2006, national experts on school safety, politicians, law enforcement agents, school faculty, and community members met in Washington, D.C., to highlight best practices for making schools safe, share lessons learned from prior incidents of school violence, and engender new ideas for creating the safest environments possible. President and Mrs. Bush delivered impassioned remarks about society’s obligation to prevent violence in our nation’s schools as well as to aid in recovery from school tragedy. Joining the president and first lady, then Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings convened the meeting and served as moderators.

During the discussions, panelists stressed the critical importance of effective intelligence and information sharing. Most students who plan a violent event talk about it to others, and it is crucial that mechanisms are in place for allowing this divulged information to make its way to authority figures who can stop the event from occurring (as well as provide help to the troubled youth planning the event). Likewise, research shows that in many violent school events, different people in the attacker’s life (e.g., teachers, friends, parents, school staff, employers, law enforcement, social service providers) had different small clues that a problem existed; therefore, the sharing of information, data, and intelligence across organizations and systems in the community (with confidentiality of utmost importance) also plays a critical role in prevention of school violence.

Establish Authority for the Threat Assessment Process

For a school to establish a formal team and process to collect data and act upon potential threats, it is critical to follow federal and local laws and regulations governing information sharing. Threat assessment teams should consult with their school district’s legal counsel when developing policies and procedures to access and share information about a student. Because information sharing is vital to violence prevention, it is important to navigate the laws and establish connections with law enforcement, mental health, and social services. Many states have developed policy guides on this matter specifi cally to help schools comply with federal and state law. In addition, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention published Guidelines for Juvenile Information Sharing in October 2006 to highlight best practices in collaboration, confidentiality, and technology.

Clearly define the expectations and duties for the threat assessment team. Determine the threshold to trigger an inquiry or investigation and who is responsible for each aspect of gathering data. Formalize the steps that the team will follow from beginning to end.

Create a Threat Assessment Team

Establishing a formal threat assessment team can be accomplished according to many different methods. The Secret Service suggests the team be comprised of a law enforcement investigator (such as a school resource officer), a school administrator, a mental health professional, and other professionals within the school such as teachers, coaches, counselors, and nurses. During an active assessment, teams may consider bringing in an additional person who knows the subject well (this could be someone within the school or from the community like a probation officer, clergy member, or social service worker).

It is important to bring together a team that will be analytical, fair, and trustworthy. This team will be responsible for treating sensitive information with confidentiality while pursuing relevant facts and appropriate intervention. Also, these team members must be cognizant of the manner in which they approach people, such as friends and family or other service professionals, during an inquiry. Team members may need the cooperation of teachers, employers, counselors, parents, or friends of a student who is under investigation—it is imperative to treat the situation with respect and concern for the student’s welfare as well as that of the school’s.

The Secret Service guide to threat assessment is available online at

http://www.secretservice.gov/ntac/ssi_guide.pdf.

The OJJDP guidelines can be found online at
http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/215786.pdf.

 

According to the model established by the Secret Service in Threat Assessment in Schools Guide, six principles underlie the process of threat assessment:• Targeted violence is the end result of an understandable, and oftentimes discernable, process of thinking and behavior.• Targeted violence stems from an interaction among the person, the situation, the setting, and the target.

• An investigative, skeptical, inquisitive mindset is critical to successful threat assessment.

• Effective threat assessment is based on facts, rather than characteristics or “traits.”

• An “integrated systems approach” should guide threat assessment investigations.

• The central question of a threat assessment is whether a student poses a threat, not whether the student has made a threat. (pp. 30–33)