Threat Assessment and Management for Educators and Administrators

5.0 A Quick Examination of Threats

Schools have experienced a significant increase in the number of threats they receive over the past few years. In the wake of a school shooting such as the one in Parkland, FL or Santa Fe, TX, the rate of threats can skyrocket dramatically. Yet many educators have not received adequate training on how to evaluate and act upon the threats schools receive.

A threat is an expression of intent to do harm or to commit violence against someone or something. Keep in mind that not all threats are verbal or written. As we noted, an individual may make a threat, or they may engage in behaviors of concern to pose a threat.

Not all threats are created equal - they vary in how specific or plausible they are. There are also variables in the motivation, capacity, and intent of the person making the threat. All threats, however, need to be assessed quickly and dealt with in a timely, appropriate fashion.

When a threat assessment team evaluates a threat, they need to consider a variety of factors including:

  • How specific or plausible the threat is. A threat that is very specific or is quite plausible is of more concern.
  • Precipitating stressors. Can the threat be tied back to a specific incident or event from which it stems? Something said in the heat of an argument may be of less concern than on-going threatening comments made in isolation.
  • Aggressive behavior is not always a threat. Two students involved in a shoving match over a ball on the playground is a discipline issue, not necessarily a threat assessment problem.

After adequate investigation and evaluation, the threat assessment team will determine whether a threat is transient or substantive. Substantive threats require protective action, follow up intervention, and sometimes law enforcement involvement. The chart below outlines some typical characteristics of transient versus substantive threats:

In general, a threat is most likely substantive if it has any or all of these characteristics:

  • Has specific plausible details such as a victim, time, place, and method
  • Has been repeated over time
  • Is related to multiple persons
  • Has been reported as a plan or there is evidence of planning
  • Has accomplices or has attempted to recruit accomplices
  • Has physical evidence of intent such as a weapon, materials, maps, lists, etc.

A detailed discussion of threat assessment as it pertains specifically to school shooters is provided by the FBI.

The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective

While it is an older resource, one of the best research overviews of what we know to be true about school attackers, both for prevention and response is provided in this report.

Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the US

For updated information on mass attacks that focuses on those that occurred in 2017, consult the Department of Homeland Security's National Threat Assessment Center publication.

Mass Attacks in Public Spaces - 2017