Four key activities are necessary when a student has made a threat: Assess, Refer, Monitor and Support. When a student makes a threat to harm others, a team must respond by investigating whether this student's behavior poses a threat to himself/herself or others. Simply determining whether a threat was made, and then disciplining the student does not provide the scrutiny required. The FBI and the Secret Service have investigated school shootings. Best methods of conducting a threat assessment have been recommended, based on what we have learned from these investigations. A consensus approach has been recommended by the Secret Service and US Department of Education and is summarized in the Safe School Initiative. This DOE recommended approach utilizes eleven questions.
It is essential that no one person conduct this inquiry alone. Rather, this is a team process under the leadership of the site leader, with various staff playing different roles in the process. Threat assessment is NOT risk assessment. Threat evaluates whether this is a substantive or transient threat and what issues must be addressed. Often a threat is a "tip of the iceberg" on the variables affecting this student's behavior.
Bear in mind that a large number of students who make threats are being bullied and/or have suicidal thinking. To learn more about suicide in children and adolescents, see: Suicide in Children and Teens. To access the Suicide Assessment Interview, see: Online Education on Suicide Prevention for Professionals. For comprehensive information on suicide, see: Suicide Information Table of Contents.
After a student has been referred for a threat inquiry and any necessary referrals have been made, the team will wish to design a behavior support plan and coordination of interventions plan so all staff are aware how to best support this student and so that staff are aware of monitoring needs for this student.
There are extensive website links and PowerPoint presentations on this topic, all in accord with the Safe School Initiative. A key website helpful to schools is Virginia Youth Violence Project where you can learn about a research-validated threat assessment protocol. Also see: Guidelines for Responding to Student Threats of Violence by Dr. Dewey Cornell and Peter Sheras, with contributions from Diana Browning Wright and published by Sopris West.