The United States Secret Service has issued a follow-up to its landmark 2002 report that reinforces the need for sound institutional threat assessment procedures. The full new report is here. It is a noteworthy read for school administrators responsible for risk management and security.
Threat assessment is a process by which institutions aim to collect and process behavioral information that raises a potential concern to so, when appropriate, they can engage in “robust” intervention aimed at helping a student at risk and preventing violent acts. It has been a best practice at K-12 and post-secondary institutions in Canada for over a decade and should not be controversial, though it does invite tension with privacy and anti-discrimination laws. And though it’s very easy to understand that privacy interests and accommodation rights give way when an individual poses a risk of harm that is “serious and imminent,” good threat assessment rests on intervention at much lower risk levels. As the Secret Service’s new report states, “The threshold for intervention should be low, so that schools can identify students in distress before their behavior escalates to the level of eliciting concerns about safety.”
The Secret Service’s new report is based on an analysis of 41 incidents of targeted school violence that occurred at K-12 schools in the United States from 2008 to 2017.
The following statistic – about failures in reporting – is the first thing that caught my attention.
Canadian institutions encourage classmates to report concerning behaviors to a single point of contact and often mandate employees to make such reports. The new report tells us nothing about whether that is working in Canada, but it’s a good question to consider given the above.
The report also identifies that the attackers in four out of the 41 incidents were referred to threat assessment, which invited a response summarized in the following table:
In Cases 1 and 3 the attacker appears to have been mis-assessed. (See the full report on Case 3 here.) Cases 2 and 4 may relate to a prescription the Secret Service gives based on a statistic that showed that 17 of the 41 attacks occurred after a break in school attendance: “These findings suggest that schools should make concerted efforts to facilitate positive student engagement following discipline, including suspensions and expulsions, and especially within the first week that the student returns to school.”