By Trevor Fronius and Trent Baskerville of the WestEd Justice & Prevention Research Center (JPRC). The JPRC collaborates with partners in funding, implementing, and evaluating programs that promote positive youth development, physical health and well-being, and prevention of risk behaviors, including violence. The full team for this project includes Sarah Guckenburg, Alexis Stern, and Justine Zimiles.
For educators across the country, protecting students and staff is a pressing priority, and public concern has led to schools adopting a range of prevention and intervention policies and practices aimed at improving school safety. This blog post focuses on a statewide effort underway in Texas focused on school-based behavioral threat assessment aimed at preventing school violence and addressing related issues to improve school safety and student well-being.
Violence in school settings continues to be a concern despite the fact that student victimization—like overall victimization in the United States—has actually declined steadily over the past three decades both in and out of schools. Self-reported victimization rates in school among students ages 12–18 have dropped over 40 percent since 2009, to approximately 30 victimizations per 1,000 students annually as of 2019.
Although schools are generally safe places, threats of violence continue to be a legitimate concern, and national data show that overall victimization rates and violent victimization rates between 2009 and 2019 tended to be higher at school than away from school. Moreover, 80 percent of all public schools reported experiencing one or more incidents of violence, theft, or other crime in the 2017–18 school year. Also, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined incidents of school-associated homicides involving adolescents and reported that even though youth homicides at school represent less than 2 percent of all youth homicides and that single-victim events remained largely steady over a 22-year period (1994 to 2016), multiple-victim incidents increased significantly between 2009 and 2018 (Holland et al., 2019).
To address concerns about safety, schools often default to what are known as “hardening tactics” (e.g., metal detectors, security guards, cameras), despite evidence that school hardening alone does not reduce violence or increase student safety (Gonzalez et al., 2016). And while there is increased use of security measures and law enforcement in schools, schools remain generally underprepared in their efforts to address rare school safety events, such as school shootings. This lack of preparedness generally reflects limitations in schools’ ability to identify and assess threats and subsequently prevent such events from occurring.
Texas ranked fourth in the nation in terms of having a high number of school-based violence incidents and seventh in the number of threats, based on analysis of media reports on violent incidents and threats in schools from the 2017–18 school year. In an effort to address such shortcomings, Texas enacted legislation in 2019 requiring all schools in the state to complete a school-based behavioral threat assessment training and establish district- or school-based behavioral threat assessment teams to identify, assess, and prevent threats to student and school safety.
What is school-based behavioral threat assessment?
In school settings, behavioral threat assessment is a problem-solving approach for violence prevention that involves assessment and intervention with students who have threatened violence, which is an approach that is becoming increasingly used and even mandated in some states (Arundel, 2022). To use this approach, a school typically has a threat assessment team which usually consists of a school administrator, several mental health professionals, and a law enforcement representative (Cornell, 2020). The approach emphasizes resolving interpersonal conflicts and problems before they escalate into violence.
Research highlights the potential of threat assessment as a way to identify school safety issues and prevent threats from being escalated. For instance, in a study by the U.S. Secret Service, 81 percent of the student perpetrators of school shootings had communicated in advance to someone, usually a friend or classmate, that they were thinking about or planned to carry out an attack at school (Vossekuil et al., 2002), and a Federal Bureau of Investigation study also found that students often communicated violent intentions before they carried out school shootings (O’Toole, 2000). These findings support the need for school authorities to focus on more effective identification practices that include behavioral threat assessment in order to prevent violence.
Is school-based behavioral threat assessment effective?
Research on the effectiveness of behavioral threat assessment has been limited to a few studies that are based on the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines manual, which was renamed to the Comprehensive School Threat Assessment Guidelines (CSTAG) manual to recognize its use outside of Virginia (Cornell, 2020). The CSTAG model was designed to provide school-based teams with a systematic approach in which the developmental characteristics of youth and the educational mission of the school were both recognized.
The model uses a five-step decision tree process for conducting threat assessments (see Cornell, 2020):
- Evaluate the threat.
- Attempt to resolve the threat as transient.
- Respond to a substantive threat.
- Conduct a safety evaluation for a very serious substantive threat.
- Implement and monitor the safety plan.
The small number of studies to date on CSTAG implementation have used experimental or quasi-experimental designs to compare schools using CSTAG with schools using an alternative form of threat assessment or none at all, and these studies have found evidence supporting the effectiveness of the CSTAG model (Cornell et al., 2011).
Despite this promising evidence, there is considerable need for additional rigorous studies on the effects of threat assessment and in particular on its impact on students, staff, and the school (Cornell, 2020).
What is being done to learn more about behavioral threat assessment?
WestEd’s Justice and Prevention Research Center and the Texas State School Safety Center have been funded by the National Institute of Justice, starting in 2020, to examine the implementation and impact of the Texas State School Safety Center’s school-based behavioral threat assessment training on local practices and student outcomes.
Over 1,000 school districts across Texas are now legislatively mandated to be trained on behavioral threat assessment and establish a local team to support students. The Texas State School Safety Center and its partners at Sigma Threat Management provided a series of single-day virtual threat assessment trainings over the span of 2019 to 2021, based on a U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education threat assessment model that includes the following components:
- An overview on the prevalence of school violence and facts related to school shootings, including case studies
- Strategies for diverting a student who is on a violent pathway
- The principles of school threat assessment
- The components and steps of school threat assessment programs, including tabletop exercises
- The development of case management plans to reduce risk
- Other strategies for improving school climate and connectedness
The Texas training emphasizes the need for coordination between school personnel, law enforcement, mental health professionals, and other community partners to effectively utilize threat assessment teams to prevent violent acts or intervene appropriately if they occur. This program uses a hands-on approach, giving the participants extensive scenario-based exercises in which to practice the knowledge and skills being introduced.
WestEd is examining how this training has been received by school participants, the process of adopting threat assessment teams and practices locally, and the impact on student outcomes. Specifically, the study will:
- Document the implementation of Texas State School Safety Center behavioral threat assessment training and how participating districts and schools put threat assessment teams into practice.
- Apply rigorous quasi-experimental methods to examine the potential impact of behavioral threat assessment strategies on student outcomes related to behavior, discipline, and academics.
- Conduct a multisite case study with a small number of high-impact schools to enhance knowledge of how school characteristics and threat assessment team dynamics impact outcomes.
The findings from the study will be disseminated over the next three years to a broad range of stakeholders through several platforms (e.g., blogs, briefs, conferences, webinars).
Why is research on this topic important?
School-based behavioral threat assessment has become a widely accepted strategy for assessing, identifying, and ultimately preventing substantive threats within schools. There continue to be shootings and violent incidents and a need to improve school safety for students. This study represents an opportunity to build on the existing knowledge base about school-based behavioral threat assessment and to establish a potential roadmap for states considering their own expansion and for schools that adopt the strategy. The project is the largest study outside of Virginia to date of a school-based behavioral threat assessment model.
Findings on the implementation and impact of this initiative will be shared through future blog posts here and broadly to safety practitioners, policymakers, and the media to support promising and effective school safety strategies and enhance the quality of the preexisting school-based behavioral threat assessment model in Texas and across the United States.
This research project receives support from the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice (Award 2020-MU-MU-0011). This presentation solely reflects the views of the research team at WestEd.
Trevor Fronius is a Senior Research Associate with the WestEd Justice & Prevention Research Center. He works on research and evaluation projects related to criminal and juvenile justice systems, violence prevention, school safety and climate, and other prevention areas.
Trent Baskerville is a Research Assistant with the WestEd Justice & Prevention Research Center. He works on research data analysis, qualitative analysis, and information synthesis in the areas of criminal justice reform, inequality, and violence prevention.
Arundel, K. (2022). New Jersey schools must have threat assessment teams under new state law. https://www.k12dive.com/news/new-jersey-schools-must-have-threat-assessment-teams-under-new-state-law/629314/
Cornell, D. G. (2020). Threat assessment as a school violence prevention strategy. Criminology & Public Policy, 19(1), 235–252.
Cornell, D. G., Gregory, A., & Fan, X. (2011). Reductions in long-term suspensions following adoption of the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines. NASSP Bulletin, 95(3), 175–194.
Gonzalez, J. M. R., Jetelina, K. K., & Jennings, W. G. (2016). Structural school safety measures, SROs, and school-related delinquent behavior and perceptions of safety: A state-of-the-art review. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management.
Holland, K. M., Hall, J. E., Wang, J., Gaylor, E. M., Johnson, L. L., Shelby, D., … & School-Associated Violent Deaths Study Group. (2019). Characteristics of school-associated youth homicides—United States, 1994–2018. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 68(3), 53.
O’Toole, M. E. (2000). The school shooter: A threat assessment perspective. https://aspponline.org/docs/School-Based_Threat_Assessement_Toolkit_2018.pdf
Vossekuil, B., Fein, R. A., Reddy, M., Borum, R., & Modzeleski, W. (2002). The final report and findings of the Safe School Initiative. U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education.