The use of threat assessments in K-12 schools has grown in the past decade, particularly after the 2018 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. In the 2018 legislative session, Florida and Maryland adopted the threat assessment model as a strategy to prevent school violence. The following year, Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas and Washington enacted similar policies, according to research from the Education Commission of the States.

Virginia’s Loudoun County Public Schools, which has 81,000 students, conducted thousands of threat assessments over the past 16 years. In those cases, there hasn’t been an incident where a threat of violence was carried out, said John Lody, the district’s director of Diagnostic and Prevention Services. Not only has it likely prevented school violence, but the practice has also provided supports to students that take them off a pathway of potential violence, he said.

“Our approach isn’t to suspend the student, unless it’s absolutely necessary as a safety measure,” Lody said. “Our approach is to resolve the underlying problem that led to the threat in the first place.”

The suspension rate for the district is less than 1% annually, Lody said. He added the approach is more equitable among different student populations because threat assessment teams — there is one for each school — look objectively at information from various sources and make decisions based on each student’s situation.

“Instead of asking, ‘Well, what’s wrong with that kid,’ we now started asking, ‘I wonder what happened’ and that changes the whole paradigm.”-Travis Hamblin, director of Student Services for Jordan School District in Utah

Travis Hamblin, who is director of student services for the 56,000-student Jordan School District in Utah, had just completed initial training in the threat assessment model in March 2020. The next day, the pandemic became a reality, and Hamblin turned his focus on helping the school system respond to the public health crisis. Months later, he revisited the training and encouraged other administrators to take it. District leaders and staff have also undergone training in positive behavioral interventions and supports, and in cultural sensitivity and inclusivity practices, he said.

Although the district has just begun to use threat assessment, it’s already led to administrators’ ability to identify students in crisis earlier, Hamblin said.

“What this allows us to do using CSTAG is to use a decision process, to have the actual documentation of our decision process so that we can remove emotion from the equation and look at it logically with relationship-focused, centered, wellness-focused data-informed decision making,” Hamblin said.

“Instead of asking, ‘Well, what’s wrong with that kid,’ we now started asking, ‘I wonder what happened?’ And that changes the whole paradigm.”

Making improvements, taking different approaches

Rather than use the threat assessment model, those concerned with the approach said schools should improve upon their multi-tiered systems of support and PBIS practices. They should also ensure IDEA’s child find procedures are being used to identify students who may qualify for special education services.

Rollin said students also need caring, trusting adults in schools who they can build positive relationships with, as well as a safe environment that doesn’t include the presence of police.

“The very things that they’re doing with law enforcement in schools and threat assessments in schools are undermining safety because it creates a culture that’s prison-like, where nobody seeks help for themselves or others,” she said.

Adding more highly qualified staff such as psychologists, social workers and counselors would also help schools respond to students in crisis, Rollin added.

In his research papers, Cornell has advocated for clarifications to threat assessment policies to distinguish the difference between cases of harm against others and threats of self-harm.

Cornell and those concerned about threat assessments say they would support the inclusion of threat assessment data in OCR’s Civil Rights Data Collection. The groups say they want data to include the numbers and demographics of the students referred and any resulting discipline and law enforcement responses, as well as referrals for services and whether those services were provided.

Lody, from Loudoun, said documentation and analysis of the district’s threat assessments have been a challenge because, until recently, there was limited software for easy data management. Documentation can help the district with quality control, such as making sure threat assessment teams are staying compliant with procedures. It can also help the district analyze trends and disaggregate data by gender, race, grades and other factors.

Another challenge is making sure staff in the growing district have recent training in threat assessment practices.

“I’ve never encountered skepticism on its approach because it works,” Lody said. “It really is aimed at preventing acts of violence and getting the help that individuals need who are struggling with a problem, and it’s not hard to see how easily this works when put into practice.”