What to Do with Red Flags: A Look at Behavioral Threat Assessment

Kaylee Sorensen
Emergency Management Consultant, Ashton Tiffany
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The recent tragic events in Uvalde, Texas have prompted renewed discussions about school safety. Ideas and solutions are batted around by politicians, news anchors, and your next-door neighbor. I heard one radio host claim that what makes these events so tragic is that we cannot prevent them.

That’s simply untrue. As reported in the wake of the shooting, there were numerous “red flags” surrounding the shooter—he had recently been placed with his grandmother, he was bullied, other students called him “school shooter,” etc. The process of behavioral threat assessments allows a trained school team to look at red flags like these, assess the risk, and get that student off a pathway to violence.

One common behavioral threat assessment model defines threat assessment as a problem-solving approach to violence prevention. This approach involves assessment and intervention with students who have threatened violence in some way[1]. While some states require schools to have a behavioral threat assessment team and process in place, many do not. Fortunately, there are various models available to schools that are interested, such as the Salem-Keizer model, the Comprehensive School Threat Assessment Guidelines (CSTAG) model, the Kris Mohandie model, and more.

Regardless of the model, behavioral threat assessment gives educators a process for assessing the “red flags” that are reported to them. But how exactly does that assessment process work? A school threat assessment team is trained to determine whether a threat is serious or not. Staff learn how to conduct interviews and communicate with individuals who have witnessed a specific threat or threatening behaviors. Oftentimes, information exists in silos—a teacher may feel nervous about an essay she received from a student; a classmate overhears an angry outburst from a fellow student; or a student makes “creepy” comments that leave others feeling uncomfortable. If a school has a process in place that allows these parties to submit their concerns, then a team can review the collected information and intervene as necessary.

That concept—intervention—is a critical part of behavioral threat assessment. If a threat exists, how do you keep the student off the pathway to violence? The team can look at the risk factors in the student’s life and figure out what tools and resources he or she might need. The student might benefit from counseling, daily check-ins with staff, a change in buses or classes, etc. (While threat assessment may help inform the disciplinary process, it is not considered to be part of discipline.)

For threat assessment to be effective, it has to be properly implemented. Districts may dedicate time to sending staff to all-day trainings, but if there’s no plan for how to implement lessons learned when they return, little progress will be made. In particular, staff, students, and community members need to know the process for reporting and responding to threats. This will help build confidence that threats are taken seriously, and that the district is being proactive rather than reactive.

Let’s conclude by reiterating some seldom-acknowledged good news: School violence can be prevented. Furthermore, the benefits of a behavioral threat assessment approach to prevention far outweigh what little costs there might be for training and implementation. The following, posted on the CSTAG website, is reason enough for schools to take this approach seriously:

Our research, conducted through the University of Virginia and published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, shows that schools using threat assessment have resolved thousands of threats without serious injury. Moreover, schools using our model of threat assessment have substantial reductions in the use of school suspension and lower rates of bullying. On school climate surveys, students and teachers report feeling safer than in schools not using threat assessment. Finally, school staff representing administration, instruction, mental health, and law enforcement all report high levels of satisfaction, knowledge, and motivation regarding the use of threat assessment...[2]

[1] Adapted from: https://www.schoolta.com/

[2] Adapted from: https://www.schoolta.com/

*The views and opinions expressed in the Public Risk Management Association (PRIMA) blogs are those of each respective author. The views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of PRIMA.*

By: Kaylee Sorensen
Emergency Management Consultant, Ashton Tiffany

Kaylee Sorensen has worked for Ashton Tiffany and its acquiring company, RPA, for 10 years. In 2017, she launched an emergency management program for Ashton Tiffany’s largest client, the Arizona School Risk Retention Trust (the Trust). For Trust members, Kaylee has facilitated regional safety consortiums around the state, assisted with the development of emergency operations plans, assessed drills and exercises, and more. Kaylee has also partnered with various public agencies across Arizona to promote interagency cooperation in emergency management.

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