All threats are NOT created equal. However, all threats should be accessed in a timely manner and decisions regarding how they are handled must be done quickly.
In today's climate, some schools tend to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to any mention of violence. The response to every threat is the same, regardless of its credibility or the likelihood that it will be carried out. In the shock-wave of recent school shootings, this reaction may be understandable, but it is exaggerated -- and perhaps dangerous, leading to potential underestimation of serious threats, overreaction to less serious ones, and unfairly punishing or stigmatizing students who are in fact not dangerous. A school that treats all threats as equal falls into the fallacy formulated by Abraham Maslow: "If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail." Every problem is not a nail, of course, and schools must recognize that every threat does not represent the same danger or require the same level of response.
Some threats can herald a clear and present danger of a tragedy on the scale of Columbine
High School. Others represent little or no real threat to anyone's safety. Neither should be ignored, but reacting to both in the same manner is ineffective and self-defeating. In every school, an established threat assessment procedure managed by properly trained staff can help school administrators and other school staff distinguish between different levels of threats and choose different appropriate responses.
Threat assessment seeks to make an informed judgment on two questions: how credible
and serious is the threat itself? And to what extent does the threatener appear to have the
resources, intent, and motivation to carry out the threat?
A systematic approach to threat assessment should be part of the nationwide approach advocated by Attorney General Janet Reno and Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley in a 1998 letter to principals and teachers, calling for "an overall effort to make sure that every school in the Nation has a comprehensive violence prevention plan in place." Their letter, which introduced the joint Justice and Education Department publication "Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools," added this cautionary advice: "We also caution you to recognize that over labeling and using this guide to stigmatize children in a cursory way that leads to overreaction is harmful."
The NCAVC threat assessment-intervention model presented in this paper can be used by educators, law enforcement officers, mental health professionals, and others involved in school safety. It outlines a methodical procedure for evaluating a threat and the person making the threat, with the aim of reaching an informed judgment on the danger that a violent act will actually be carried out. To use the model effectively, those making the assessments should have appropriate training.
What is a Threat?
A threat is an expression of intent to do harm or act out violently against someone or something. A threat can be spoken, written, or symbolic -- for example, motioning with one's hands as though shooting at another person.
Threat assessment rests on two critical principles: first, that all threats and all threateners
are not equal; second, that most threateners are unlikely to carry out their threat. However, all threats must be taken seriously and evaluated.
In NCAVC's experience, most threats are made anonymously or under a false name.
Because threat assessment relies heavily on evaluating the threatener's background, personality, lifestyle, and resources, identifying the threatener is necessary for an informed assessment to be made -- and also so criminal charges can be brought if the threat is serious enough to warrant prosecution. If the threatener's identity cannot be determined, the response will have to be based on an assessment of the threat alone. That assessment may change if the threatener is eventually identified: a threat that was considered low risk may be rated as more serious if new information suggests the threatener is dangerous, or conversely, an assessment of high risk may be scaled down if the threatener is identified and found not to have the intent, ability, means, or motive to carry out the threat.
Threats are made for a variety of reasons. A threat may be a warning signal, a reaction to fear of punishment or some other anxiety, or a demand for attention. It may be intended to taunt; to intimidate; to assert power or control; to punish; to manipulate or coerce; to frighten; to terrorize; to compel someone to do something; to strike back for an injury, injustice or slight; to disrupt someone's or some institution's life; to test authority, or to protect oneself. The emotions that underlie a threat can be love; hate; fear; rage; or desire for attention, revenge, excitement, or recognition.
Motivation can never be known with complete certainty, but to the extent possible, understanding motive is a key element in evaluating a threat. A threat will reflect the threatener's mental and emotional state at the time the threat was made, but it is important to remember that a state of mind can be temporarily but strongly influenced by alcohol or drugs, or a precipitating incident such as a romantic breakup, failing grades, or conflict with a parent. After a person has absorbed an emotional setback and calmed down, or when the effects of alcohol or drugs have worn off, his motivation to act on a violent threat may also have diminished.
In general, people do not switch instantly from nonviolence to violence. Nonviolent people do not "snap" or decide on the spur of the moment to meet a problem by using violence. Instead, the path toward violence is an evolutionary one, with signposts along the way. A threat is one observable behavior; others may be brooding about frustration or disappointment, fantasies of destruction or revenge, in conversations, writings, drawings, and other actions.
Types of Threats
Threats can be classed in four categories: direct, indirect, veiled, or conditional.
A direct threat identifies a specific act against a specific target and is delivered in a
straightforward, clear, and explicit manner: "I am going to place a bomb in the school's gym."
An indirect threat tends to be vague, unclear, and ambiguous. The plan, the intended
victim, the motivation, and other aspects of the threat are masked or equivocal: "If I wanted to, I could kill everyone at this school!" While violence is implied, the threat is phrased tentatively -- "If I wanted to" -- and suggests that a violent act COULD occur, not that it WILL occur.
A veiled threat is one that strongly implies but does not explicitly threaten violence. "We
would be better off without you around anymore" clearly hints at a possible violent act, but leaves it to the potential victim to interpret the message and give a definite meaning to the threat.
A conditional threat is the type of threat often seen in extortion cases. It warns that a violent act will happen unless certain demands or terms are met: "If you don't pay me one million dollars, I will place a bomb in the school."
Factors in Threat Assessment
Specific, plausible details are a critical factor in evaluating a threat. Details can include the identity of the victim or victims; the reason for making the threat; the means, weapon, and method by which it is to be carried out; the date, time, and place where the threatenedact will occur; and concrete information about plans or preparations that have already been made.
Specific details can indicate that substantial thought, planning, and preparatory steps have already been taken, suggesting a higher risk that the threatener will follow through on his threat. Similarly, a lack of detail suggests the threatener may not have thought through all of the contingencies, has not actually taken steps to carry out the threat, and may not seriously intendviolence but is "blowing off steam" over some frustration or seeking to frighten or intimidate a particular victim or disrupt a school's events or routine.
Details that are specific but not logical or plausible may indicate a less serious threat. For example, a high school student writes that he intends to detonate hundreds of pounds of plutonium in the school's auditorium the following day at lunch time. The threat is detailed, stating a specific time, place, and weapon. But the details are unpersuasive. Plutonium is almost impossible to obtain, legally or on the black market. It is expensive, hard to transport, and very dangerous to handle, and a complex high explosive detonation is required to set off a nuclear reaction. No high school student is likely to have any plutonium at all, much less hundreds of pounds, nor would he have the knowledge or complex equipment to detonate it. A threat this unrealistic is obviously unlikely to be carried out.
The emotional content of a threat can be an important clue to the threatener's mental state. Emotions are conveyed by melodramatic words and unusual punctuation -- "I hate you!!!!!" "You have ruined my life!!!!" "May God have mercy on your soul!!!!" -- or in excited, incoherent passages that may refer to God or other religious beings or deliver an ultimatum.
Though emotionally charged threats can tell the assessor something about the temperament of the threatener, they are not a measure of danger. They may sound frightening, but no correlation has been established between the emotional intensity in a threat and the risk that it will be carried out.
Precipitating stressors are incidents, circumstances, reactions, or situations which can trigger a threat. The precipitating event may seem insignificant and have no direct relevance to the threat, but nonetheless becomes a catalyst. For example, a student has a fight with his mother before going to school. The argument may have been a minor one over an issue that had nothing to do with school, but it sets off an emotional chain reaction leading the student to threaten another student at school that day -- possibly something he has thought about in the past.
The impact of a precipitating event will obviously depend on "pre-disposing factors": underlying personality traits, characteristics, and temperament that predispose an adolescent to fantasize about violence or act violently. Accordingly, information about a temporary "trigger" must be considered together with broader information about these underlying factors, such as a student's vulnerability to loss and depression.
Levels of Risk
Low Level of Threat: A threat which poses a minimal risk to the victim and public safety.
Ø Threat is vague and indirect.
Ø Information contained within the threat is inconsistent, implausible or lacks detail.
Ø Threat lacks realism.
Ø Content of the threat suggests person is unlikely to carry it out.
Medium Level of Threat: A threat which could be carried out, although it may not appear
Ø Threat is more direct and more concrete than a low level threat.
Ø Wording in the threat suggests that the threatener has given some thought to how the act will be carried out.
Ø There may be a general indication of a possible place and time (though these signs still fall well short of a detailed plan).
Ø There is no strong indication that the threatener has taken preparatory steps, although there may be some veiled reference or ambiguous or inconclusive evidence pointing to that possibility -- an allusion to a book or movie that shows the planning of a violent act, or a vague, general statement about the availability of weapons.
Ø There may be a specific statement seeking to convey that the threat is not empty: "I'm serious!" or "I really mean this!"
High Level of Threat: A threat that appears to pose an imminent and serious danger to
the safety of others.
Ø Threat is direct, specific and plausible.
Ø Threat suggests concrete steps have been taken toward carrying it out, for example, statements indicating that the threatener has acquired or practiced with a weapon or has had the victim under surveillance.
Example: "At eight o'clock tomorrow morning, I intend to shoot the principal. That's
when he is in the office by himself. I have a 9mm. Believe me, I know what I am doing. I am sick and tired of the way he runs this school." This threat is direct, specific as to the victim, motivation, weapon, place, and time, and indicates that the threatener knows his target's schedule and has made preparations to act on the threat.
NCAVC's experience in analyzing a wide range of threatening communications suggests that in general, the more direct and detailed a threat is, the more serious the risk of its being acted on. A threat that is assessed as high level will almost always require immediate law enforcement intervention.
In some cases, the distinction between the levels of threat may not be as obvious, and there will be overlap between the categories. Generally, obtaining additional information about, either the threat or the threatener will help in clarifying any confusion. What is important is that schools be able to recognize and act on the most serious threats, and then address all other threats appropriately and in a standardized and timely fashion.