It’s the nightmare we keep reliving … and the worst part is it’s real.
It happened again May 24, 2022, when an 18-year-old gunman charged into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, killing 19 students and two teachers and wounding 17 others after shooting his grandmother in the face at home earlier in the day and severely wounding her. The gunman inflicted his carnage with an AR-15 style rifle, gaining access to the school through an unlocked side door.
The reaction from the New Jersey School Boards Association was swift, with President Irene LeFebvre and then-Executive Director Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod issuing a joint statement expressing their condolences. They noted, “We can’t help but observe that we are not yet halfway through the year, and we’ve already witnessed 27 shootings on school property when class is in session or during a school sponsored event, according to Education Week.”
While threats will always exist, administrators, school board members and other stakeholders can take steps to identify and eradicate as many of them as possible. One way is to form a threat assessment team.
In New Jersey, forming these teams have become a priority with the passage of A-4075 and its companion bill in the Senate, S-2765, which go into effect for the 2023-2024 school year.
The new law states, “The board of education of each school district and the board of trustees of each charter school or renaissance school project shall develop and adopt a policy for the establishment of a threat assessment team at each school. The purpose of a threat assessment team shall be to provide 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.”
When he signed the bill Aug. 1, 2022, Gov. Phil Murphy said, “Keeping public spaces safe from any form of violence or harmful activities, especially in our schools, is of the utmost importance to me and this administration. It is my hope that these threat assessment teams will help students and school employees feel safe and out of harm’s way when they are at school, and for students who are considered to be a threat to receive the much-needed help they need at such a crucial time in their lives.”
Pursuant to the law, the New Jersey Department of Education has been in touch with law enforcement agencies and the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, to develop guidelines for school districts, charter schools and renaissance school projects regarding the establishment and training of threat assessment teams. A series of one-day virtual training sessions was held in August, and more are planned. The NJDOE course is geared for district administrators, teaching staff, school safety specialists, school psychologists, school counselors, school social workers, mental health professionals, school resources officers, local law enforcement and other school personnel.
Creating a Team Dr. Marisa Randazzo, executive director of threat management, Ontic, which provides vision and strategies to make the practice of threat assessment and threat management easier to understand and easier to use, was the chief research psychologist for the U.S. Secret Service when the Columbine school shooting occurred in 1999. Her organization regularly provides training to schools, including through the NJDOE.
In her role with the Secret Service, she leveraged the agency’s research and data to help schools determine how to prevent shootings. “What we learned is that school shooters typically follow a progression of behavior that lets us know that they are planning a violent event,” she said. “There are ways to see this coming and ways to help get them off that pathway to violence.”
It’s essential for school districts to establish threat assessment teams – and school boards play a pivotal role in that mission, Randazzo said.
“Board members and school boards play such a critical role in the oversight aspect of this,” she said.
The law in New Jersey specifies that each school shall have a threat assessment team. Randazzo has also seen some schools form an advisory team at the district level to lend help when a school is facing a tough case, she said. That overarching team can ensure that teams at various schools are following the same process. “From a board standpoint, you want to make sure the process is a defensible process – and that you have the best resources and a standardization of processes across schools,” she said.
School boards can also help schools by supporting high-quality training, she said. “Unfortunately, security in K-12 is big business,” she said. “Lots of people are more than happy to sell you high-priced services, and they may not necessarily be qualified in this field.”
Jeff Gale, director of the Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning at the New Jersey Department of Education, echoed those same sentiments when he spoke at the New Jersey School Boards Association’s semiannual Delegate Assembly on Nov. 19, 2022.
“Please understand that where we are in New Jersey is far ahead of most states,” he said. “Our expertise is being sought around the country and the things we are doing here are modeled by other states. Please don’t make a phone call somewhere else without seeing what we can do first.” (You can reach Gale via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and by phone at 609-376-3588)
It’s important to remember threat assessment is meant to be a support-focused process, Randazzo said. “We know the fastest way to get someone off the path of violence is to figure out what the underlying drivers are, and what is causing them to resort to violence in the first place,” she said.
Those reasons can vary, including some type of trauma that school staff may not have realized a student was dealing with – or they may be facing a situation that may seem overwhelming to them and they see no way out. In some cases, a threat of violence is a student’s way of crying out for help, she said.
Despite the prevalence of school violence, nationally, many schools do not have threat assessment teams in place, Randazzo said.
Virginia was the first state to enact a law requiring colleges and universities to create threat assessment teams in 2009, which it expanded to K-12 schools in 2011. Incidentally, it is the state that suffered the deadliest school shooting in the U.S.: On April 16, 2007, a student killed 32 students and faculty members in two separate attacks on the Virginia Tech campus before killing himself.
Hamilton Township School District in Mercer County is among the districts that is gathering as much information as it can so it can comply with the law to form a threat assessment team.
“We have a school safety committee, and we do meet as required by law to address school safety functions,” said Dr. Scott Rocco, the district’s superintendent. “It has similarities to a threat assessment team.”
While the legislation requiring forming a threat assessment team is something additional the district will need to do, Rocco supports it if it will promote consistency in preventing and responding to emergencies, he said.
After the mandate was announced, the district began to provide information to key staff and began to identify potential team members.
One of the biggest challenges Rocco sees is how students are continuing to struggle with their mental health. He hopes that schools will get more time to spend COVID-19 relief funds to address that issue.
“I don’t think the issues we are seeing related to students returning to school after the pandemic, which have manifested in a variety of different ways – including mental health challenges – are going to go away after two or three years,” he said. “I think we need to spread this money out over five years or so.”
Core Competencies While a threat assessment team does not have to follow a cookie-cutter format, there are people with core competencies that you’ll want on any team. The law in New Jersey specifies that a board of education or board of trustees in each district shall include the following members:
- 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.
- The designated school safety specialist.
“No one better understands the vulnerabilities of New Jersey’s school communities than those who work there every day, including our teachers, administrators, school counselors, school safety specialists and resource officers,” said Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan, acting commissioner of education, in a news release announcing the signed legislation. “Creating comprehensive threat assessment teams, comprised of these individuals, ensures increased awareness of at-risk behaviors and informs strategic intervention for those behaviors that may pose a safety risk. The establishment of threat assessment teams will result in safer school environments.”
By including people with different areas of expertise and different perspectives, schools can eliminate inherent bias, Randazzo said.
Dr. Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, director of policy and advocacy at the National Association of School Psychologists, said, “It is imperative that teams have the proper training, which should include discussions about how implicit and explicit bias can impact our interpretation of student behavior and strategies to mitigate biased decision making. This should include antiracism and antibias training. In addition, it is imperative that the teams adopt an evidence based, systematic process that both provides clear parameters on when a student should be referred to a behavioral threat assessment and management team and an objective process for evaluating the threatening behavior. I think this also speaks to the importance of having a multidisciplinary team making these decisions. This ensures a diverse set of perspectives, skillsets, expertise and experiences are involved in the process.”
It is also important to ensure that this kind of training and reflection is an ongoing event, Vaillancourt Strobach said. “Teams need to periodically examine the practices and the decisions they made as well as the outcomes of the students involved. If at any point disproportionality is apparent, steps must be taken to update the process and/or improve the type of training the school team has.”
Rocco noted that the community is usually reaching out to the district versus the district “looking for concerns.” He added, “I think you look at your data and analyze that – look for patterns and see if you have any concerns. But most of the time, we are getting information that is coming from the outside.”
Working with Local Law Enforcement Rocco noted how important it is to have a great working relationship with law enforcement, which includes having each other’s cell phone numbers to touch base and to share information. “When the shooting in Uvalde happened, I received calls from local police and the county prosecutor to talk about school security,” he said. “That line of communication is vital.”
New Jersey school districts must have a memorandum of agreement in place between law enforcement and education officials. The MOA provides a framework for interaction between the two entities and has proved invaluable in mandating regular and ongoing discussions between school administrators and law enforcement.
Next Steps After Forming a Team After creating a threat assessment team, it’s important for the team to meet regularly, Randazzo said. “My recommendation is to get the team together weekly or every other week whether you have a case to discuss or not, in part because this is a team that will be handling some high-stakes situations,” she said. “You want to make sure you know each other well.” At the very least, the members of the team should check in with each other to talk about what they are seeing and to walk through hypothetical scenarios to keep everyone sharp, she said.
It’s also important to keep the team focused on behavior – not facilities or some other tangent that may involve school safety. “It is beyond the scope of training for the team to look at physical security,” Randazzo said, noting that some other team or group of professionals can focus on that aspect.
However, that being said, often a team may identify a problem area that should be flagged for the superintendent, Randazzo said. “It’s very important that you don’t have mission creep – a threat assessment team really should focus on troubling behavior,” she said.
When you hear of a threat, you must look at the entire picture, she said. For instance, a student may have a 504 plan or an individualized education program, which may determine how you respond. The behavior may already be known and being managed effectively, she said.
It’s also important not to focus only on students: A district could learn about concerning behavior from current or former employees or a domestic violence threat to an employee could impact the safety of everyone.
From the moment a school gets its first report about concerning behavior, it must seek to understand what is going on, which means gathering information, analyzing it and asking questions to determine how to respond, she said.
Social media can be incredibly informative when a school is trying to evaluate a threat, Randazzo said. Some districts regularly “crawl” social networks, but that can be time consuming. The important thing is to leverage it as an information gathering tool when you have a concern.
“If people have talked to you and have shared their concerns about someone, ask if they are connected to them on social media, and if they see anything troubling, if they can share screenshots,” she said. “Prior to most attacks, those planning violence often tell others beforehand or do so through social media.”
It’s also important to avoid some common mistakes, which are usually made as a result of a district not knowing any better – not out of ill intent, Vaillancourt Strobach said. They include:
- Not having a multidisciplinary team, but rather having one or two people manage the process. New Jersey’s statute wisely requires a multidisciplinary approach.
- Not providing proper training to the team and to the entire school community about what threat assessment is, what it is not and when it is appropriate to make a referral.
- Not providing regular training, which can be especially problematic if there is staff turnover and a new person becomes a member of the team.
- It is imperative that a school mental health professional, such as a school psychologist, be a member of the team. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.
On this last point, Vaillancourt Strobach noted that school psychologists are an underutilized resource at many schools – often relegated to special education evaluations. “These professionals have specific expertise in student mental health, crisis prevention and intervention and threat assessment and should be involved in both the development and implementation of programs and processes that deal with student mental and behavioral health,” she said. “This is true for schoolwide processes and individual student-level interventions.”
Following Through The signs of when a case should be referred to someone outside the school for professional help vary based on the student and what supports are in place or not in place, Vaillancourt Strobach said.
“There are a lot of services that can be provided to students in school, but if little improvement is made in regard to their mental and behavioral health, a referral to a community provider may be warranted,” she said. “In general, signs that a student may be struggling with mental health concerns include marked changes in their behavior, change in peer group, or isolation from peers; self-injurious behavior (e.g., cutting); and suicidal ideation.” She added, “Having the full complement of school mental health professionals at school ensures that whenever a parent, teacher, or peer has a concern, the student can be seen by a mental health professional quickly and they can help determine the level of need and develop an appropriate intervention plan for the student.”
Once the threat assessment team refers a case to law enforcement or gets professional counselors involved, their work is not done. “If they think a person is on the pathway to violence or a risk to themselves or others you can’t say, ‘Call this number,’ and then have no more involvement,” Randazzo said.
The threat assessment team must always check in to see if an intervention is working, and if not, whether there is anything else it can do.
“School boards should make sure the threat assessment team is following the whole process, including getting that update,” Randazzo said.
A board also may be able to enlist help by connecting the school with local mental health resources. For instance, perhaps a provider can provide support via reduced-fee sessions or by offering one free session, she said.
It’s important for everyone in a district to know they can bring their concerns to the team. “If you are worried about your own safety because of someone’s behavior or someone else’s safety, this is the place to bring that concern,” Randazzo said.
Parents also need to understand that if their child is involved in a fact-finding process, the objective is to get them help, if needed. “Boards can help parents understand that this is a health-focused, safety-focused and fact-finding process,” she said.
There are a variety of online resources that can help school districts create and manage a threat assessment team. Here are some of them.
The New Jersey Department of Education offers resources on how schools and law enforcement can work together on threat assessment and more at www.state.nj.us/education/students/safety/behavior/law.
The National Center for School Safety published “A Quick Guide to Information Sharing During Threat Reporting & Assessment.” Download the guide.
The National Association of School Psychologists offers an array of fact sheets and reports on school threat assessment, including “Behavioral Threat Assessment and Management Best Practice Considerations for K–12 Schools.” You can also find “Protecting Students’ Rights in a BTAM Process,” available here.
NASP also offers PREPaRE training. Learn more.
You can read a 2021 report published by the Secret Service titled “Averting School Violence: A U.S. Secret Service Analysis of Plots against Schools.”