Student Threat Assessments: An Introduction

June 11, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

Even one incident of mass violence at a school is one too many. Going by that metric, the United States has had far too many to ignore over the course of the last two decades: from Virginia to Parkland, from Columbine to Newtown. What makes a child or an adolescent turn into a real threat, whether to themselves or to others, is a complex question to answer. But there can be some checks in place to try and prevent the threat from becoming reality.

That’s where the schools themselves can play a role, or at least that’s the philosophy behind creating student threat assessment systems at educational institutions. These assessments are supposed to be a systematic approach to violence prevention, designed to distinguish serious threats from ones that are not.

Serious threats are defined in various ways, and there are signs and actions that schools can look for. Broadly, any behavior or communication in which a person poses a threat of violence is considered a serious threat. Formal threat assessment programs are increasingly gaining traction in schools, the National Institute of Justice says.

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) recommends all school districts develop and implement threat assessment procedures and clearly communicate them to staff and families. One of them is the well-known Comprehensive School Threat Assessment Guidelines (CSTAG) model, which was originally called the “Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines,” developed by Dr. Dewey Cornell and colleagues at the University of Virginia in 2001.

What does the model say, what are some of the warning signs, and has there been research to suggest these programs work? We try and put together answers to these questions in today’s piece.

The CSTAG Model — A Quick Look

After a series of school shootings in the 1990s, officials in law enforcement and education recommended the use of behavioral threat assessments in schools.

“Both the FBI and the Secret Service conducted studies of school shootings and found that these students were often victims of bullying who had become angry and depressed, and were influenced by a variety of social, familial, and psychological factors,” according to a paper on an overview of the CSTAG Model published on the University of Virginia’s website. Unfortunately, these studies concluded that these characteristics can be found in so many students so it is not possible to develop a profile or checklist based on them, to be used to pinpoint the small number of truly violent students among the rest, the paper adds.

While both the FBI and the Secret Service cautioned schools against adopting a profiling approach, they did discover that almost all of the students who attacked their schools had communicated their intentions to carry out violence through threats and warnings to others, typically their peers. Had these threats been reported to authorities and investigated, the shootings might have been prevented. Multiple studies have identified potential school shootings that were prevented because other students reported a threat to authorities that was then investigated and determined to be serious, according to the paper.

The CSTAG Model integrates recommendations from FBI and Secret Service studies of school shootings with practical advice and field-tested experiences obtained from educators working in Virginia public schools. It offers schools guidelines through which they can figure out if a threat is transient or substantive. Most student threats are transient ones that reflect expressions of humor, anger, frustration, or fear. Such threats, the paper on the model says, could even involve students shouting, “I’m gonna kill you,” as a joke, a competitive statement made during a game, or a rhetoric that is, in fact, meant in anger but does not carry with it any actual intention or plan to kill. From a threat assessment perspective, transient threats are viewed as those that do not reflect a real intention to harm others.

Substantive threats, on the other hand, are behaviors or statements that represent a serious risk of harm to others, such as planning and preparation, recruitment of accomplices, and acquisition of a weapon. It could, for instance, involve a situation where a student threatens to stab a peer and is then found carrying a knife in their backpack. The distinction between transient and substantive threats is critical in determining appropriate responses and management strategies. This is where the CSTAG model uses a decision-tree approach to making this determination. For more on the decision tree, and to access the full model, click here.

Risk Factors And Warning Signs

Although no one risk factor, or set of factors, perfectly predicts violence, the greater the number that can be identified, the greater the need to be vigilant, NASP says. It identifies some suggested risk factors as cases where a student:

  • Is socially withdrawn, isolated, and alienated or rejected
  • Has been a victim of violence and/or bullying, or feels persecuted and picked on
  • Has low school interest and performance
  • Expresses intolerance and prejudice
  • Has used drugs and alcohol
  • Has been affiliated with gangs
  • Expresses personal grievance, moral outrage, or ideological thinking
  • Is unable to affiliate with prosocial groups
  • Is dependent on virtual communities
  • Has occupational goals that have not been achieved or that are unattainable
  • Has interpersonal relationship(s) failures
  • Has had a mental health disorder
  • Has access to or possesses firearms
  • Has a history of violent expressions in writings and drawings; serious threats of violence; uncontrolled anger; impulsive and chronic hitting, intimidating, or bullying; disciplinary problems that involve violence; and/or criminal violence

Warning signs are statements, actions, and appearances suggesting that a student is about to display violent behavior. Although it is a critical element in initiating a threat assessment, the absence of warning signs does not necessarily mean there will not be a future act of violence, according to NASP. It is critical to look at both the static and the dynamic factors occurring in a student’s life. The NASP lists the following violence warning signs:

  • Specific targets, which may or may not be verbalized and could be related to: persons, places, programs, processes, philosophies, or proxies of those.
  • Articulated motives, which could be: personal, political, religious, racial or ethnic, environmental, or special interest
  • Increasing intensity of violence-related efforts, desires, and planning
  • Direct or indirect communications about violence
  • Access to weapons or methods of planned harm
  • An emotional state of hopelessness, desperation, despair, or one filled with suicidal thoughts
  • Increasing capacity to carry out threats
  • Engagement with social media facilitating or promoting violence
  • Intimate partner problems
  • Interpersonal conflicts

The Effectiveness Of Threat Assessment Programs

There has been criticism of student threat assessment programs, with most critics saying it could lead to a surge in suspensions or expulsions of students. And, overall, while many schools are adopting threat assessment programs, research on the impact of these programs has lagged. A recent study of student threat assessment efforts in Virginia’s K–12 public schools, however, sponsored by the National Institute of Justice, found progress in resolving threats without further incident or resorting to suspending or expelling students. 

“Nearly three of every five threats assessed were threats to self, rather than to others, the report said. The research team pointed out that self-threats rose from a mean of 2.5 cases per school in the 2014-2015 school year to a mean of 4.5 cases in 2017-18. Factors informing the increase could include both an increase in the number of students at risk of self-harm, the study team reported, and increased awareness among school authorities that self-harm threats should be referred to threat assessment teams,” the NIJ said on May 12.

Across four school years ending in 2017-18, evidence suggests that all threats were resolved without serious injury. In around 97% of cases, the threat was resolved without the student attempting to carry out the threatened action. Most students subject to a threat assessment received a combination of discipline and some form of counseling or support services. A significant majority of students (84%) subject to threat assessments were able to continue at their school.

In schools that followed the CSTAG method, only 5% of threats resulted in criminal charges and 1% in arrest, with less than 1% of students who made the threats being placed in juvenile detention. Disciplinary and law enforcement responses to threats were observed to be equitable across racial and ethnic lines, NIJ adds. Overall, the study found that students, parents, staff, and threat assessment teams all demonstrated better knowledge of threat assessments. Students, in particular, voiced greater willingness to report threats.

However, there were some areas for improvement that the study identified. To begin with, implementation was found to be uneven across schools, with nearly a quarter of all schools (24%) reporting they conducted no formal threat assessments in the 2017-18 school year. In many schools, threat assessment teams rarely met, with 13.4% reporting no meetings during the year and 10.3% reporting only one meeting. Only 77% of threat assessment team members reported having received training in the preceding three years.