An analysis of averted school violence conducted in 2021 by the National Police Foundation and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services revealed this promising finding: “The number of completed (school violence) attacks is far outnumbered by incidents in which an attack was planned or was almost carried out but was averted thanks to the actions of persons in the school or in the community.”
When early intervention and prevention are core components of your educational institution’s policies and procedures, you have an improved opportunity to identify and mitigate serious threats before they lead to violence. This article explores the University of Virginia’s multi-disciplinary threat assessment model as an effective example, which offers evidence-based best practices that you can consider implementing at your educational institution.
Policies in practice and how they work
Every opportunity to integrate proactive violence prevention into the culture and climate of a school is a step toward greater readiness and resiliency in supporting violence-free campuses. The University of Virginia, a higher education institution with a well-defined violence prevention committee, multi-disciplinary threat assessment team and established program, shares that their goal is to “assess and intervene regarding any individual whose behavior may potentially pose a threat…The team plans and responds to potential threats or any act of violence in an attempt to prevent a critical incident and to maintain the safety of those involved as well as the safety of the campus community.”
Educational institution leaders can lean on the practices at this university for guidance. For example, campuses looking to build or refine their threat assessment team should pull in representatives across the school to leverage multi-disciplinary membership. This creates a bias-free (to the best of everyone’s abilities) environment with differing perspectives, backgrounds and roles within the school.
When the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education collaborated to create a guide to Threat Assessment in Schools, they shared that when good communication existed between students and adults, reporting concerning behaviors increased and violence diminished. In fact, the organizations noted that it can be considered good citizenship and even heroic to share that a fellow student may be in trouble and on a potential path toward violence.
Further, the university maintains a campus-wide safe reporting program – often known as red flag reporting or a whistleblower hotline – where students and faculty can report suspicious or threatening behavior. Not only does this simplify threat reporting, it also promotes a shared responsibility in addressing concerns and engaging support at the earliest possible opportunity, well before a problem escalates to violence.
In a study conducted by the U.S. Secret Service, data found that all attackers against K-12 schools in the U.S. from 2008 to 2017 exhibited concerning behaviors. Most elicited concern from others, and most communicated their intent to attack.
The University of Virginia developed the Comprehensive School Threat Assessment Guidelines (CSTAG). The CSTAG, according to the university, integrates recommendations from the FBI and U.S. Secret Service with field-tested experiences and practical advice from educators. The following features of the CSTAG are worth noting:
- Guidelines include detailed instructions and a decision tree.
- Transient and substantive threats are differentiated when conducting threat assessments.
- Standardized training is provided to threat assessment team members.
- Guidelines discourage school suspension in most instances – instead, alternatives to zero tolerance practices are provided.
- A comprehensive mental health assessment is recommended for subjects in the most serious cases.
The fact that the CSTAG has been tested in three controlled studies with positive outcomes sets this approach and guidance apart. The guidelines are publicly available to support other schools with implementation.
Sikich’s workforce risk management team works with more than just corporate companies and government agencies. We also help higher education institutions and for-profit colleges to establish threat assessment teams, craft policies and programs and deliver training with the goal of educating people on how to respond, assess and manage threats and concerning behaviors. For more resources or to speak to our team, please contact us below.
In May of this year, I was interviewed by WGN-TV on threat assessment and intervention. I said, “You can’t predict violence – it’s all about prevention.” To that end, I have spent my career focused on threat assessment and management. And I’ve trained thousands of people in educational institutions, corporations and government agencies on threat assessment and workplace violence prevention.