We believe the data speaks for itself: Threat assessment has been very effective in Virginia.
During the 2017–18 school year, 80% of our K-12 public schools reported conducting at least one threat assessment. Overall, schools reported a total 14,869 threat assessments. Of these cases, 1,472, or about 10%, reached the highest threat level classification at some point in the threat assessment process.
When we analyzed the data further, less than 1% of the 14,869 reported threats actually resulted in a related act being carried out. In total, school officials reported that only 42 of our threat assessment cases included an event taking place, such as a student attempting to harm themselves or others. We believe that’s a pretty good success rate for our teams.
What is Threat Assessment?
Behavioral threat assessment teams can be traced back to the final report from the Safe School Initiative, produced by the Secret Service and Department of Education following the Columbine High School shooting. Threat assessment was highlighted as a promising strategy in the report and we used the recommendations from the Safe School Initiative to guide our threat assessment policies and procedures in Virginia.
Here in Virginia, threat assessment teams had already been required for colleges and universities after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, but in 2013, following the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, we became the first state to mandate threat assessment in both K-12 and higher education.
Our threat assessment teams require members with expertise in school administration, instruction, counseling, and law enforcement. Students, parents, and staff have multiple avenues to report concerning behavior to our threat assessment teams, including in-person meetings, anonymous comment boxes, email tip lines, and phone or text message systems. These teams then work together to assess the individual’s behavior and intervene with those whose behavior may pose a threat.
When threat assessment teams were mandated in Virginia, we knew that some parents would see this as “big brother,” or schools labeling their child and this label possibly following them into college or the community. To address this concern, we created a marketing campaign, Virginia CARES, to better explain threat assessment teams to our parents. CARES stands for:
C- Caring and Connection; A – Assessment; R - Recognition and Reporting; E – Engagement; S – Support.
Threat assessment is ultimately about getting individuals help before an act of violence occurs. From a state level, we’re trying to do what we can to support schools in achieving this end.
As the first state to legislatively mandate threat assessment teams, Virginia had the opportunity to make its own way in this field. But because we didn’t have established standards from elsewhere to build upon, we had to overcome some challenges in implementing our program.
For states looking to implement threat assessment teams at the state level, it is critical that proposed legislation be fully vetted and reviewed by educators before implementation, so everyone understands the width and breadth of what is trying to be accomplished. Over the years, we have updated the legislation to ensure it is meeting everyone’s goals. It’s also important that a state agency be given the directive to develop model policies and procedures, handle data collection, and conduct training.
Over the years, we have done a massive amount of training on threat assessment. We have found that it is better to do more specific, targeted training at an individual school, rather than organizing statewide sessions where there are 50 representatives from 50 different divisions.
Our experience has shown that one person cannot be solely responsible for going back to their division and implementing a threat assessment team. Even with a curriculum and train-the-trainer materials, most people at the statewide events did not feel comfortable going back to their divisions and training a threat assessment team. This is because oftentimes implementing a threat assessment team requires a culture change.
Thus, a more effective training model is one that includes an entire school staff or division. By including all of the team members in one training, everyone is on the same page; they have a better understanding that threat assessment teams requires buy-in from everyone. In order for a threat assessment team to be successful, we need to make sure information is coming in from all the various sources, including students and teachers.
Now that it has been six years since threat assessment teams were mandated in Virginia, we’re trying to move beyond general training. The 2019 General Assembly passed legislation (HB 1734) mandating the Center develop a case management tool for use by all school divisions. This will help schools to manage cases, including the interventions put into place, from beginning to end, even if the student changes schools in the middle of the process. A standardized case management tool will help ensure students do not slip through the cracks.
Lack of Awareness Harms Information Sharing
One issue that we still face today is general awareness of the purpose of threat assessment teams. As mentioned earlier, the goal of threat assessment is to prevent a child from committing an act of violence against themselves or others and to get them the help they need; it is not meant to be a disciplinary process.
We are continuing to train not just the members of the threat assessment team, but the whole community, including law enforcement officers who are not currently assigned in a school, on the threat assessment process. Increasing this awareness goes back to the ultimate success of the threat assessment team. If people do not understand the purpose, they are not going to buy into it and it will not be effective.
A challenge we often come across, stemming from a lack of awareness, is accessing outside records, such as medical records, that could help threat assessment teams better understand the challenges a student is facing.
Although Virginia laws allow our teams to access these records, we have found that the individuals holding these records will not always provide them because they do not know about threat assessment teams. So, now we are training our teams on how to ask medical providers to share this information and how to request additional information that may have caused them concern.
Even with this training, hurdles still exist. Some providers are hesitant to release information since it is not yet an emergency.
Yet prevention, not response, is the real purpose of threat assessment teams. We do not want to wait until there is a full blown crisis. The goal is to intervene earlier, when the child might be demonstrating some behavior that could be concerning, but has not risen to the level of an immediate crisis. To do so, we need to educate our community service board members and health care providers on the value of threat assessment. The more information that is pieced together, the better chance we have of getting the student the proper care and preventing any violence from occurring.
If we take the Virginia Tech shooter for example, there was a lot of little information that made people wary at the time—concerns from residence life staff and other students, concerns from student affairs, and concerns from individual professors. And yet, in isolation, these incidents did not depict an individual in major crisis or a danger to others by any one individual. It was only after the pieces were put together that the full picture came into focus. There is incredible value in sharing this information.
When you are instituting something as extensive as an entire K-12 threat assessment program, not only do you need to have a state agency designated to lead the effort, but you need to measure what these threat assessment teams are doing.
In Virginia, not only did we already have an extensive safety audit program already in place for schools, but the General Assembly also mandated that we collect specific threat assessment data.
These measurements are important for us to see if threat assessment teams are having a positive impact on the student body. We need to know if more students are being suspended or expelled under threat assessment so that we can help put other interventions into place that can provide more positive outcomes for the student. You can’t manage something that you do not measure.
According to our school safety survey, the top three challenges reported in setting up teams or conducting threat assessments were limited staff and staff turnover, team coordination or scheduling, and training for new staff and team members. Knowing this information means that we can take the necessary steps to help schools solve these issues.
Furthermore, collecting this data is critical to helping students get the right care. Take for example the fact that of the 14,869 threat assessments conducted during the 2017–18 school year, 56% involved threats to self only, including suicide, 39% involved threats to others only, and 5% involved threats to themselves and others.
Recognizing that 56% of all threat assessments included threats to self is quite alarming. Suicide is currently the second leading cause of death among our nation’s youth. This information is something that the general public needs to know, so that if they recognize a child is disengaged or exhibiting other concerning behavior, they can follow the proper reporting methods to help that student seek help.
As we consider threat assessments and school violence in general, there are three points I want to make sure we keep in mind.
First, the threat of violence in our schools is actually very low. We cannot stress this enough. Even when a community is crime-ridden, the local schools are usually one of the few places students feel safe because they are surrounded by caring professionals.
Second, we have to be sure that we have a plan in place to support students once we have identified them for a threat assessment. For example, if we intervene with a child and realize that they need mental health support, but the community lacks these supports, then we are not helping that student. It is important to initially do a community assessment to determine what kind of supports are available to students.
Finally, we can put a lot of money into different programs, but the relationships between students and staff is what really saves our students and that applies directly to threat assessment. When students are comfortable enough with staff to report a concern about their friend, it demonstrates that the threat assessment process is not functioning as a punitive process, but rather a culture of caring.
About Notes From the Field
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the research, development, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. NIJ aims to address the critical questions of the criminal justice field, particularly at the state and local levels.
NIJ Director David Muhlhausen developed the Notes From the Field series to allow leading voices in the field to share their strategies for responding to the most pressing issues on America’s streets today.
Notes From the Field is not a research-based publication. Instead, it presents lessons learned by on-the-ground criminal justice leaders, from years of experience and thinking deeply about criminal justice issues.
About the Author
Donna Michaelis is the Director of the Virginia Center for School and Campus Safety at the Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS). She has been working in the area of school safety since 1985 when she began her career with the Chesterfield County Police Department as the county’s first Child Safety Coordinator.
Mrs. Michaelis assumed the responsibility of the newly legislated center at DCJS when it was established in 2000 as a result of the Columbine tragedy. In her current role, she provides training, resources, and technical assistance to all schools, colleges and universities, and law enforcement across Virginia on issues related to school and campus safety and specialized law enforcement issues. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Writing and editorial support was provided by Blair Ames, a writer with a federal contractor on assignment at the National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice.
[note 2] Bryan Vossekuil, Robert A. Fein, Marisa Reddy, Randy Borum, and William Modzeleski, The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Preventions of School Attacks in the United States, United States Secret Service and the United States Department of Education, Washington DC, May 2002