School Threat Assessment

Published for NC Criminal Law on May 23, 2023.

The current news seems to be full of reports of threats against schools. A search of the WRAL website for stories on school threats reveals at least five discrete stories on threats against North Carolina schools in May alone. How can schools and law enforcement be prepared to respond to, and perhaps even prevent, threats against student safety? The National Threat Assessment Center of the United States Secret Service (NTAC) has been researching that topic for over 20 years. The results are consistent. Schools that have an effective threat assessment structure in place, casting a wide net to effectively identify youth along a continuum of need and offering a range of responses, are best positioned to address threats and prevent school violence.

There is No One Profile of a School Attacker

In 2019, the NTAC published Protecting America’s Schools, a study of 41 incidents of targeted attacks at K – 12 schools between 2008 and 2017. That study found that there was not a singular profile of an attacker or of the type of school where attacks occurred. The NTAC subsequently studied 67 averted plots by students or former students to attack K-12 schools. The results of that study were published in 2021 in Averting Targeted School Violence. While these studies did not find one profile for people who plan and carry out targeted school violence, they did identify some common themes among the population of plotters and attackers. These include that

  • Retaliation for grievances was a common motive, especially grievances with classmates.
  • Attackers and plotters commonly used or planned to use firearms that they had access to in their homes.
  • Attackers and plotters often had unusual interest in violent or hate-filled topics.
  • Attackers and plotters commonly experienced stressors in their families and their interactions with peers.
  • Nearly half of the plotters and the majority of the attackers were also victims of bullying.
  • Attackers and plotters tended to exhibit previous concerning behavior.
  • Attackers and plotters often experienced psychological, behavioral, or developmental symptoms.
  • Many plotters and most attackers had histories of school disciplinary involvement. Many plotters and attackers also had previous law enforcement contact.
  • Attackers and plotters almost always communicated their intent to attack prior to the planned attack.

These studies revealed that young people who planned and carried out targeted school violence often experienced things or exhibited behavior that warranted intervention before they plotted to attack a school. The reports emphasize that targeted school violence is preventable when communities have the tools in place to identify warning signs and to intervene.

Identification and Intervention Through a Threat Assessment Model

Threat assessment is a model that the U.S. Secret Service has been promoting as the primary practice to prevent targeted school violence since its Safe Schools Initiative (begun in 1999). In 2018, the NTAC outlined the following eight-step process for creating a comprehensive targeted violence prevention plan in Enhancing School Safety Using A Threat Assessment Model.

  • Step 1: establish a multidisciplinary threat assessment team.
  • Step 2: define concerning and prohibited behaviors (along a continuum from students in need of intervention to students who bring weapons to school or who threaten or engage in violence). Use a low threshold for intervention to identify students in distress and intervene early.
  • Step 3: create a central reporting mechanism.
  • Step 4: determine the threshold for law enforcement intervention. Weapons, threats of violence, physical violence, or concerns about an individual’s safety should immediately be reported to local law enforcement.
  • Step 5: establish assessment procedures using a set of investigative themes.
  • Step 6: develop risk management options to reduce risk. This should include individualized management plans with needed resources and support.
  • Step 7: create and promote safe school climates that encourage positive and trusting relationships between school personnel and students, break down codes of silence, and help students build connections to peers and school.
  • Step 8: conduct training for all stakeholders.

The model is a proactive approach, identifying students of concern, assessing their risk for harmful behavior, and implementing intervention strategies to manage risk. This report and the Averting Targeted School Violence report note that removal of a student from school is not a sufficient risk management plan. Strategies are needed to remain connected with students who have been removed from school in order to know whether their situation is deteriorating, or their behaviors are escalating.

The Importance of Bystander Reporting

This body of research consistently emphasizes the importance of bystander reporting to the prevention of targeted school violence. The Protecting America’s Schools report notes that in two-thirds of targeted school attacks there was at least one communication or other observed concerning behavior about the intent to attack that was not reported by the observing bystander. The Averting School Violence report emphasizes the need for intervention before behavior reaches the level of legal consequence and the important role that peers and parents play in noticing and reporting concerning behavior.

The NTAC released Improving School Safety Through Bystander Reporting: A Toolkit For Strengthening K-12 Reporting Programs this month to support local communities in implementing strong reporting systems. The Toolkit details several strategies for strengthening reporting systems, including:

  • Improve accessibility by offering multiple reporting methods, such as text messaging or a mobile application, email, phone call, and reporting to a trusted adult.
  • Set operating hours that improve availability, allowing for reporting outside of school hours.
  • Consider using confidential or anonymous reporting.
  • Respond to reports in a timely and transparent manner and in a way that is efficient, fair, and transparent.
  • Offer training that builds awareness of the reporting system.
  • Build positive school climate by fostering trust and positive relationships.

The Toolkit contains worksheets and checklists that local communities can use to plan a strong reporting program.

North Carolina Requirement

G.S. 115C-150.51 requires the Department of Public Instruction and the Center for Safer Schools, in collaboration with the Department of Public Safety, to implement and maintain an anonymous safety tip line application for receiving student information on internal or external risks to the school population, school buildings, and school-related activities. The tip line must be available statewide. Public secondary schools are required to inform students about the application and provide opportunities for students to learn about its purpose and function. According to the Department of Public Instruction website, the NC Center for Safer Schools supports a statewide student anonymous safety tip application called Say Something Anonymous Reporting System.

In addition, the governing body of each public secondary school must use the statewide tip line or develop and operate its own anonymous tip line to receive information on internal or external risks to the school population, school buildings, and school related activities.

Based on over two decades of research from the NTAC on preventing school violence, this kind of tip line is one component of a model threat assessment structure. As North Carolina’s communities continue to wrestle with school threats, the many resources available from the NTAC offer a roadmap for research-based strategies to prevent targeted school violence.

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