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Learning to Head Off Violence

Applying its experience in assessing threats, the U.S. Secret Service helped the U.S. Department of Education develop a manual and training program for school staff and community members. The manual, designed to head off violence in schools, encourages schools to adopt a team approach to preventing violence and to start with this question: Does the student pose a threat? Included: Links to information about threat assessment training sessions.

The U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Secret Service teamed up to create a threat assessment manual and training program designed to help school and law enforcement officials identify, assess, and manage students who might pose a risk of violence in school. The manual, Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates, was prepared by the Safe School Initiative, a collaboration of the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Secret Service, through the National Threat Assessment Center.

Both the manual and training sessions are based on a study documented in The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States, which revealed that most attackers display recognizable pre-attack behavior. The study, which analyzed incidents related to 41 attacks in schools between 1974 and 2000, relied on the same type of information and methodology as an earlier Secret Service assessment of those who carried out or attempted lethal attacks on public or prominent figures.

The threat assessment manual takes the findings of the Safe School study one step further, according to special agent Marc Connolly, a spokesman for the Secret Service. "The ideas in the guide are offered as suggestions. Our expertise is in threat assessment; the Secret Service is in the prevention business. We are taking that expertise and applying it to schools," Connolly says.

GUIDELINES TO PREVENTING VIOLENCE

The manual's threat assessment process is based on six underlying principles:
  • The central question in a threat assessment inquiry or investigation is whether a student poses a threat, not whether the student has made a threat.
  • Targeted violence is the result of an understandable, and often discernible, process of thinking and behavior.
  • An "integrated systems approach" should guide threat assessment inquiries and investigations.
  • An investigative, skeptical, and probing mindset is critical to successful threat assessment.
  • Effective threat assessment is based on facts, rather than on characteristics or traits.
  • Targeted violence stems from an interaction among the individual, the situation, the setting, and the target.

One educator who attended a pilot training session said the approach and the information were helpful. "The idea is to build an educational team and have everyone involved -- school personnel, social workers, and juvenile authorities," said Bill Bond, principal in residence for school safety for the National Association of Secondary Principals. In 2002, Bond was on leave from his job as principal of Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky, where a student shot eight students in 1997, killing three.

Another administrator, Dr. David Larson, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said that although he applauds the release of a manual, to have a real effect, more training sessions are needed. "If they want the sessions to have an impact, they need to have them in each state," Larson told Education World. Officials in Connecticut have been working to develop a team approach to violence prevention.

MORE TRAINING NEEDED

One aspect of the training that was particularly helpful, according to Bond, was a role-playing segment in which participants watched presenters act out potentially problematic situations and teams proposed possible solutions. "This gives you a few more techniques," he noted. "You could see how situations develop and how to approach the problem." Participants also received guidance on such issues as when to involve law enforcement personnel and/or social workers in a situation. "The training attempts to help [people] identify a problem before it becomes a law enforcement issue," Bond added.

One reason for the training sessions is to raise awareness of students' potential for violence, according to Bond. In the case of the shooting at Heath High School, for example, other students had heard the boy charged with the shooting make threats before the incident but didn't take him seriously. "One person might not solve a situation, but when everyone gets together, you can solve a situation," Bond said.

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