Secret Service Offers Guidance on Threat Assessment Practices

by Sylvia Wood

As school districts across Texas consider what more they can do to create a safe learning environment for students and staff, experts say it’s important to remember a key finding from decades of research on school violence: There is no profile of a student attacker, nor is there a profile for the type of school that is targeted.

“There’s no profile, so it’s important to focus on behavior” Kristy Domingues told 600 public school educators, administrators, and law enforcement officers at a recent daylong Safety Summit presented by the United States Secret Service in collaboration with Lamar Consolidated and Stafford Municipal School Districts. “It really involves everybody using a multidisciplinary approach.”

But figuring out what to look for isn’t straightforward. According to Education Week, there have been 27 school shootings so far this year, resulting in 27 people killed and 56 injured. Three of those shootings took place in Texas, including in Uvalde where a former student entered Robb Elementary School on May 24, fatally shooting 21 students and staff and injuring another 16.

In the weeks since, districts have been taking a closer look at their emergency operations plans and complying with state-mandated security initiatives, including exterior door safety audits, mandatory drills, and the required training of staff and substitutes.

“With the tragic events of not just Uvalde but all those before them, we are in a time where schools have become a target for threat. This is unacceptable,” said Lamar CISD Superintendent Roosevelt Nivens. “As district leaders, it’s our responsibility to ensure that everyone in our buildings — students and staff — do in fact, make it home.”

In planning the summit, Nivens and Stafford MISD Superintendent Robert Bostick turned to the Secret Service because of its expertise in threat assessment and the prevention of targeted violence. The agency also oversees the National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC), which was created in 1998 to provide guidance and training on threat assessment to not only the Secret Service but also others with public safety responsibilities, including schools.

“Every day thousands of parents entrust us with their children, and our students often spend more time in our care than they do at home,” said Bostick. “Our campuses and classrooms should remain places for thinking, learning, and fun.”

He noted the latest shooting statistics tracked by Education Week and urged a collaborative approach to prevention. “We’re only halfway through the year,” he said. “Enough is enough.”

Key findings

Domingues and Natalie Vineyard, both research specialists with the NTAC, offered participants at the summit 10 key findings about school violence based on an in-depth analysis of 41 incidents at K-12 schools from 2008 to 2017. 

These research results were first published in Protecting America’s Schools: A U.S. Secret Service Analysis of Targeted School Violence:

  1. There is no profile of a student attacker, nor is there a profile for the type of school. (Attackers varied in age, gender, race, grade level, academic performance, and social characteristics.)
  2. Attackers usually had multiple motives, the most common involving a grievance with classmates.
  3. Most attackers used firearms, and firearms were most often acquired from the home.
  4. Most attackers had experienced psychological, behavioral, or developmental symptoms.
  5. Half of the attackers had an interest in violent topics.
  6. All attackers experienced social stressors involving their relationships with peers and/or romantic partners.
  7. Nearly every attacker experienced negative home life factors.
  8. Most attackers were victims of bullying, which was often observed by others.
  9. Most attackers had a history of school disciplinary actions, and many had prior contact with law enforcement.
  10. All attackers exhibited concerning behaviors. Most elicited concern from others, and most communicated their intent to attack.

Although each of the key findings has implications for school violence prevention efforts, Domingues and Vineyard emphasized the importance of using them as part of a multidisciplinary approach to threat assessment.

Other highlights from the NTAC research include the finding that April tends to be the most popular month for attacks, though attacks were documented in all months except July. The researchers also noted that attacks most typically occurred after a break in attendance, such as a disciplinary suspension.

“Removing students from campus is not always the most effective means to prevent targeted attacks or violence,” Vineyard said.

Building a threat assessment program

Behavioral threat assessment is nothing new for Texas school districts. Since 2019, the state has required districts to have access to Safe and Supportive School Teams to conduct behavioral threat assessments (pdf).

And the Texas School Safety Center provides model policies and procedures (pdf) to help districts establish and train those teams. If districts follow the eight recommended steps to building a threat assessment program outlined by the Texas School Safety Center, they are essentially following the same procedures recommended by the NTAC in their Guide for Preventing Targeted School Violence (pdf).

Those steps include:

  1. Establish a multidisciplinary threat assessment team.
  2. Define concerning and prohibited behaviors.
  3. Create a central reporting mechanism.
  4. Determine the threshold for law enforcement intervention.
  5. Establish assessment procedures that explore important themes such as motive, weapon access, stressors, and inappropriate interests.
  6. Develop risk management options.
  7. Create and promote safe school climates.
  8. Conduct training for all stakeholders.

Stafford MISD Board President Manuel Hinojosa said the goal of the event, which was organized in late May, was to encourage more conversations among administrators and trustees around the importance of identifying early warning signs as the first step to preventing violence. Physical security measures won’t solve the problem alone, he said.

“it’s not one-size-fits-all,” Hinojosa said. “It has to be a more holistic, comprehensive approach.”

Among the hundreds of participants at the summit was Lubbock ISD Police Chief Ray Mendoza, who said he found the event informative, especially the case studies that were presented by the researchers from NTAC.

“Learning what was done right and avoiding some of the mistakes that were made is what really resonated with me,” he said. “I plan to share those stories with my team so that we can better understand what to look out for when we do our threat assessments.”

Related: TASB School Safety Services resources

This article was first published on August 2, 2022.

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