With every incident of gun-related violence in our schools and communities, one of the most prevalent questions being asked of safety professionals is: what could we have done to prevent it?  The answer is multi-layered, and at its core is the issue of threats of violence and the importance of objectively and critically assessing those threats. It’s in this stage that we have an opportunity for prevention.  

When a threat of violence is received, the first duty of the school community is to acknowledge and communicate the threat - no matter how small. If you see, hear or know something: Say Something. Students, staff and faculty must understand that there is a process in place to help understand the nature and context of threats and to make the distinction between a joke and a credible threat, between a transient threat and a substantive one. Most of all, it’s important that we acknowledge this process exists to help and protect others.

Creating a threat assessment team is an excellent way to institute that process. Who should be on your threat assessment team? While each case is unique, the composition of a threat assessment team should represent school leadership and those in a role to understand, relate to or provide context to a case. In addition, risk managers should be involved in order to implement safety strategies that counter the threat with a degree of effectiveness that both ensures safety and supports the community. Typically, your team will include:

  • Led by the principal / head of school or assistant
  • School counselor or school psychologist
  • School operations or safety / security staff
  • School resource officer or law enforcement
  • Safety consultant or trusted partner in risk management

The team composition can be adapted to meet the staffing resources for different schools, and may include other disciplines as well.   

General Distinctions:

A transient threat can be a joke or something said in a moment of emotion, that can be resolved quickly through mediation or counseling.  On the other hand, a substantive threat is very serious, often involving the use of a weapon, strategy or specific target. When in doubt, a threat should always be treated as substantive. 

Examples of Transient Threats:

  • Non-genuine expression
  • Non-enduring intent to harm
  • Temporary feelings of anger
  • Tactic in argument
  • Intended as joke or figure of speech
  • Resolved on scene or in office (time-limited)
  • Ends with apology, retraction, or clarification

Examples of Substantive Threats:

  • Specific and plausible details such as a specific victim, time, place, and method
  • Repeated over time or conveyed to differing individuals
  • Involves planning, substantial thought, or preparatory steps
  • Recruitment or involvement of accomplices
  • Invitation for an audience to observe threat being carried out
  • Physical evidence of intent to carry out threat (e.g., lists, drawings, written plan)

- National Association of School Psychologists

There is no scientific formula or guaranteed checklist for determining the nature of every threat.  However, an effective threat assessment can help keep schools safe by assisting educators in identifying potential offenders and provides useful information about a student's risks and personal resources (capacity to carry out a threat).  It is also a way to practice compassion and can help reveal underlying sources of anger or sadness so that we can begin the processes of resolution and healing.  Often, this helps to mitigate other risks such as as criminal activity, physical abuse, suicide, bullying, substance abuse or even academic failure.  

While the main purpose of a threat assessment is to determine risk and prevent incidents of violence, we would consider it a success if the result of a threat assessment is counseling, intervention or course correction opportunities for an individual in need.  

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Patrick Rosca
National Director, School and Community Safety