A new FBI report shares the organization's expertise so educators can systematically evaluate student threats. In detailed guidelines, the report provides criteria to help educators determine the level of risk posed by a particular student threat, describes the risk factors in four different contexts that should signal a warning about a student, and suggests interventions. Some educators raise concerns that the guidelines could be used to unfairly profile students. Included: The FBI's list of student traits and school, family, and social dynamics that may signal warnings of potentially violent behavior.
In a Houston school, a gun inside a ninth grader's book bag accidentally went off, injuring a girl. Students who witnessed the shooting contended it was better not to tattle and warn teachers about the gun.
A school climate in which students follow a code of silence is one of numerous factors a new FBI report says educators need to assess when evaluating threats of school violence. The 37-page report The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective explains how educators can determine how serious a threat is to the safety of the students and school staff. In detailed guidelines, the report tells educators how to determine the level of risk posed by a particular threat, lists the risk factors in four different contexts that signal a warning about a student, and suggests interventions.
"We wanted to develop a monograph that would help teachers identify what is a threat, how to evaluate a threat, and the best responses in treating threats of different levels," said Larry G. Ankrom, unit chief of the behavioral unit (west) for the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime.
"We took a multidisciplinary approach," Ankrom told Education World. "We also recognized that [the report] might need more work, particularly with the four-pronged assessment [of personality and behavior traits]."
Ankrom said the report was posted on the FBI's Web site so teachers and school administrators could access it immediately. The report shares with educators the FBI's extensive experience in assessing violent threats over the past two decades. The FBI also based its report on an evaluation of current cases of threats made against schools and an intensive review of 18 school shooting cases, which it began compiling two years ago. The report also includes suggestions made at a weeklong symposium with 160 educators, experts on child behavior and adolescent violence, and law enforcement officials involved with school violence, Ankrom said.
Assessing threats of school violence isn't business as usual, the report warns. Schools should not handle threats the same way they have in the past. The report recommends that law enforcement officials, mental health professionals, and educators receive training in the basic concepts of threat, personality, and risk assessment.
Ankrom said it is prudent for educators to understand that although all threats are not created equal, even low-risk threats require some type of intervention for the student and his or her parents.
The report also cautions what it isn't: It is not a tool for profiling students. That, the report says, doesn't exist in FBI practice. However, the report includes a lengthy list of personality traits and behaviors that are identified as risk factors.
The FBI advises educators that if a student exhibits several risk factors in four different contexts, the student is providing a warning of the likelihood he or she might carry out a violent threat. Those contexts include the personality traits of the student, the family dynamics, school dynamics, and social dynamics. This Four-Pronged Assessment Model should be considered only after a student has made some type of threat, the report advises.
"Although it helps teachers and school administrators keep their antennas up for certain warning signs and problems that may be a problem down the road, what you have looks like a profile," said Dr. Gerald N. Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. "They keep saying it's not a profile, but if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck. It sure does sound like a profile.
"Candidly, there are a number of adolescents who would have many of these signs," Tirozzi told Education World. "I sincerely hope teachers and educators wouldn't use it as a profile."
In order to make best use of the report, Tirozzi recommends, teachers should have ongoing, appropriate professional development, especially since a significant amount of student interaction happens in the classroom.
Although the report does warn educators to guard against unfairly labeling or profiling students, other educators share Tirozzi's concern about potential abuse of the report.
"If schools think they have a laundry list of factors and go on a witch hunt, people will be hurt and identified unfairly," said Dr. Ted Feinberg, assistant executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). But profiling students fits into the culture's desire for quick and easy answers, he said. "What is perceived as a quick fix strategy, [profiling] has the potential for abuse for kids who look the wrong way and are accused wrongly."
Evidence of the quick-fix mentality was the rush to install metal detectors throughout the nation's schools after the Columbine High School tragedy, Feinberg said. "It was absurd that schools thought that metal detectors would insulate them from violence," he remarked.
In addition to describing traits and behaviors that may signal a warning for violent behavior, the report also tells teachers how to gauge the level of risk posed by a particular threat. The report describes three levels of threats: minimal risk to others, medium risk that could be carried out, and high risk that poses an imminent and serious danger to the safety of others.
School officials who treat all threats the same may underestimate serious threats, overreact to less serious ones, and unfairly punish or stigmatize students who are, in fact, not dangerous, according to the report.
Generally, the more specific and detailed the threat, the more dangerous it is. If the student is very specific -- identifying the victim, the time, place, and the weapon -- and also has the ability to carry out the threat, there is a high risk the person making the threat will follow through. Threats that are not plausible carry less risk. However, the key for educators is to take every threat seriously and to evaluate it.
"There may be a number of kids who pose threats, but they don't have the wherewithal, the real intent, or the means to carry out the threat," said Feinberg of the NASP.
Remedying school violence requires more than assessing the potential risk of a threat, said Kevin P. Dwyer, senior adviser, prevention and children's mental health of the National Mental Health Association. "If you use the FBI report alone or even the government's Early Warning Guide: A Timely Response alone, you may not have enough information to know what to do," Dwyer told Education World. Dwyer was a contributing expert for the FBI report and the lead investigator on the Early Warning Guide.
"Schools need to recognize that the student who doesn't pose a major threat doesn't need to be taken out of school in handcuffs or put into the hospital, but that student may still need help," Dwyer said. The same holds for those students who make implausible, bizarre threats. "A student who makes a bizarre threat has a thought disorder that is biologically based, and treatment for that disorder is very complex. You may be able to dismiss the threat, but you need to determine the type of help that child needs."
Part of the answer is to provide more help for children with mental illness or depression or anxiety problems. Only about one out of five children gets help for mental health problems, he said. "I consider this child neglect."
He estimates that though there has been an apparent increase in the number of mental health professionals in the nation's public schools, there still aren't enough to go around. About 31,000 school mental health professionals counsel the nation's 52 million students, he said.
Instead of increasing the number of mental health professionals, most schools added school resource officers, he said. "You can't replace a counselor with a badge."
Dwyer agrees with the FBI report that it takes a team approach to assess a threat. Using the team approach is much better than having only a teacher and a school principal evaluating the student. He also likes the holistic approach that considers the student in several contexts.
Celia Lose, spokesperson for the American Federation of Teachers, agrees. "Although school violence is a rare occurrence, it is still a very serious problem," she said. "The report acknowledges it takes a lot of people to prevent school violence."
Children aren't raised in isolation. They are influenced by their community and the society, said Feinberg of the NASP. "I believe that no one segment of society has created the problem and no one segment is responsible for solving it," he said. "The only chances we have to remedy school violence are the collective energies of family, school, government, and community."
Diane Weaver Dunne
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