School violence has become too common in our nation’s schools. Incidents of harassment, intimidation, bullying and tragic school shootings occur with disturbing regularity. Reports of these events evoke strong reactions from everyone in the community ranging from anger to helplessness to fear. 

  • After each incident, school officials, parents and community members typically ask questions such as:
  • How can we prevent this?
  • Why did this happen in our community?
  • Is my child truly safe within the walls of the school building?
  • What is the long-term solution to this problem? 

In March 2021, the National Threat Assessment Center, which is part of the U.S. Secret Service, released a report analyzing 67 disrupted plots against schools from 2006-2018. A key finding of the document was that people who contemplate violence typically demonstrate some observable behaviors that, if properly reported and acted upon, could prevent the next tragedy. 

On Aug. 1, 2022, consistent with the above research, and in an effort to implement the practices identified as successful preventative tools, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed P.L. 2022, c.83 into law. The law requires, among other things, New Jersey boards of education and charter school boards of trustees to develop and adopt a policy for the establishment of multidisciplinary “threat assessment teams.” Although the name of the statutorily required team can evoke a negative connotation, the legislative purposes for the teams is clear:

[P]rovide school teachers, administrators, and other staff with assistance in identifying students of concern, assessing those students’ risk for engaging in violence or other harmful activities, and delivering intervention strategies to manage the risk of harm for students who pose a potential safety risk, to prevent targeted violence in the school, and ensure a safe and secure school environment that enhances the learning experience for all members of the school community.

The goal of the legislation, despite the ominous moniker, is the opposite of threatening – it is intended to identify potential safety concerns and to address them before anyone is harmed by providing intervention and support to students before violence occurs. Threat assessment teams are designed to support an individual student who is experiencing stress or challenges, so all students, staff and community members are safe within the school building. 

Team Members Pursuant to the new law, the composition of each threat assessment team must be multidisciplinary and include, to the fullest extent possible: a school psychologist, school counselor, school social worker, or other school employee with expertise in student counseling; a teaching staff member; a school principal or other senior school administrator; a safe schools resource officer or school employee who serves as a school liaison to law enforcement; and the school safety specialist if not already designated as a member by virtue of the other categories of inclusion. If deemed necessary or appropriate by the members of the threat assessment team, other school employees may serve as regular members or may be consulted with during the threat assessment process. 

Policy Development The required components of a board of education and charter school board of trustees’ policy are set forth in the new law. More specifically, the substance of all threat assessment policies must be aligned to the “Guidance on the Establishment of Behavioral Threat Assessment and Management Teams” and must include, but are not limited to, the following information:

  1. guidance for students, teachers and all staff regarding the recognition of threatening or aberrant behavior in a student that may represent a threat to the school community; 
  2. the designation of members of the school community to whom threatening behavior shall be reported; 
  3. the development and implementation of policies concerning the assessment and intervention of students whose behavior poses a threat to the safety of the school community and appropriate actions to be taken, including available social, developmental and law enforcement resources, for students whose behavior is identified as posing a threat to the safety of the school community; 
  4. coordination and consultation with the school safety specialist; and 
  5. a policy that the threat assessment team shall not disclose or disseminate any information obtained during their assessment …, except that the threat assessment team is authorized to disclose the information to applicable agencies … for any student whose behavior is identified as posing a threat to the safety of the school community.

Additionally, in the event the behavior of a student with an individualized education program or 504 plan is deemed to pose a threat to the safety of the school community, the threat assessment team must consult with the student’s IEP or 504 team. 

Training Every member of a board of education and charter school board of trustees’ threat assessment team must also receive mandated training. The training to be provided must be consistent with guidelines developed by the New Jersey Department of Education and include, at a minimum, “training on adverse childhood experiences, childhood trauma, cultural competency, and implicit bias.” In establishing guidelines for training, the NJDOE was required to consult with state law enforcement agencies and the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness. 

According to the department’s guidance, the school safety specialist will assist in ensuring training is provided to school staff in coordination with its Office of School Preparedness & Emergency Planning . Each new threat assessment team member must complete training provided by the OSPEP, which shall include training sessions as instructed by Ontic/SIGMA as part of the Bureau of Justice Assistance STOP School Violence Grant Program. Further, boards of education and charter school trustees must “ensure all threat assessment team members attend the required initial training and refresher training provided by OSPEP to advance their competency in conducting assessments.” Questions regarding this mandated training, requests for training, or technical assistance should be directed to OSPEP.

Beyond training requirements for team members, it is important to note the necessity of training for staff and students as noted in the BTAM Guidance from the NJDOE. The threat assessment model only works if those in the community understand it exists, what the observable behaviors are and who and how to report what has been observed. It is important to note that the intent of the team is not to stigmatize the identified individual, but rather to assess and support. It is imperative fellow students and staff do not feel that reporting is “snitching” on a friend but is done to identify a need and provide access to help and services. The community must be trained to understand that the threat assessment team is not disciplinary in nature, which in theory should lead to increased reporting, which is the driver of prevention here. 

WORDS MATTER “If you want to care for something, you call it a flower. If you want to kill something, you call it a weed.” — Dan Coyhis, founder of White Bison and Wellbriety. 

Understanding that the goal is to support students and not create a label for them within the community at large, which may increase stress, consideration may be given to the name used for these teams. An alternate name, potentially something more supportive in tone, may increase reporting and avoid labeling. Ideas for alternate names can be found in a document posted online by the California Community Colleges Student Mental Health program. 

As the threat assessment team model is widely regarded as a strong school violence prevention tool, ensuring your board of education and charter school board of trustees complies with the requirements of P.L. 2022, c. 83 could help to avert tragedy before it occurs and can ensure students receive the necessary interventions and support. At the heart of these issues is our state’s students, and there will never be enough that we can collectively do to ensure their safety and well-being. 

Kimberly A. Gatti is NJSBA’s director of policy.