Threat Assessment: When a Threat Becomes a Plan

In the last blog I spoke about the limitations of profiling for determining whether an individual is likely to carry out a school shooting. A more consistent approach is to utilise ‘threat assessment,’ first designed by the Secret Service to evaluate assassination threats made against political targets. Threat assessment is triggered only when an individual (the ‘threatener’) makes a threat or displays violent behaviour. It is a form of risk reduction and threat assessment determining whether the individual making threats is preparing for or planning an attack.

The Virginia Youth Violence Project developed a model to be used in schools and tested it throughout institutions in Virginia. A threat is defined by its guidelines as “an expression of intent to harm someone.” This is in direct contrast to profiling, which categorises a group of individuals meeting the ‘checklist,’ some of whom are ‘false positives’ that have no intention of perpetrating violence. Threat assessment puts the threat into context by examining the environment and social factors accompanying it. A majority of the time, there is no concrete plan attached to threats; for example, they may be said in a moment of anger or to demonstrate bravado in front of one’s peers. Theorists Calhoun and Weston, (2009) categorised two types of threats: ‘howlers’ and ‘hunters.’ The more common type is the ‘howlers,’ who make emotionally charged threats based on disputes. A number of ‘howlers’ experience final straw events, provoking the transition into ‘hunters’: the less common but dangerous type, preparing to carry out a violent attack based on perceived or real injustices.

The Safe2Tell hotline in Colorado is a mechanism to allowing individuals to anonymously report threats and warning signs; it also allows individuals to submit reports via text or the internet. The Intel obtained can be used to conduct threat assessment. An example was provided by the Safe2Tell founder and executive director, Susan Payne: two school students chatting during online gaming and one stating “If I’m not on tomorrow, I may well be dead. There will be a massacre at my school” and provided details of his plans. The other student sent this electronic dialogue to Safe2Tell and the I.P address of the threatener. Once the address had been traced, law enforcement intervened and found seven weapons in the student’s bedroom. In this example, the threat was substantive and immediate internventionary action was required to deal with it.

It was recommended that threat assessment should be conducted by a team consisting of the relevant professionals: a law enforcement official, like a school resource officer, who can contribute to the criminal and legal aspects of the threat and provide security if violence does transpire; a mental health professional to assess with the intervention and treatment of the individual; a school administrator or principal, who will can access the students’ records and look at the context and meaning of the threat. Dr. Nicoletti of Nicoletti-Flater Associates claimed others are also informally involved in the process: the faculty in the school are ‘disrupters,’ who take protective action; the students are the ‘detectors,’ who may have knowledge of students’ plans and behaviour; the teachers and sports coaches are both ‘disrupters’ and ‘detectors,’ who will also witness warning signs but have the responsibility of taking action on these.

The process of threat assessment generally goes through the following stages: identify threats and those making them; evaluate whether the threat is transient or substantive, as this determines what follow-up action is taken; if the threat is deemed substantive, intervention with mental health treatment, law enforcement response and expulsion; once the threat has been dealt with, monitor whether it has been resolved completely and evaluate whether the safety plan was effective. When the threat assessment team feels the individual who made the threat does not intend to carry it out, the case is closed unless any other threats or violent behaviour arises.

In order to be truly effective, threat assessment requires a multi-disciplinary team, Intel provided by those with forewarning of school shooting plans, and the contextualisation of threats. Future blogs will build upon the idea of threat assessment, developing a model with reference to specific examples.

[This blog was put together by referencing threat assessment literature and presentations given at the ‘School Safety Symposium’ in summer 2013.]

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