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Student Threats of Violence

Dennis Lewis
Date of Post
Sep 27, 2009

Assessing Students Threats of Violence - A School's Responsibility

Hardly a month passes without a student somewhere in the United States being arrested or detained for making a serious threat of violence against individuals at a school. So what is a principal to do when aware of a possible threat of violence made by a student or students?  

First, administrators should be aware that in 2002 the United States Secret Service and Department of Education published two critically important books related to assessing student threats of violence and a summary of those findings are included in this article. There were ten key findings related to student threats and each finding has implications for school personnel. 

  1. Incidents of targeted school violence at school are usually not sudden or impulsive. 
  2. In most incidents, the student made some type of verbal or written threat to others. 
  3. Most attackers did not directly threaten a target individual. 
  4. No accurate "profile" exists. 
  5. Most perpetrators exhibited some type of behavior prior to the incident that indicated a need for help. 
  6. Many attackers had considered or attempted suicide. 
  7. Many of these students believed they had been bullied. 
  8. Access to weapons was readily available.
  9. In most cases, other students were involved.
  10. Most shootings were stopped by someone other than law enforcement.  

If those are the key findings then what are the implications for school administrators? 

Fact:  The attacks were usually the end result of thinking and the development of a plan.  

Administrative Implication:  The time span between the decision to attack and the actual event may be short in duration, so school personnel should act quickly and decisively.  

Fact:  In most cases, other persons knew of the impending attack.

Administrative Implication:  Principals should encourage all students and staff to be a part of the prevention process. This can be done through conflict mediation, character education, and other programs with an anti violence theme.  

Fact:  Most attackers did not threaten their targets directly.

Administrative Implication:  Principals must help others understand the difference between making a threat and posing a threat. Principals should also remember there is a difference between a serious threat and a serious discipline violation.

Fact:  School personnel should not profile students.

Administrative Implication:  Rather than trying to decide whether or not a student is capable of violence, principals should focus on behaviors and communications to help determine if an attack is actually being planned.  

Fact:  School personnel should determine whether or not these students have posed a threat prior to the current incident.

Administrative Implication:  The principal should compile a comprehensive listing of the student’s previous behavioral patterns.  

Fact:  More that ¾ of the school shooters had suicidal thoughts.

Administrative Implication:  The principal should determine whether or not the student has had a recent loss or perceived failure.  

Fact:  Bullying and perceived victimization is often a problem for perpetrators of school violence.

Administrative Implication:  Principals should work with teachers and counselors to develop bullying prevention programs at all grade levels.  

Fact:  Almost 2/3 of the perpetrators had access to weapons.

Administrative Implication:  The principal should communicate to parents that the access to weapons is a critical part of the investigation.  

Fact:  In over ½ of the incidents of school violence other students were involved.

Administrative Implication:  The principal should speak with friends and acquaintances to determine the perpetrator’s thinking and possible preparations for the attack.  

Fact:  Most attacks were stopped by someone other than law enforcement.

Administrative Implication:  Principals should help to develop preventive measures and written protocols for responding to threats of violence. 

For further information on this important topic we would direct you to the Secret Service and Department of Education publications entitled, The Final Report for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States and Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates. Both of these documents can be ordered from the Secret Service at no charge to the school. Both books are well written and easily read – all the while providing invaluable information that all administrators should know.