Can researchers show that threat assessment stops mass shootings?
In 2019, Texas passed a law that requires every school district and open-enrollment charter school in the state to assemble a team to conduct “behavioral threat assessments.” According to the website of the Texas School Safety Center, a research center behind the program, “behavioral threat assessment provides a proactive, evidence-based approach to identifying individuals who may pose a threat and to provide interventions before a violent incident occurs”. Threat assessment teams are often made up of school administrators, mental health professionals, and law enforcement officers, and they aim to distinguish transient threats from emergencies. They often conclude that young people who make threats can also benefit from support.
The 18-year-old suspected of shooting 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, showed warning signs that could have appeared during a threat assessment . According to news reports and statements from peers, he fought with his mother and colleagues. He stopped going to school. He cut his face with knives. He pushed cars and shot strangers with a BB gun. On social media, he shared a wish list of weapons and then a photo of two guns. “On closer inspection, it’s a textbook,” one of his former classmates told The Associated Press. “It could have been avoided. It should have been avoided. (A proven way to prevent mass shootings is to restrict guns, but Republicans in Congress won’t do that.)
The Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District, home to Robb Elementary School and the high school attended by the alleged shooter, did not respond to email questions about whether a threat assessment had been completed. made before the shooting or on the details of Uvalde’s threat. -evaluation team or approach. The Texas School Safety Center said it was “not aware of this information”. But the district’s website mentions the threat assessments in a list of “preventive security measures,” which also includes police, security personnel and alarms. “Each campus employs an interdisciplinary team of trained professionals who come together to identify, assess, categorize and address threats or potential threats to school security,” the listing reads.
Threat assessments are now required in schools in eighteen US states, and a recent book by journalist Mark Follman, “Trigger Points,” concludes that it is a promising tool. But studying the effectiveness of these types of strategies “is really, really difficult,” J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist and co-editor of the International Handbook of Threat Assessment, told me. There is no reliable way to count shootings that were averted, since, by definition, they did not occur. The nature of threat assessments also varies from place to place.
“Schools in Texas are required by law to have threat assessment teams, but that doesn’t mean they all operate at the same level,” Dewey Cornell, forensic clinical psychologist and professor of education at the University of Virginia, author of the threat. assessment guidelines, I was told in a recent email. “Threat assessment cannot prevent all violence and can only work when someone reports a problem. They are not a panacea.
So what are threat assessments good for? I called Cornell because he is one of the few researchers to have conducted rigorous scientific studies of the impact of threat assessment and management, or TAM, as the practice is often known. Threat assessments are not a prediction of individual incidents, Cornell told me; they are an attempt to reduce risk on a large scale. “We’re not trying to predict violence, we’re trying to prevent violence,” he said. (Of course, one could say that some prediction is involved, as some individuals are thought to be more likely than others to commit an attack.) He thinks TAM reduces the risk of school shootings, but proving this is the case is difficult enough for Cornell to focuses on related questions: can such a practice help struggling students get guidance, stay in school, and avoid suspensions and expulsions?
The responses were encouraging and suggest that “threat assessment and management” might be more constructive, and perhaps more broadly beneficial, than its name suggests. Essentially, it is a structured process for getting help to people who need it. “Threat assessment and management is not an adversarial process and is most effective when not framed or approached as adversarial,” the Texas School Safety Center states on its website. “Many people of concern seek to have their grievances heard and understood.” Researchers have yet to verify that threat assessment consistently curbs school shootings, but they have documented its potential to make schools more hospitable and supportive.
According to Meloy, the field of threat assessment emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, when law enforcement and some mental health professionals identified commonalities in their efforts to prevent harassment, violence in work, mass murders and assassinations of public figures. Cornell first became interested in threat assessment in 1999, the year of the Columbine shootings, when he attended an FBI conference on school shootings; in the spring of 2001, he obtained a grant to develop recommendations for schools. During the same period, US Attorney General Janet Reno wrote that threat assessment should be used “judiciously” in schools, “because the risk of unfairly labeling and stigmatizing children is tall”. The Cornell team wrote the threat assessment guidelines for Virginia students, formed teams to field test them in thirty-five schools, and updated the recommendations in a manual titled “Comprehensive Assessment Guidelines threats at school.
If forensic psychologists have the power to stop violent acts such as terrorism, assassination and mass killings, scientists should be able to study their methods, just as they measure the effectiveness of a drug or a policy. public. The gold standard for such studies is a randomized controlled trial, in which a randomly assigned test group receives an intervention and a control group does not. But only one such trial has ever tested threat assessment, according to researchers I spoke to. Cornell co-published the study in Journal of School Psychologyin 2012, with psychologist Korrie Allen and education researcher Xitao Fan.
One of the main difficulties in studying school shootings is that, although they occur with appalling frequency in the United States, they remain statistically rare. On average, a few dozen school shootings cause injuries in American schools each year, but they are spread across more than one hundred and thirty thousand schools. A study would require a huge control group, perhaps five thousand schools, for control to include about one incident. A second obstacle to a randomized controlled trial is that once you begin to suspect that threat assessments help the test group, it becomes unethical to deny them to the control group.
“We knew from the start of our project that school shootings were rare, so we never expected to show that there were more shootings in the control group than in the threat assessment group” , Cornell told me. Instead, the authors focused on the school’s response to the student and the proxies that might affect the risk of a shooting. Counseling could reduce violence, while suspensions and expulsions can ostracize students or cause anger and resentment, which could increase violence. Unexpectedly, the school district’s own constraints helped address the ethical issue: the district in Virginia wanted to train forty schools to use the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines, but could only manage twenty per year. So Cornell asked permission to randomly sort the schools into a control group and a test group. “The moon and the stars must align to do threat assessment research,” he told me. “The RCT was very lucky.”
The Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines are a decision tree designed for at least three people: a school administrator, a law enforcement officer, and a mental health professional. If a student threatens violence, a team member interviews them first to help them decide if the threat is temporary – a joke, a figure of speech, a momentary outburst. If so, the team seeks a solution such as an apology, counseling or a minor punishment. Otherwise, the team classifies it as “serious” or “very serious”. From there, the team moves to protect the target from the threat and generates a written security plan, which may include mental health care or a law enforcement response.
The randomized controlled trial was unique but flawed. The researchers didn’t have the access or the resources to “sit there with a clipboard in the school and wait for a threat assessment,” Cornell told me. “It’s a fantasy that couldn’t be realized.” Instead, they asked directors to report data, and some were too overwhelmed to share all the relevant details. The small size of the study was also a barrier. Over the course of a year, the Cornell team documented a total of two hundred and one students who made threats in the forty schools they observed. Only seven were executed – “too few. . . to conduct meaningful analyses,” the researchers wrote.
But, in schools that received the threat assessment training, students who made threats were four times more likely to receive mental health counselling, a third more likely to receive a long-term suspension, and a eighth most likely to transfer elsewhere. Their parents were more than twice as likely to attend a conference. (The study controlled for student demographics and threat severity.) Ultimately, the study identified a distinct rationale for TAM
Cornell described threat assessment as an antidote to zero-tolerance policies that mete out harsh penalties. A study, led by a health policy researcher and a health economist, found that students were much more likely to break the law when suspended from school than when they were in school. school, or weekends or vacations. “The classic story is the kid who said ‘pow-pow’ with his finger and got hung up, or chewed up his gun-shaped Pop-Tart and got hung up,” Cornell said. In one extreme case, a six-year-old child was sentenced to forty-five days in a correctional school for bringing a Cub Scout camping implement, which included a knife, to school. In Cornell’s view, the TAM affects not only the risk of a shooting, but also “the many students who are in distress and could be helped, and the many students who made a threat that was not serious and who subject to excessive penalties”.