School campuses across the country opening the doors for the start of a new school year face ongoing concern over their responsibility to keep students and faculty safe. School threat assessment guidelines can help avert a crisis or keep it from escalating.
The ways in which school-aged students communicate with each other today is mind-blowing. They send e-mails; post in blogs and discussion boards; send text messages and images via cell phone; contact each other through IMs (instant messages); chat in teen-site chat rooms; and use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and other social media. Posted material is often meant strictly for social purposes, but these vehicles are also used to send violent threats. Processes must be put in place to rapidly determine the legitimacy of threats that are meant to inflict harm, reduce school functioning, and disrupt education.
Are violent threats sent by social media and other electronic means just about getting school to close for the day, or does the material raise concerns that the sender is considering an act of violence toward others or themselves? Threats may turn out to be unfounded, but school and public safety officials must treat them seriously. Along with reviewing and revising emergency procedures as needed each year, protocols must be in place for assessing and managing threats to school safety.
Threat assessment is a violence prevention strategy and an important component of a comprehensive approach to school safety that gives schools a specific policy and established procedures for dealing with student threats. Threat assessment must be an integral part of a system that involves collaboration between students, staff, parents, and the law enforcement community.
There is no easy formula to accurately determine whether a student is going to commit a violent act. When assessing school-based threats, generally, the more detailed and specific the threat, the more credible it may be. Evidence like hit lists, maps, and other documents can indicate planning, and actions like stockpiling weapons can be a red flag.
Some other basic guidelines include:
- Treat all threats seriously.
- Investigate the incident promptly and efficiently.
- Use support staff and external resources as a part of a multidisciplinary threat assessment team to evaluate threats.
- Discuss potential scenarios with administrators and crisis teams to evaluate and identify ahead of time what strategies you will use to counter them.
- Have redundancy in communications: website, direct communications to students and staff, mass notifications, messages to parents, etc.
- School and police officials should have unified communications with consistent messages.
- Take appropriate disciplinary and criminal enforcement steps.
- Document the threats and actions taken.
- Enhance security measures, as appropriate, to ensure the safety of all students, staff, and facilities.
- Have written materials publicly available, explaining relevant aspects of the threat assessment policy to staff members, students, and families.
While school officials’ first reaction is to quickly evacuate a school or close schools in response to threats, this may not be the most appropriate action, especially if the credibility of the threat is in question. Threat assessment procedures provide insight into these concerns and guidelines to prevent and respond properly.
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