Tech Innovations

Virginia Evaluates Threat Assessment Processes

Location: Virginia By Becky Lewis Published June 2015

Virginia is unique in many ways: the Virginia General Assembly is the oldest continuous law-making body in the “New World,” independent cities and counties operate in the same way and it is the most populous state in the country without a major professional sports team.

It’s also the only state in the country that mandates that every school have a threat assessment team, and in the 2013-2014 school year, the first after the authorizing legislation passed, threat assessment teams received reports of 3,283 student threats, of which two thirds were classified as low risk, and 96 percent were subsequently resolved without any acts of violence.

A report funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), Threat Assessment in Virginia Schools: Technical Report of the Threat Assessment Survey for 2013-2014, provides detailed information on the threat assessment teams’ impact. Data behind the research came from a school safety survey conducted annually via its website by the Virginia Center for School and Campus Safety (VCSCS), part of the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), with analysis conducted by a team led by Dr. Dewey Cornell from the Youth Violence Project of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.

Donna Michaelis, Virginia Center for School and Campus Safety manager, explains that Virginia has required threat assessment teams at institutions of higher education since 2008 (in the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting), and the state added the requirements for all public K-12 schools following the Sandy Hook incident in 2012.

“Many schools in the state created threat assessment teams after Columbine, but they all had their own approach. This legislation mandated development of model policies and procedures, guidance documents and training materials, all of which can be found on our website,” Michaelis says. “And after the implementation, schools started calling us and saying ‘We have this case and we don’t know what to do about it,’ so we implemented an agreement with a threat management consultant who works with them.”

Schools can apply to the Center for some of the consultant’s time, and Michaelis says currently available assistance also includes train-the-trainer courses and materials. In the near future, the Center plans to release a customizable app that can serve as both an educational resource on the threat assessment process and a reporting tool.

“We want to make sure schools and the community know how to recognize when someone needs help, who needs to know about it, and how the team should intervene and provide services. We’re trying to educate the community as well as school personnel about what threat assessment teams in schools do. In almost every incident (of serious targeted violence) that has occurred in U.S. schools, there was leakage, that is, somebody knew something about the person’s behavior or plans,” Michaelis says. “If someone is on a pathway to violence, concerned school personnel want to intervene and stop the progression.”

Michaelis notes that schools need to ensure that students, faculty, staff and parents know about their school’s threat assessment program. The Center’s annual school climate survey found that the majority of responding teachers did not know whether their school had formal threat assessment guidelines, let alone what those guidelines stated. Schools must assess expressed or communicated threats, and the model policies and procedures offered by the Center also encourage identifying and assessing a broad range of social, emotional and academic behaviors of concern and addressing those as well. These policies and procedures are consistent with the process set forth in Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates, a 2002 publication of the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education; they also reflect other procedures used in some Virginia schools divisions, including the “Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines” developed by the Youth Violence Project. (Note that schools may use the model policies and procedures, but may use other procedures as well.)

Research Highlights

Threat Assessment in Virginia Schools: Technical Report of the Threat Assessment Survey for 2013-2014, (pdf, 51 pages) can be downloaded from Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.

Some highlights follow:

  • Of Virginia’s 2000 schools, 810 reported at least one case involving threatening statements or behavior. Those 810 schools reported a total of 3,283 cases, generating a prevalence rate of approximately four cases per school and 6.1 cases per 1,000 students. This equates to only 1.6 threats per school if all 2000 schools are considered.
  • Threats were identified by faculty (51%), students (34%), administrators (11%), other school staff members (9%), parents (7%) and others (4%). (Percentages exceed 100 because some threats were reported by more than one source).
  • High schools had lower prevalence rates (4.3 per 1,000) than elementary (6.6) and middle (6.7) schools. The highest frequencies of threats were in grades 3-9.
  • Most threats were made by boys (81%).
  • There was a presence of prior discipline referrals in 60.7 percent of cases.
  • School responses included notifying the student’s parents (88%), cautioning the student about the consequences of carrying out the threat (65%) and increasing monitoring of the student (53%). In approximately half (51%) of cases, the threat was resolved with the student giving an explanation or apology (having engaged in no known attempts to act on the threat that was communicated).
  • Various kinds of safety precautions were undertaken when the threat was deemed to be serious. These included consultation with the school resource officer or other school safety specialist (42%), notifying the intended target’s parents (35%), protecting and notifying intended targets (29%), developing a behavior intervention or safety plan (25%) and providing direct supervision of the students until removed from campus by law enforcement or a parent (21%).
  • A guiding principle of threat assessment is that the most effective way to prevent violence is to address the problem or conflict that underlies the threat. Accordingly, students were referred for school-based counseling (33%), mental health assessment (20%), review of an existing Individualized Education Program (18%) or 504 Plan (2%), special education evaluation (4%) or hospitalization (4%). Disciplinary procedures were followed in 80 percent of cases; 80 percent also returned to school.
  • In almost all cases (96%) there was no known attempt to carry out the threat. Although a positive finding, this does not clearly demonstrate that the threat assessment process prevented the threat because there was no control group (e.g. of threats made in schools without a threat assessment process) to allow comparison.
  • There were 30 threats (2%) judged by schools to have been averted when a student attempted to carry them out. These cases primarily involved attempted battery, but there were two cases in which the student had possession of a firearm and 11 attempts to stab in which a student had possession of a knife or cutting weapon. There were 29 threats (2%) judged by the schools to have been carried out by the student. These cases primarily involved battery, with two stabbings.

This report is the product of collaboration among the Virginia Center for School and Campus Safety in the Department of Criminal Justice Services, the Virginia Department of Education and the Virginia Youth Violence Project at the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia. The survey was conducted by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services in January and February 2015. This project was supported by Grant #NIJ 2014-CK-BX-0004 awarded by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.