An Introduction to the Behavioral Threat Assessment Model
“The lesson to learn is not that our schools should be less tolerant and more punitive, rather that our schools are now, as never before, in a unique position to identify and secure help for troubled students. The current state of our society demands that it’s time to change our thinking about the role schools should play in the lives of students in crisis.” - A message from Michael & Desiree Davis, who lost their daughter in the Arapahoe High School Shooting8.
Behavioral Threat Assessment Model
A focus on prevention and intervention strategies is critical to developing an effective, comprehensive approach to promoting safe schools. Research suggests the process of threat assessment in schools as a best practice in early prevention/mitigation and intervention toward identifying, assessing, and providing interventions to students who pose a threat of targeted violence either to themselves or others2,3,4,7,11,12.
Following the 1999 Columbine school shooting, authorities from agencies such as the FBI, U.S. Secret Service, and the U.S. Department of Education recognized that schools have a responsibility to try to prevent acts of school violence before they occur. The school threat assessment model was created based upon findings from the Safe School Initiative, empirical behavioral research on school shootings and school shooters that was conducted jointly by the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education13. This model has been cited in federal guides and in state legislative initiatives as the current standard of care for school violence prevention in schools (see Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plans). It is also the model used as the basis for Virginia’s school threat assessment procedure after Virginia passed legislation requiring all Virginia public K-12 schools to operate threat assessment teams6.
“The Behavioral Threat Assessment Model (BTAM) promotes communication and identification of risk factors between school staff, faculty, and students, so that a BTAM team can be notified of a student who may be at risk of committing violence before it occurs.”
The Behavioral Threat Assessment Model (BTAM) promotes communication and identification of risk factors between school staff, faculty, and students, so that a BTAM team can be notified of a student who may be at risk of committing violence before it occurs. A trained BTAM team will be able to assess the level of concern and suggest interventions for the student. This model differs from others in its preventative rather than reactive nature, and by also promoting supportive, rather than disciplinary, intervention techniques. Incorporation of this model could potentially prevent violent actions within a school and also provide longitudinal support for at-risk youth.
“Incorporation of this model could potentially prevent violent actions within a school and also provide longitudinal support for at-risk youth.”
A Deeper Look
Safety models are often reactive rather than preventative in nature2. Research has shown that this reactive mentality exists within schools and school-aged individuals, with one study finding that in over three-quarters of violent school incidents, at least one person had information that the attacker was planning to commit school violence. In the majority of these cases, the person who knew was a peer, sibling, friend, or schoolmate12.
Recent changes in the law focus on protective responsibilities in the context of violence, with courts recognizing the need for schools to make good faith efforts to prevent acts of violence before they occur12. Schools can be considered negligent if a child is seen as a potential threat and caregivers or potential victims are not notified, or appropriate supervision is not given. Threat assessment teams must be implemented with fidelity and staff must be properly trained in identifying, reporting, and intervening/supervising these individuals12. For schools, this has raised concerns about confidentiality laws regarding educational records. While there are limits on what can be shared, they are not absolute, and a consistent and standardized threat assessment model should not be hindered by confidentiality1.
With the majority of school violence involving targeted violence, recent risk assessment models made to address violence within schools require a different approach than past models. Previous models focus on dispositional (residing within the individual), static (not subject to change), and dichotomous (either present or not present) factors; however, this type of assessment does not work in schools4. Newer risk models, including the BTAM, have shifted to view potential risks as contextual, dynamic, and continuous2.
Importance of Communication
The Behavioral Threat Assessment Model (BTAM) measures risk factors by continually assessing changing behaviors that are displayed by an individual9. This model incorporates risk management and is longitudinal in nature. The goal is to interrupt the pathway of violence and to conduct follow-up efforts with at-risk students9. Compared to previous models, this model focuses on reaching out when it appears that a student poses a threat, rather than when a student has already made a threat7. A school BTAM team, with proper training and expertise, should lead this process if and when they receive information on a potential threat from a student or staff member12. Research shows that the first people aware of early risk factors and warning signs are often students or school staff members12, suggesting that pathways of communication between staff, students, families, and BTAM teams are crucial.
A study conducted following the Arapahoe High School shooting found that both staff and students were inadequately trained on how and when to report potential threats10. Another study revealed that most (over 75%) attackers in schools discuss their plans with others before they attack7. For preventative measures to be taken, it is crucial that staff are aware of when student confidentiality can be waived. First amendment protections do not extend to student speech that causes substantial disruption to school activities12. Furthermore, while FERPA ensures confidentiality of school records, the Code of Federal Regulation (34 CFR § 99.36) was modified in 2008 to allow officials within a school to disclose information without consent to appropriate parties, if and when the information is necessary in order to protect another student or individual, and if there is a significant and articulable threat12.
Identifying Risk Factors
One study defines risk factors as variables that can increase the probability of a student becoming violent12. When present, risk factors signal the need to keep watch for potential warning signs, including actions or verbalizations that a person is actually considering committing an act of violence12. Warning signs on their own are worrisome, but when paired with risk factors, they are especially concerning12.
It is important to note that while risk factors and warning signs aid in predicting possible future violence, determining that a student is a potential hazard is not so simple as going down a checklist. When a student shows troublesome signs and could potentially be motivated to commit an act of violence, experts or trained individuals, such as a BTAM team, should be notified12. One easy to remember assessment tool uses the acronym TOAD to identify potential risk factors. Time, Opportunity, Ability, and Desire10. The first three letters refer to an individual’s resources for committing an act of violence, while the final letter signifies a desire to carry out the act. Finally, the model asks if there is a possible stimulus that could trigger an act of violence10.
Under the BTAM there are five levels of concern: low, moderate, elevated, high, and imminent1,12. Once an initial assessment is complete and the level of concern is identified, a BTAM team can suggest an appropriate intervention12. BTAM interventions are not designed to be punitive in nature, as research suggests that extreme negative consequences can have harmful effects on an individual, making them feel increasingly detached and unwanted5. Possible interventions under this model include skill building, positive behavioral interventions, academic support, mental health treatment, participation in school activities, and communication between school staff and parents12. The goal of these intervention techniques is to provide support for the student to minimize disengagement12.
“The goal of these intervention techniques is to provide support for the student to minimize disengagement.”
Applying the Behavioral Threat Assessment Model
Implementing a Behavioral Threat Assessment Model in schools can aid in creating a more dynamic and functional school environment for all students. The Texas School Safety Center (TxSSC) has developed a Threat Assessment and Management for Educators and Administrators Toolkit that provides more detail on threat assessment and outlines the functions of a threat assessment team in a school. For more information, please browse the TxSSC website.
1Amman, M., Bowlin, M., Buckles, L., Burton, K., Brunell, K., Gibson, K., Griffin, S., Kennedy, K., & Robins, C. (2017). Making prevention a reality: identifying, assessing, and managing the threat of targeted attacks. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice
2Borum, R., Fein, R., Vossekuil, B., & Berglund, J. (1999). Threat assessment: defining an approach for evaluating risk of targeted violence. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 17(3), 323–337.
3Cornell, D. G., Sheras, P. L., Kaplan, S., McConville, D., Douglass, J., Elkon, A., & Cole, J. (2004). Guidelines for Student Threat Assessment: Field-Test Findings. School Psychology Review, 33(4), 527–546.
4Cornell, D., Sheras, P., Gregory, A., & Fan, X. (2009). A retrospective study of school safety conditions in high schools using the Virginia threat assessment guidelines versus alternative approaches. School Psychology Quarterly, 24(2), 119–129.
5Cornell, D. G., Allen, K., & Fan, X. (2012). A randomized control study of the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines in kindergarten through grade 12. School Psychology Review, 41, 100–115.
6Deisinger, G. (2016). Threat Assessment in Virginia Public Schools: Model Policies, Procedures, and Guidelines (2d Edition). Richmond, VA: Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.
7Fein, R. A., Vossekuil, B., Pollack, W. S., Borum, R., Modzeleski, W., & Reddy Marisa E. (2002). Threat assessment in schools: a guide to managing threatening situations and to creating safe school climates. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Secret Service: U.S. Dept. of Education.
8Goodrum, S., & Woodward, W. (2016). Report on the Arapahoe high school shooting: Lessons learned on information sharing, threat assessment, and systems integrity.
9Meloy, J.R., Hoffmann, J., Guldimann, A., & James, D. (2011). The role of warning behaviors in threat assessment: an exploration and suggested typology. Behavior Sciences and the Law, 30, 256–279.
10Nicoletti, J., & Spencer-Thomas, S. (2002). Violence goes to school. Bloomington: National Education Service.
11Randazzo, M. R., Borum, R., Vossekuil, B., Fein, R., Modzeleski, W., & Pollack, W. (2006). Threat assessment in schools: Empirical support and comparison with other approaches. In S. R. Jimerson & M. Furlong (Eds.), Handbook of school violence and school safety: From research to practice. (pp. 147–156).
12Reeves, M. A., & Brock, S. E. (2017). School Behavioral Threat Assessment and Management. Contemporary School Psychology, 22(2), 148–162.
13Vossekuil, B. (2002). The final report and findings of the safe school initiative: implications for the prevention of school attacks in the United States. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Secret Service: U.S. Dept. of Education.