History of Threat Assessments

Systematic procedures for conducting threat assessments and intervention strategies for school shootings owe their beginnings to the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis ofViolent Crime (NCAVC), which began studying violent incidents in the 1980s. In 1999, the NCAVC held a symposium on school shootings in Leesburg, Virginia. That symposium, attended by 160 educators, administrators, mental health professionals, law enforcement officers, and prosecutors, took a look at 18 school shooting cases (O’Toole, 2000). The result of this symposium was a model for a threat assessment approach to school violence. This model was called the Four-Pronged Assessment Approach and was reported in The School Shooter: A Threat Aseessment Perspective, a monograph by Mary Ellen O’Toole (2000), a supervisory Special Agent with the FBI..

The Four-Pronged Assessment Approach

This approach is different from the approach of developing a profile of the typical school shooter. The “profile approach” seems reasonable, and in fact, was the direction taken by the NCAVC in the early years of investigating school shooters (O’Toole, 2000). However, developing a catalog or a checklist of warning signs to help detect a school shooter has important drawbacks. For instance, the profile approach can unfairly label many nonviolent students as potentially dangerous individuals. Also, many teens who might be considered dangerous because they show one or more signs common to school shooters will never act out in a violent way (O’Toole, 2000).

On the other hand, the Four-Pronged Assessment Approach is only used when a credible threat has been received related to a school shooting. The assessment of the student who has issued a threat is based on the “totality of the circumstances” (O’Toole, 2000, p. 10) known about the student in four major areas:

Prong One: Personality of the student Prong Two: Family dynamics

Prong Three: School dynamics and the students role in those dynamics Prong Four: Social dynamics

This threat assessment approach requires a review of the four prongs. If the individual appears to have serious problems in the majority of the four prongs or areas, then the threat should be taken seriously and intervention strategies must be implemented (O’Toole, 2000).

This threat assessment model is based on the belief that an effective threat management system will include standardized methods for evaluating threats and consistent policies for responding to them. O’Toole (2000) recommends that schools not only appoint a threat assessment coordinator, but also establish a multidisciplinary team as part of the threat assessment system.

Risk Identification

As indicated already in this chapter, the identification of risk factors is an important part of the process that falls within the Threat Assessment Strategy which will be outlined here. The threat assessment approach described in this chapter is also based upon individual and dynamic factors. And like the Four-Pronged Assessment Approach, it is activated when concerns are known and are credible, and when threat management is necessary (Bowlin, Buckles, Burton, Brunell, and Gibson, 2017). These threat concerns or messages could be, for instance, a Facebook post, a scribbled note on a restroom mirror, or comments overheard by others. But they do become risk factors and could strongly suggest that a school student (or a business employee in a workplace environment) is considering an act of violence. Examining these risk factors from both inside and outside of the school (or business) environment is the main focus of the threat assessment approach which will hereafter be designated as the Threat Assessment Strategy (TAS).

What We Know about School Shooters

Research has indicated that those who engage in violence at school were influenced to bring a weapon to school by factors unrelated to school issues. Karmaliani et al. (2017) examined socioeconomic status, gender, and violence at home as potential contributing factors in terms of a pathway to violence. These factors, while not directly related to the school environment, directly affected the perpetrator’s behavior toward peers, especially those who may enjoy a better socioeconomic lifestyle. Family instability and domestic violence within the home tend to desensitize young people to feelings of remorse and help to fuel rage and personal anger that is released at school.

While the majority of U.S. schools are safe places, still there are acts of violence that happen frequently in our nations schools.When school shootings take place, in 50% of cases, school shooters give some kind of a warning of their intended violence by making a threat or leaving a note (Centers for Disease Control, 2008). The Federal Bureau of Investigation (2002), in its school violence study found common traits among those students prone to commit an act of violence:

  • • The suspects were white males under 18 years of age
  • • They had low tolerance for frustration
  • • They experienced a failed love relationship
  • • They demonstrated inappropriate humor
  • • They had a fascination with violence-filled entertainment
  • • They had a lack of trust
  • • They were loners
  • • They were bullies, victims of bullying, or bystanders
  • • They had anger management problems

Although fascination with violence-filled entertainment is only one of the factors listed by the FBI, still the association between adolescent violence and the media needs to be explored. The fact is that the average American young person spends one-third of each day with some form of electronic media. As a result, teens tend to engage in several unhealthy behaviors. Among those unhealthy behaviors are overeating or unhealthy eating habits (leading to obesity), lack of exercise, smoking, underage drinking, early sexual activity, and violent behaviors (Escobar-Chaves and Anderson, 2008). Boxer, Huesmann, Bushman, O’Brian, and Moceri (2009) studied more than 800 youth in an effort to examine the relationship between preferences for media violence and involvement in violence and aggression. Boxer et al. (2009) found that violent media preferences contributed significantly to violence and aggression. Federman (1998), in a national television violence study, examined television content and found that: (1) about two-thirds of television programming contains violence; (2) children’s shows contain most of the violence; (3) the violence shown is usually glamorized; and (4) the violent offenders often go unpunished. With children up to the age of 18 spending more than six hours each day with some form of media (Roberts, Foehr, Rideout, and Brodie, 1999), the opportunity for exposure to violent media increases the chances of children exhibiting aggressive behavior (Hughes and Hasbrouck, 1996).

The interactive nature of media—video games, cable television, music videos, and the Internet—has provided children with more opportunity' to be exposed to media violence at home (Funk, Baldacci, Pasold, and

Baumgardner, 2004). This interactive nature of media violence may affect the behavior of children to a greater degree than exposure to passive media, such as television (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001). The exposure of young people to violence in the media increases physically and verbally aggressive behavior relatively quickly—often within hours to days of exposure (Browne and Hamilton-Giachritsis, 2005). The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (2002) reported that television violence might:

  • • Cause children and teenagers to become “immune” to the horror of violence
  • • Cause them to gradually accept violence as a way to solve problems
  • • Cause them to imitate the violence they observe on television
  • • Cause them to identify with certain characters, victims, or victimizers

Unfortunately, this aggressiveness is often acted out in schools and on the streets.

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