While governors and state policymakers continue to grapple with ways to prevent acts of school violence — through a variety of approaches, from school security drills and the presence of security personnel to infrastructure improvements — a limited body of research may inhibit effective policymaking.
One of the few reports on school violence emerged as a product of the Safe School Initiative, which tasked the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education with determining why such attacks were carried out and how they could be prevented. Through an examination of targeted school violence from 1974 through 2000, the Safe School Initiative identified the threat assessment model as a promising prevention strategy in its 2002 report and released a threat assessment guide shortly after.
Threat assessments provide a way to quickly and confidentially evaluate a student who might pose a threat to themselves or others. Following the tragic events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the U.S. Secret Service released an updated operational guide to support schools in the implementation of practices tailored to their community.
These resources provide a foundation for understanding the threat assessment process, but implementation poses a challenge. Schools and districts do not necessarily have the built-in capacity or expertise to conduct a thorough assessment that protects the school community without stigmatizing or alienating an individual student.
States have increasingly embraced a threat assessment model as a key tool in preventing school violence. In the 2019 legislative session, Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas and Washington have all enacted legislation requiring the formation of threat assessment teams, while both Florida and Maryland adopted similar provisions in 2018.
To address the need to build school and district capacity to conduct these assessments, states have taken varying approaches. Virginia enacted its school threat assessment legislation in 2013 and has continued to build upon its foundation. Virginia school districts are required to establish school threat assessment teams and oversight committees; and the Virginia Center for School and Campus Safety is tasked with developing a model policy, providing technical assistance and resources for stakeholders, and collaborating with government agencies — including the state police and departments of Education, Criminal Justice Services, and Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.
Washington requires the development of a model policy and has outlined minimum requirements for program implementation, including student identification, the makeup of the threat assessment team and process for evaluating an identified student. To monitor implementation, the superintendent of public instruction must develop data collection and reporting mechanisms and review specific district programs at least once every five years. Texas mandated the development of district-level threat assessment teams trained by the Texas School Safety Center using evidence-based threat assessment protocols.
In Colorado, some school districts have opted to use their school security disbursement funding to establish and train school and district threat assessment teams. As a product of this funding and with support from the Colorado School Safety Resource Center, five local districts teamed up to establish a threat assessment protocol that is used by CSSRC as an example for districts throughout the state.
Some states have incorporated threat assessment protocols into a broader strategy to prevent school violence. The emphasis on district implementation supports local capacity building and allows districts to adjust policies to fit their own context.