Preventing School Shootings: A Question & Answer Session
Speaker: Good afternoon, and welcome to today’s webinar: Preventing School Shootings: A Question & Answer Session, which is brought to you by United Educators. This program is about an hour long and consist solely of previously submitted audience questions directed to our expert, Marisa Randazzo. Before the webinar begins, some housekeeping items. At the bottom of your screen are seven icons, which will open any of the following boxes if it is not already visible on your screen. Marisa’s biography is available in the speaker bio box, and for any participants can require it, closed captioning is available. If you need help with technical issues, simply enter your question or comments in the Q&A box and click submit. Finally, if you wish to submit a question related to today’s content, please email firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will provide an answer as soon as possible. And now here’s today’s moderator, Alyssa Keehan.
Alyssa Keehan: Well welcome everyone to today’s webinar. As mentioned, I’m Alyssa Keehan, Director of Risk Research and Consulting at United Educators, and I’ll be the moderator of today’s program — Preventing School Shootings: A Question & Answer Session. You know, with the recent tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, and several other high-profile mass shootings that have occurred over the last few days and weeks, I know many schools and colleges are examining their practices for preventing these acts to make sure they’re doing what they can to reduce the risk of such a tragedy occurring on their campuses.
To help our member institutions with their questions on preventing school shootings, we have brought in campus violence expert Dr. Marisa Randazzo. Marisa will answer your pre-submitted questions. And if you have additional questions and are a UE member, I would just encourage you to use our risk advice service. It’s free. Just go ahead and email your question to email@example.com. Again, that email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And one of our risk management consultants will respond. The recording of today’s presentation will be posted to our website within the next few days, and you’ll receive an email alerting you when it’s ready. Lastly, I just want to encourage everyone to fill out the survey you’ll receive after today’s program because your feedback is important to us, and it does help instruct future programs. Before we get started, I want to highlight UE’s campus violence resource collection. You can find a link to the resource collection in the resources box on your screen, or you can find it on our website under the risk management tab. All of the resources that are a part of the collection are available for free to UE members. So if you don’t already have access to the website, you can easily self-register by clicking the register button you’ll see when you go to Access a Resource. Additionally, we also have a benefit, which is part of our ProResponse® suite of benefits where our qualifying member institutions can access threat assessment case consultation to assess the severity of a threat or other disturbing behavior. For more information about this benefit and others, please search the term ProResponse® on the UE website.
And now I’m happy to introduce our speaker for today’s program. Dr. Marisa Randazzo is the Executive Director of Threat Management for Ontic and previously the CEO of Sigma Threat Management Associates, which is now a part of the Ontic family, where she helps institutions with strategies to make the practice of threat assessment and threat management easier to understand and easier to use. She also serves as the Director of Threat Assessment for Georgetown University. Before joining the private sector, Dr. Randazzo served for 10 years with the U.S. Secret Service as the agency’s Chief Research Psychologist. Among her various responsibilities, she co-directed the safe school initiative, the landmark federal study of school shootings that was conducted jointly by the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education. Dr. Randazzo received her PhD in master’s degree from Princeton University in social psychology and a BA in psychology and religion from Williams College. Welcome, Marisa.
Dr. Marisa Randazzo: Alyssa, thank you for having me and thank you very much to United Educators for doing this question-and-answer session.
Keehan: All right. Let’s get started with your questions. As a quick reminder, this program is not designed to provide legal advice. All right. Our first question asks, “It feels like there are more school shootings happening this year than ever before. Is this true? And what can you tell us about trends, Marisa?”
Randazzo: Well, we have absolutely seen an increase in a whole range of violent incidents and disruptive incidents that are impacting our educational institutions at the K-12 level and at the higher education level as well. One of the challenges I’m looking at are we’re seeing a specific, significant increase in school shootings and especially in mass shootings and mass killings at K-12 and higher ed is that the definition has literally continued to change over the past few years. But looking at data sets that The Violence Project has, that Mother Jones has, we’ve absolutely seen an uptick, especially post-COVID, in the number of shooting incidents and mass killing incidents that are impacting our educational institution. This is also, though, within a context of an increase in disruptive and violent behavior, generally.
We don’t know exactly why this is, but a couple of working hypotheses center around the fact that having gone through, for some institutions, over two years of disruption in normal operations, whether that’s fully remote, some combination of remote and then in-person hybrid operations. And just our student population, our instructional staff, our administrators, our parents, all laboring under over two years of multiple stressors — health, to finance, to home stability, etc., that all of that is now coming back into and has been back into our classrooms at the K-12 and higher ed levels. So anecdotally and certainly the research we are starting to see is showing yes, an increase in not only school shootings, but a whole host of disruptive and violent behavior at our educational institutions, generally.
Keehan: Marisa, that’s, I think, very helpful information for providing broader historical context for our current situation. OK. What does the research say about how preventable school shootings are? You know, it just seems like many of these shooters are suicidal. So how can you stop someone who is willing to, or wants to, die in the process?
Randazzo: This question is so important because this really speaks to the entire field of behavioral threat assessment and all of the empirical research that have been done about violent incidents, shootings in K-12 and higher ed and in workplaces as well. I’ve been in the field of behavioral threat assessment for over 25 years. And what I will tell you is from the research that my colleagues and I have conducted at the Secret Service, at the FBI, and academic institutions, and from the actual practice of threat assessment that I’ve engaged in, in working individual cases for over 25 years, these incidents are absolutely preventable, and I’ll explain why.
What we know from the research is that the people who carry out school shootings in K-12, as well as in higher ed, typically follow a detectable progression of behavior. Let me say that again, a detectable progression of behavior. Meaning that they first come up with some idea to engage in harm and I’ll explain the suicide piece in just a minute. But the behavioral progression we see is that they come up with some idea to do harm. They then look to plan that out in more detail. And that planning may include researching previous school shootings, looking for some tactical guidance in that research, that online research, looking for and finding personal inspiration. They start to identify with previous school shooters, and then they go from idea to planning to preparation. And what we mean by preparation is now they have to figure out how they want to engage in this lethal act and what weapons they need, how they can access that, how they can get the weapons to where they want to do harm. And then that final piece is actually implementing their violent plan. So we call this whole trajectory a pathway to violence. From idea to plan, to preparation, to implementation. A pathway to violence.
Now the suicide piece is really important here. So these are preventable because the people who engage in them, and they’re often students — students and others who engage in these school shootings — follow this detectable pathway to violence. So we can figure out, we stand a chance at identifying someone who’s on that pathway before they get to that last step, before they get to doing harm. The other reason these are preventable is that the people planning out school shootings typically often tell other people beforehand about their violent plans before they get to the point of being violent. And we see this through in-person communications, but we also see a lot of it posted online on different social media channels. We see this in making reference about wanting to carry out a school shooting in homework assignments. There’s a lot of information that is put out there by the-would be school shooter in advance.
And in prison interviews I’ve done, in active cases I’ve worked, what we have heard, my colleagues and I have heard, is that the school shooters or would-be shooters put these plans out there in part because they want to be stopped. They have these thoughts. Some of them describe them as intrusive thoughts. These are thoughts they don’t necessarily want to have, but they don’t know what to do about it. They’re telling other people in part because they want someone to help them to stop those thoughts, to get them off the pathway to violence.
The other piece about why these are preventable is that the vast majority of people who have carried out school shootings in the past have done so when they were at a point of personal desperation or were actively suicidal. Now, I want to put a caveat here that the majority of people who are suicidal, who are considering taking their own life, are not going to be at risk of violence to other people. However, when we are working on a case of someone who is talking about carrying out a school shooting, telling other people, researching past school shootings, we need to ask, “Why are they doing that? Are they at a point of personal desperation, or are they at a point of being actively suicidal?” Because in those cases we often see a fine line. They are trying to manage life circumstances that feel overwhelming for them, have problems they feel they cannot solve, and they look to violence as a solution or in their mind may think it is the only option they have left.
So the important piece about the suicide tie-in here is this, when we are working a threat assessment case of someone who is engaged in behavior that is alarming other people, worrying people about potential violence, they’re posting things on social media, whatever has brought that case to our attention, we need to ask, “Are they operating at a point where they’re feeling despondent or out of options?” Because at that point tools and resources that we have to help someone who is suicidal may be incredibly effective to helping someone who is on this pathway to violence. To help get them off the pathway to violence and onto a better path when they no longer feel despondent, they no longer feel suicidal, they’re getting help to solve those underlying problems.
Keehan: Well, Marisa, that’s very interesting and helpful information. Can you talk a little bit about threat assessment teams, and the research that supports their efficacy? I think the majority of institutions have them, but are they still the most effective tool for preventing school shootings?
Randazzo: They absolutely are the most effective tool for preventing school shootings. And research that’s been sort of the underpinning of the behavioral threat assessment process in schools to begin with coming out of the U.S. Secret Service, their National Threat Assessment Center, has been reinforced by research coming out of The Violence Project, on their identifying and seeing the exact same type of pathway to violence. Research that’s come out of other institutions, individual researchers as well. So what we know is that the research that led us to this behavioral threat assessment process for schools and higher ed in first place, continues to be replicated here. We are seeing that time and again, different angles on studying this problem of school shootings, has shown us time and again, this pathway. And that we know the threat assessment process is the best available tool to identify someone on that pathway and to get them off that pathway.
We still don’t have good data on just how many K-12 schools, districts, and higher education institutions have behavioral threat assessment teams. But one of the things that we have seen, and I want to emphasize this, is that we have seen a tremendous consensus develop for higher education institutions since the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. And then for K-12 institutions since, especially, we’ve seen piecemeal interest in different states, but renewed interest since the Parkland shooting. And now, especially, we are seeing that again, since the Uvalde shooting about the importance of K-12 schools and districts having a threat assessment resource — if that’s a team for each school, if that’s a team at the district level. And I want to emphasize that while our outcome research is still sort of spotty, and because it’s really hard to prove prevention, when something doesn’t happen, it’s very hard to prove the reason it didn’t happen was because of a threat assessment process.
We have correlational outcome data but no great causal outcome research. In place of that, instead of that, I encourage schools and colleges and universities to look at where there is best-practice recommendations. And so for K-12 schools, for example, we have multiple — we have a guide that came out on high-quality school emergency operations planning a couple of years ago, authored by multiple federal agencies. That has reinforced the importance of a K-12 threat assessment program or K-12 schools and districts having access. We have state laws in various states. Virginia was the leading state, but we’ve now seen it in Florida and in Texas, in several other states as well, where state law has actually now mandated that their K-12 schools have threat assessment programs.
We’ve seen state laws mandate the same thing for higher education in Illinois and in Virginia, and in Connecticut as well. And then multiple professional associations and state task forces have all recommended threat assessment for their K-12 schools and districts and/or for higher education. So we have this immense consensus that this is the most effective tool available now to prevent school shootings, whether in a K-12 environment, as well as in higher ed. And we’ve seen something similar for using the same process to address workplace violence in educational institutions and elsewhere.
Keehan: This next question is one we periodically receive in the Risk Management department here at UE. The school wants to know, “We have a threat assessment team, but we worry we could be doing better and maybe we’re not optimized. Can you talk a bit about what type of training your team should receive and how often, and who should sit on your team?” And if you wouldn’t mind distinguishing your response for the K-12 and higher ed segments where it’s necessary.
Randazzo: Sure. So let me start with K-12 and I’ll answer both questions, then I’ll move to higher ed. For K-12, the training that your team should receive should be high-quality training from people who’ve actually not just studied behavioral threat assessment, but actually handled cases directly. There can be — there can be a lot of advertising and even false advertising around behavioral threat assessment expertise. So it’s important to vet who your trainers are. But the questions I typically ask and encourage people to ask is just talk to a company that you’re considering for behavioral threat assessment training and see how much experience their instructors have had. Not just the head of the company or whoever created the training curriculum, but the person who’s going to be doing the training, who’s going to be working with your team, working with your group, how much direct experience have they had in handling threat assessment cases anywhere, but especially within K-12 or for higher ed within higher ed.
So ask some questions. Ask if they can give some examples of tough cases they’ve handled, of wins they’ve had. They don’t have to share detailed information. They don’t have to identify who the client was, who the person was that they were assessing. But anyone who has worked in this field of behavioral threat assessment and actually handled situations directly has stories to share. Cautionary tales, near misses, real clear wins, challenging situations they were able to find a workaround for. Ask them about some of those examples. And you’ll be able to tell quickly, do they have any things that they can draw upon or is their answer, “Well, I can’t tell you because of confidentiality.” They absolutely can tell you about a case without identifying it. And people who actually have practical experience handling these situations directly are able to share that.
So it’s important because it’s one thing to have studied behavioral threat assessment and written about it, published on it, but it is a very different set of skills when you have sat across the table from someone who’s engaged in threatening behavior and tried to figure out, “What can I do to help in this situation? What can I do to mitigate risk?” when you’ve actually had that practical experience? So training for your team on behavioral threat assessment should come, in my opinion, from someone who’s actually walked the walk, has handled cases directly. And preferably for at least a couple of years, I’d say five years or more. We as practitioners drive so much experience and really it helps to enhance our ability to teach this process when we’ve had direct case experience. And we can use it for examples to help illustrate the training.
So the training your team should receive should be in behavioral threat assessment, ideally train them together if possible. It’s really helpful to have everyone on your team in the same training at the same time, and then really look for high-quality trainers. I’d say that’s true for both K-12 and higher ed. Within K-12, let me give one more other option. And that is that there are now a number of state school safety centers. School safety centers at the state level that have gotten grants from the Bureau of Justice Assistance under their Stop School Violence grants, and now offer free training. So this doesn’t have to be a budget breaker. In fact, there may well be free training you can access in your state. I know, for example, what my colleagues and I are providing training under this BJA, Stop School Violence Prevention Program to participants under the Texas School Safety Center, free training in Texas, in Arkansas, in Vermont, in North Carolina. We’ve started to do some individual sessions for different groups within Michigan, for example, and Ohio.
So there are a number of states with the state school safety center. So the Texas School Safety Center, North Carolina Center for Safer Schools, those entities, the Vermont School Safety Center. Those entities are offering free training for not only K-12 personnel, but for local law enforcement and for mental health professionals to get that training in virtual sessions, in-person sessions. So there may be a resource. Virginia really set the standard for doing this through their Department of Criminal Justice Services and the Virginia Center for School and Campus Safety that they’ve done this for years, where it’s a free resource. So look to see within your state, or even within an adjoining state, if you can access that training, if that might be a free resource.
Now, in terms of who should sit on your team, the key for any behavioral threat assessment team, whether it’s K-12 or higher ed, is multidisciplinary. So within K-12, we look for any team we recommend having expertise from - and representation from school administration. It can be at the school level, it could be at the district level, but an administrator’s perspective. Per that perspective, and expertise from a mental health professional. That can be based within the school, it can be school-based mental health, or it could be an outside resource in the community that wants to assist with school safety and that’s willing to participate on your team. So it can be internal to your school or to your district. It can be community-based. We even know of some teams at the K-12 level that may not have access to a local mental health professionals because they’re in rural areas, areas that are underserved by mental health professionals. So they may ask a mental health resource that may be based in their state but remote to sit in on team calls by Zoom or by conference call, for example. So there are creative ways that you can do it. And so administration, mental health expertise.
And then the last piece of expertise that’s important on a K-12 team is local law enforcement. Again, that might be your School Resource Officer. It might be a local law enforcement liaison within your community from a police department or a sheriff’s office, for example. But it’s really helpful to have that perspective. So you’ve got views and expertise coming in from multiple disciplines to all help look at a problem together and figure out, “What can we do in terms of where can we get information? How do we make this good objective decision together using our multiple expertise?” And most importantly, if we need to get someone off that pathway to violence, having the multiple areas of expertise, that multidisciplinary perspective helps you come up with a multifaceted plan or access resources that you wouldn’t know you could or wouldn’t be able to access if it were just a school-based team alone. So having mental health expertise, having law enforcement expertise, having school-based expertise from an administrative standpoint, is important for a core team at K-12.
Now, one more piece of that is that at K-12, when you are looking at — when you have a student that you are assessing that may already be identified and be involved with your special education personnel, it’s really important to bring those special education personnel onto the team, at least for those cases. Some K-12 teams have them as permanent members of a threat assessment team, others have them as needed. But they make sure that their special education personnel go through the threat assessment training that we just talked about a moment ago.
So bring in those special education personnel for your threat assessment training so they understand what the team will be doing. And then you can work with special education personnel to help to identify some screening questions where if they get a referral, if the threat assessment team is looking at a student that they know already has a 504 plan, an individualized education plan, some sort of functional behavior assessment plan on file, that this behavior may already be part of baseline behavior. The behavior may already be known and be managed successfully under that plan. Then, as long as your special education personnel know about this most recent incident, you don’t necessarily have to go through the threat assessment process. I don’t want to get too much in the weeds here, but the underlying point being K-12 teams, whether you have them as permanent members or as as-needed members, should include special education personnel as well.
For higher ed, we can get a little bit broader. So for higher ed, we’ve seen teams, especially for higher ed have an all-threats focus and this can be true for K-12, but the vast majority of cases that K-12 teams handle really are student behavior cases. Higher education teams may also be tasked and can be tasked with handling workplace violence, potential cases. So cases of concerning behavior that’s exhibited by faculty or staff or a domestic violence threat that may be impacting the safety of campus, for example.
So higher ed teams can be a bit broader. And in that respect, if they’re going to have this all-threats jurisdiction should include campus police or campus security, should include provost office or whoever oversees faculty behavior, should include Human Resources for staff behavior, or if HR covers staff and faculty. Should include whatever mental health resources you have on campus. So maybe it’s a counseling center for student issues. Maybe you also have an external employee assistance program for faculty and staff issues. And looking also to have your general counsel sit in on the team or be an available resource for the team as needed, along with sort of the administrative component we were talking about. So a Dean’s office, for example.
And then some higher ed institutions also have a case management capacity, a student outreach office. This can be absolutely critical because that may be the office you need to help manage a case of a particular student concern if you have them. So make sure they’re well-integrated into your team. And again, just like we were talking about with K-12, you can have a core team and then bring in some people as needed. But if you’re going to bring in those people or those offices as needed, I highly encourage them to be part of that initial training for your team.
And then the last piece I didn’t — I realized I didn’t answer for this question. Whether it’s K-12 or higher ed, how often should your team be trained? I’d say at a minimum, train them once, but then find some opportunity each year to maybe go through some refresher training. Whether that’s a tabletop exercise that you run yourself or do through some sort of training opportunity, or if it is, “Hey, let’s have an after-action discussion about a particular situation we handled this year. Did it work well? Did it not work well? And did we use our process? Do we need to go back and get some clarification on our process?” So a chance to come together at least once a year as a team, whether it’s self-run or some advanced training, some refresher training, however you want to do it, but have it — find a little bit of time as a team each year to kind of remind yourself of your process. Make sure it’s still current, make sure people don’t have any questions on it. And we see some teams go through annual training just because they like to sit through and be reminded of that process by an external trainer.
Keehan: Marisa, given your deep experience, I’m really interested in your response to this next question. What’s the most common mistake you see threat assessment teams make?
Randazzo: You know, we see teams make a variety of mistakes, but what we have seen most often is really a failure to follow up. So the team may do a really good job in their team meetings, in gathering information, in analyzing the information, in making an objective assessment, and even in developing an intervention plan, some plan to get someone off a pathway to violence and onto a better path. But unfortunately we’ve seen teams fail to take that final step of implementing that intervention plan and then monitoring it to make sure that it works well. It doesn’t happen often, but this is probably the most critical mistake I could see a threat assessment team making and have seen threat assessment teams make because the whole point of having a threat assessment process is to be able to identify a concern and intervene and change that equation. Help make things better, reduce risk before something harmful happens.
So you may have people on your team who are great at making the analysis, making the assessment, coming up with a plan. You need to make sure that you have a capacity as a team to ensure that whatever the team thinks should be done is then done. And, “Hey, is it having that beneficial effect that we expect, or is it not working the way we hoped and now we need to come up and try something different?” So that’s probably the most critical mistake that I see threat assessment teams make.
The other is that I often see teams form and then they don’t get training or one or two members of the team get training, but the whole team hasn’t had the opportunity to go through training and especially not together. When that happens, when you have team members who are untrained, they typically default to whatever tools and processes they usually use within their silo, within their area of expertise, because they lack the bigger picture of why it’s so important to have a multidisciplinary approach, but a fairly systematic process for how you want to address these concerning and troubling and threatening situations.
So forming a team, but without training, I see is a big hurdle, but also one that’s fixable pretty quickly. And even this failing to implement a plan is a very fixable problem or a fixable mistake. It’s just a matter of adding that one last piece of accountability: “OK, so here we need to do the following. Let’s figure out which team member is going to do what piece of it under what timeline.” So a threat management plan and intervention plan can really look at, “All right, who needs to be involved? What do they need to do? When does it need to happen? And let me confirm that it did happen.” And then as a team, follow up shortly after a few days later, a few weeks later, whatever the team feels is necessary for that situation to see is this having the intended risk reduction effect, the intended beneficial effect we had hoped. And if it doesn’t, let’s go back to the drawing board and figure out what else we should be trying, who else should be involved.
Keehan: Our next question is a tough one. Many of these shooters have been people outside the campus. This was true in the recent case in Uvalde, Texas, and in Newtown, Conn. Any strategies or recommendations on how schools can position themselves to prevent these outside threats? Should schools expand their threat assessment teams to look at threats outside the institution?
Randazzo: Well, schools can always have the ability to look at external threats that they become aware of. So they may have — they may become aware of a social media threat impacting their school, but it comes from someone who appears to have no relationship to the school. The threat assessment team can still handle those situations, but they’re going to need to involve partnership with local law enforcement for gathering more information. And then especially for notifying local law enforcement, if they determine some external threat poses a risk to the school because they’re going to need assistance from outside law enforcement to mitigate that threat. But the challenge here, as we hear in this question, is really, “What can schools do if schools are really focused on threats that they may become aware of, largely from within their own walls? How can they guard against threats that may be external, that they aren’t aware of?”
For me, the big missing piece here is that oftentimes local law enforcement, police office, the police department, sheriff’s office, etc., don’t have access to behavioral threat assessment training. We often have schools that have more training and a team in place that a local law enforcement department on their own does not. Now, I have been talking, especially in doing some op-ed pieces over the past week especially, around a big missing piece. And as I see it, we need to make sure our local law enforcement gets training and behavioral threat assessment. This is not a problem that an individual school or district can solve necessarily, but there are some things they can do. So one is, anytime your school or district is going to host or have some sort of behavioral threat assessment training, my strong recommendation is reach out to your local police department and sheriff’s office to offer free seats for whatever personnel they want to send to that training.
That does two things. One, it helps to get free training to local law enforcement that may not have ever had training in threat assessment, may not understand how they can conduct a preventative investigation or inquiry. At the same time, it also helps to strengthen that liaison, that relationship between the schools and their local law enforcement that serves those schools and assists with safety. So stronger relationships help to make information flow faster. And so to provide free training, I have been so astounded anytime we have suggested this to schools and districts that we are doing training for directly that they assume that their local law enforcement already knows how to do threat assessment. They often don’t. They assume they may be too busy and they’re often surprised, and we’re always delighted to see, that oftentimes officers and departments will take them up on that offer. Come sit in and learn this process that is based in - is an empirically based process, but a very practical one, that they may be able to use for cases outside of cases impacting schools.
So an imperfect solution right now, my recommendation that schools reach out to local law enforcement to offer, to have them sit in on their training. But a big missing piece and one I’ve been advocating for a while now is that at a federal level and at the state level, we, our legislators can do a much better job of making it possible for law enforcement to get access to this training. But until we reach that solution, individual schools and districts and higher ed education institutions can reach out to their local law enforcement and just offer to have them sit in and participate in the training as well.
Keehan: Well, thank you, Marisa. Those are helpful thoughts on the very difficult issue of protecting against outside threats. All right. We have a college who asks, “We know a threat assessment team’s assessment is only as good as the information it is relying upon. Are there common information sources that many threat assessment teams overlook?” And if you can distinguish your answer between the K-12 and higher education segments where necessary.
Randazzo: So a place that we often see threat assessment teams overlook or misunderstand, they feel they cannot access the information, is in social media searching. So we have threat assessment teams think, well, I shouldn’t be — that’s a student privacy issue, or even an employee privacy issue that higher ed teams that are handling staff and faculty cases may see. I — that’s a privacy issue. I shouldn’t be looking there. The actual response to that is if they’re putting out something that is publicly viewable on social media, it is not a privacy issue. It is actually a window into their behavior, into their thinking that can be really helpful for a threat assessment team to know.
I will tell you that there is some fantastic training opportunities available for higher ed and for K-12 on — they’re often called digital threat assessment courses, which is a little bit confusing because they don’t actually teach the threat assessment process. But they teach how you can access and do these searches on social media and on Reddit chat rooms and other websites where the person that you are assessing may be posting things that would be helpful for a threat assessment team to see to make a complete assessment. So that’s information that often K-12 and higher ed miss an opportunity to look at or misunderstand their ability to access. So I think that that’s an important piece.
The other thing that I really want to emphasize here in terms of information sources is, I want to just underscore that the research on school shootings and K-12 especially, but also in higher ed and in workplace has shown us that the people — as I mentioned before, that the-would-be shooter prior to these events, typically tells other people beforehand about their violent plans before they engage in harm. Now, the key piece of this is that in K-12, the people who typically know, who are on the receiving end of that information, who are the ones seeing those posts, who’re seeing those videos on YouTube or TikTok, for example, are other peers, they’re fellow students. And I want to underscore, especially for our K-12 audience, that it is highly likely that it will be your student population that hears about or becomes aware of a potential plot or other concerning behavior long before the adults in school know if the adults ever do find out.
So a key piece of prevention, especially in K-12, is to find ways to make sure the student population understand they may become the first person to become aware of a concern and to encourage them to bring that information to a threat assessment team, to an administrator they trust, to a coach they trust, whoever it is, to bring that information forward to an adult that they trust in the school so that the school team can take a look at it and figure out how best to help and how best to keep the school safe. The students as I see it are an untapped, but absolutely vital source of prevention and school safety. And there are ways that we can have discussions with our students in a way that’s age appropriate. But to make sure they know, and to empower them to bring those concerns forward when they become aware of them because they may be the first, they may be the only, but they may be the critical piece to helping keep their school safe if they do hear about a plan.
Keehan: Well, I think a lot of institutions can relate to some of the issues raised in this next question here. The school asks: “One issue we’re struggling with is keeping up with the triage and vetting of reports to our threat assessment team. We’ve had a lot of staff turnover this past year, including some members of our threat assessment team. Any tips for what you do if you’re short staffed and trying to get new staff onboarded, and how can you handle a high volume of reports t
Randazzo: These are great questions, and these are questions that are facing so many teams that we work with around the country. So let me answer the first about kind of short staffing and onboarding. One thing that can be helpful to do right now, especially over the summer months here, is to schedule some training. And again, it can be brief refresher training if you’ve got a team that’s already trained, schedule some brief refresher training, two hours, three hours, and bring in — identify some people who could serve as backups for your team members. So maybe you’ve got a vacancy for a critical position within your Dean of Students office in higher ed, for example. And you know that’s not going to be filled until the fall, but you still may need to have access to your team and have your team functioning over the summer. Who’s serving in that in interim position or who could — is sort of helping to cover those duties until that position is filled. You can bring that person in for a short-term assignment on the threat assessment team. So look for backups that can support positions that are not yet filled, and you want to have someone to bring on, for example.
I also think it’s very important — we have seen so much turnover, especially in K-12. Higher ed as well, but especially in K-12. It is very important to not abandon your threat assessment team, meaning make sure that your team continues to operate, even if it’s short-staffed. And if you need to bring in some temporary outside expertise, that remote option for a mental health professional, for example, you can do that. Have someone step in for a bit. Or someone with local law enforcement expertise, if you are in-between school resource officers or don’t have a good campus police or campus security person assigned yet, what can you do to kind of do it in a piecemeal and patchwork way. And so you can get that staffing back up to full. We are seeing this happen not only for threat assessment teams, but for all sorts of functions within K-12 and within higher ed.
The challenge there is that operating a threat assessment team that’s short-staffed also overtaxes the existing team members. So I do want to encourage for those of you serving on teams, for those of you who are leading teams, especially, and for those of you who have teams that report up to you, it’s very important to encourage your teams to take care of themselves throughout the summer. Especially take some time away, if they don’t need to meet, that’s OK. Normally we say teams should be meeting on a regular basis, but so many teams have been running flat out, short-staffed. With an increased number of reports coming into them that it’s OK to give your teams time to a break. Like, “Hey, let’s not meet at all for higher ed teams.” Oftentimes, they meet over the summer, but maybe they meet every other week or once a month. You can say, “Look, we’re going to go to just an as-needed status over the summer, so you all get a break.” If case-wise you can afford to do that, do that.
We hear a lot about self-care, and I will tell you that as someone who oversees threat assessment teams and coaches threat assessment teams, one of the things that I have long joked about in a bad way is that when I have time for self-care, I’ll put it on my list of things to do. Instead, what we’re talking about with teams now is finding ways to look out for each other, encourage each other to take a break. Oftentimes, threat assessment teams are staffed with people who really want to help, and that’s a wonderful aspect to have on the team, but they may put themselves and their own care last. Instead of saying, “Hey, we each need to care for ourselves, you can take a team approach of all right, one of the things we’re really going to do over this summer is find ways to look out for each other.”
One of the things I’m doing on one of the threat assessment teams that I coached is we’ve come up with great — OK, “What’s your favorite Netflix secret pleasure? What series should I be watching? What movie should I be watching?” And then we spend some time watching and discussing. We still do the work of the threat assessment team itself, but we also find a little bit of time in those meetings and then joking on group texts, for example, to have some collegiality and to just decompress together. So especially for short-staffed teams who are probably overtaxed as well, finding ways to help them care for each other and encouraging that, especially over the summer I think it’s going to be really important.
Now on the triage piece, one thing that we see both important for K-12 and for higher ed is to develop some screening questions. For — I was mentioning at the beginning, for K-12 you — as a threat assessment team, you may get a number of cases referred to you about concerning behavior that’s engaged in by students who are already connected to special education personnel, and they already have a functional behavior assessment plan in place, or an IEP or a 504 plan. And may be behavior that’s already being managed well or known as part of baseline and/or being managed well as part of that plan. And those are cases where you don’t have to necessarily go through that full threat assessment. But the way to figure that out is to develop some screening questions.
OK. So in a case where we’ve got a piece of threatening information, let’s first check, is this a student who already has an IEP or 504 plan? If so, let’s get some information from special education personnel and see if we even need to run through the process. If it’s already being managed already known behavior, we’ll make sure they know of this most recent incident and ask them to flag us if this behavior becomes behavior that is no longer being managed effectively under the plan.
On higher ed, we’ve had a number of teams actually tighten up their screening questions. So in cases where previously they may have said, “Look, we will run a threat assessment anytime there is a communication or threat about intent to engage in violence to others. If it’s self-harm, we refer that out to our other processes through our counseling center at a safety assessment, for example, if it’s self-harm only. But we’ve had higher ed threat assessment teams who’ve had a sort of a lower threshold where they’ve said, “Look, anytime we’ve got someone who’s fearful, faculty member who’s fearful of a student, for example, we’ll run a threat assessment.”
Well, one of the things we’ve seen in the past year, especially is that the number of reports coming into threat assessment teams at a K-12 level, at a higher ed level, have increased. And they’ve increased in part because we’ve got more disruptive behavior, like we talked about before, but they’ve also increased because we have more people willing to report things earlier on or more people feeling fearful because of laboring under chronic anxiety for two-plus years with the pandemic. So we’ve seen some higher ed teams especially tighten up those screening questions to say, “Look, we will handle any case where there’s a clear threat of violence or other behaviors that’s really making people worried about potential violence.” Or if we have someone not just who’s fearful and doesn’t want to teach the student anymore, but someone who’s so fearful that they’re taking protective action, they are parking in a different place, they are seeking a restraining order, for example. So we we’ve seen some tightening up of higher ed screening questions as well.
And there are places where you can look for screening questions. We’ve got some at those state school safety centers that have good procedures that you can access. For example, our handbook for campus threat assessment management teams have screening and triage questions built in for higher ed teams that you are free to look at and use and modify as you need. But I think when you are dealing with a high volume of reports that so many teams are now facing that screening piece or triage piece, if that’s what you call it is really important to see, do I need to even run through a threat assessment? And for those cases I do, what are the most pressing?
Keehan: OK. Here’s a very practical question for you: “What are new developments and threat assessments that our team should be aware of? Are there ways that technology can help and how can we stay current in the field?”
Randazzo: Excellent question. And let me emphasize a couple of — let me answer a couple of different aspects of this. So new developments in behavioral threat assessment, we see new data and studies come out all the time, especially around kind of precursors and this pathway to violence. And what I’ll tell you is that those data, whether they come out of an update from service research from FBI, from academic researchers are showing this tremendous consistency. So you can stay up to date with some of those research developments. I would argue that there’s a book out that just came out that is a great sort of foundational piece on the entire field of behavioral threat assessments, called Trigger Points, that was authored by a journalist, Mark Follman. And Mark has spent several years with many of us really getting to understand what behavioral threat assessment is. He sat in on case discussions with some teams that allowed him access under confidentiality, and they didn’t disclose who they were talking about, but just how they were discussing.
And that book, Trigger Points, is a fantastic resource to get up to speed on what’s very current in behavioral threat assessment and what different teams are doing around the country within K-12, within higher ed. For example, he does a great discussion of the Salem-Keizer School District that has not only a school-based team, but Salem, Ore., the community has a community-based threat assessment team to handle non-school cases. And those teams work very well together. So a great resource there.
I mentioned a few moments ago doing some sort of training in digital threat assessment as it’s called. And again, the title’s a little misleading, but how to access digital or online information when you are working a threat assessment matter. Safer Schools Together is a great resource for that. They offer all kinds of online training, virtual training, asynchronous training, or live training for that. The other thing is to be involved in a professional association. So ATAP, the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals. They have a U.S.-based operation, but then there are also other ATAPs in Canada, Australia, and Asian Pacific, and the European Union, who all have practitioners who are working these situations on a regular basis, in different sectors — in educational institutions, in workplaces, within the community, etc. So that’s a great resource to become part of.
And ATAP has a wonderful conference every August — early August — in Anaheim, Calif., at Disneyland of all places. But Disney security has long been very involved in behavioral threat assessment. So that’s a great way to get really current information data that are just coming out, case studies that are fascinating, and instructive and a chance to network with other professionals that may be helpful for you to have as resources going back into your threat assessment teams work come this fall.
Keehan: All right, Marisa, this institution says: “We’re struggling with showing return on investment with our threat assessment team. It takes up valuable staff time. Are there effective ways to show that threat assessment is working and worth the investment?”
Randazzo: Great question, and a challenge that so many teams face. And a couple of responses that I’ve got here. One is, making sure that some other higher ops know about the regular work of the threat assessment team. So if you’ve got a chair of the threat assessment team, whether this is in K-12 or higher ed, to make sure that your top administrator within your institution gets a regular briefing on all of the situations that you are handling. Threat assessment teams that work well, work well often without much recognition or even knowledge about what they are doing because they’re handling situations, diverting them, and getting help to situations before they escalate, before they become publicly problematic, or especially before they become violent.
So a challenge can be sort of like, how do they know we’re doing all this work? So one of the things you can do is the chair of your team can do a regular weekly briefing or every other week to their top administrator, just to let them know all the different situations the team has been handling. That’s often quite eye-opening for that administrator to hear. “Well, I have no idea that you were so busy, and I had heard about this one situation, thank you all for helping. And is there anything I can do as an administrator to help the team, for example.” That can be really helpful.
We’ve also seen a number of teams, at K-12, especially because a number of tools have been developed recently for K-12 that are online or web-based case management systems. And I’ll say that really broadly, meaning a software that helps you keep track of all of your cases, whether you use a tool like that. And again, many are developed for K-12. We’ve got some for higher ed that aren’t developed specifically for threat assessment, but other tools in higher ed that disciplinary function student conduct may be using, for example, that are kind of bootstrapped and repurposed for a threat assessment team. But any software-based tool or even just an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of all the cases you’re handling and to be able to show these are all the situations that came to the team’s attention and that team worked on throughout this semester, throughout this academic year, throughout this calendar year, whatever the case may be.
And to do some annual reporting — these are the number of cases that came in that we had the screen. Of those, this is the percentage that went on for a threat assessment. Of those, these are the ones that required ongoing intervention monitoring, whatever the case is, to demonstrate the volume of situations coming to your team’s attention. And then also to give some good data on how many require ongoing care. It’s not just a matter of, “Hey, we met this Friday, we took care of the situation. We’re done.” Many threat assessment cases — or at least a subset of threat assessment cases — require some ongoing monitoring and management and intervention. So to be able to show how many you’re dealing with, how many reports are coming in and screened, how many of those you go through the full threat assessment process and what percentage of those require ongoing care.
And to be able to say what resources are involved. “We use our student case manager in 90% of our cases. We refer to our counseling center.” I’m giving higher ed examples, but, “In 55% of our cases, we needed to add an additional suicide assessment or safety assessment in 37% of these cases.” So to be able to give some data, especially to show how — just how busy teams are, how often they are working, can be really, really helpful for decision-makers, administrators, those who may be questioning budget allocation, for example, to really show all of the work that a team is doing because especially when teams work well, their work is not seen.
Keehan: OK, this next question touches on the important topic of coordinating with local law enforcement. Specifically, the school wants to know, “How should we best coordinate our threat assessment team with local law enforcement?”
Randazzo: It’s a critical issue. You want to make sure your threat assessment team does have contact with local law enforcement, and there are a number of ways to do it. First and foremost, you can do it through whatever your law enforcement expert or representative is on your team. So in K-12 that’s often a school resource officer, maybe that patrols a number of the school buildings campuses within the district, for example. But there may be someone who is assigned to your school or a couple of people who do patrols if you don’t actually have a school resource officer, a dedicated school law enforcement official there. So whoever’s serving on your team providing that local law enforcement expertise, ask them for the best way to coordinate with local law enforcement. They will likely be the liaison that reaches out for matters in a specific case, but it can also be helpful to just have a meet and greet in a way for your team to go over and see operations at a local police department, to see what may be going on at a sheriff’s office, for example. So this could be at K-12 or at higher ed.
One thing that we’ve actually seen done really well at higher ed, especially, is that there are dedicated liaison officers within the FBI at all the major FBI field offices, whose job it is to do outreach to colleges and universities within their jurisdiction. So for colleges and universities, for those higher ed threat assessment teams, they actually should have one person within the local FBI field office or the nearby regional FBI field office whose job it is to do liaison and outreach with colleges and universities through their campus security or campus safety function, their Department of Public Safety. And they also can come in and talk with your threat assessment team. And I would love — I would encourage you to invite them to come in and do that. I do not know if those resources are also available for K-12, but it’s certainly worth reaching out to your FBI field office, local field office, and asking, we’re asking that again, that local law enforcement person serving on your team or liaison with your team to do that outreach.
And then as I mentioned before, another good way to do it is if you are going to have some threat assessment training for your team, especially if it’s in-person or something you want to host, please go ahead and reach out to local law enforcement and make it an open invitation. “Do you have any officers, whether they would work with our school or work with our university or not who would like to come in and sit in on this training? We’re bringing in trainers from whatever company, we’re bringing in trainers from the National Threat Assessment Center at the U.S. Secret Service. We would love for you all to join us. Come on by, send whatever officers, whatever personnel you want.” So again, to make that open invitation for training.
Keehan: Well, we’ve got time for two more questions here. Another important issue we haven’t really touched on yet, and that’s parents: “How does a school engage parents in a discussion about safety and security?” Any tips or thoughts on how to do this effectively, Marisa?
Randazzo: So for K-12, I’d say first and foremost, go back to your existing policies and procedures about when parents are notified about anything. Their child being brought in for a disciplinary matter, for example. Parents are going to have questions, especially if they find out their child is being looked at by a threat assessment team. But one of the things that we think is really helpful is to do communication proactively at the beginning, or just prior to the next school year. “We have a threat assessment team or whatever you call your team. We have a team that is trained to handle threatening situations and situations of other behavioral concern. They’re trained once a year or they’ve all gone through training together. They follow best practice procedures. Whenever we become aware of a threatening matter, the team is engaged to figure out how best to help and to keep our school and community safe.” So to give some information up front.
And you can add in, “Due to the nature of these matters, when something comes before the threat assessment team, we are unable to give out a lot of information. You know, you may become aware of something through your child seeing something on social media or bringing something home. Please be sure to make sure we know if your child sees something that’s concerning. If we are not already engaged, we will want to be. But chances are that we may already be aware of it and we are working through it. But please understand that there’s a lot of information we will not be able to share about a case, but we want to reassure you that we have this resource and that we are working on it.”
To have an upfront communication gives a school something they can point back to when a specific situation comes up that’s generating concern and fear among parents about, “I don’t know if I should send my kid to school tomorrow. The school’s doing nothing.” You can say, “No, actually we are actively engaged. As a reminder, we have this resource that’s trained to handle these situations. We are looking at this thoroughly.”
So parents have a lot of questions on multiple aspects of this. They have questions about, “What are you doing to keep my kids safe in school?” But they also have questions about, “What are you doing if my kid is the one who engaged in concerning behavior? I don’t want my kid to be arrested.” Things like that.
So I would encourage you to look at your existing policies and protocols for notification around parents and rely on those and, it’s a great time over the summer to talk with your legal counsel for K-12 or general counsel for higher ed around, “Do we need to update these at all? Let’s play out some what ifs. How are we going to handle an angry parent who finds out their student is being assessed? For example. How are we going to handle an angry parent who feels like we’re not doing enough to keep their child safe in school?” So to spend the summer, especially to — with you legal counsel, and with your communications folks as well within K-12 or higher ed, about how should we be presenting this as a resource and let’s game out a couple of what-if scenarios so we’re not trying to figure this out in the moment, in a situation that may be escalating or deteriorating. We’ve got some templates or go-bys that we can draw upon and use.
And one other resource. Virginia Tech has done a wonderful job and their website. I think it’s threatassessment.vt.edu. … It provides a lot of information about threat assessment that that they can point to if they have a question from parent or media, whatever around what is this that you were doing. They’ve created a lot of a whole page of Frequently Asked Questions. And they actually have said that they encourage other educational institutions to use that and can replicate it on their site, just give credit to the source that it came from, Virginia Tech, and from their threat assessment program. There are other resources available, too, that can help with that communications piece. So go ahead and ask. And as Alyssa was saying, if you have a question about this aspect, too, this is a question that you can send to email@example.com. But I think it’s important to think this through before you have an urgent situation where you are getting demands and increasingly hostile and irate inquiries from parents about what you’re doing. So game these out in advance.
Keehan: All right, we’ve come to our last question: “Marisa, what are one or two of the most important things from today’s Q&A session that you want our participants to take away?”
Randazzo: For me, the most important message that I want everyone to take away from this is that it is absolutely possible to prevent acts of violence within our educational institutions. I’m not saying that we will prevent every one of them. This is not necessarily a panacea for all problems that schools and colleges and universities are facing. But behavioral threat assessment is the best available tool that we have now. It is evidence-based. It is an objective process. It is based on facts. It’s not about profiling. It’s not about making assumptions. And when you have a team that is trained, they can actively work to make sure that we are challenging each other to reduce any possible aspect of bias here. Most importantly, behavioral threat assessment is about what can we do to help someone who’s feeling like they are at the end of their rope, considering violence, planning violence, attracted to violence, for example. What can we do to help? Because there are a lot of things that we can do looking at tools that can help someone who’s suicidal or despondent.
One piece we didn’t get to mention here I want to emphasize is that what we often see in terms of behavior, especially among boys and young men, it may actually be signs of depression that [are] missed because it looks like anger. It looks like a trigger temper. It looks like attraction to hatred. It looks like attraction to extremist ideas. If we have a case where that’s occurring, I often encourage the threat assessment team involved to say, “Look, do we need some sort of screening for clinical depression here?” Because in boys and young men especially, depression can actually look much more active. Just like I was talking about with sort of hatred and attraction to extremist ideas and anger and trigger temper. Not like kind of the Hollywood version that we see of someone who’s withdrawn and the lights are out in their room and they’re eating too much or not eating enough or anything like that.
So a threat assessment team is best positioned to look at a situation where behavior is scaring people or troubling people and try to figure out what’s underlying this. And most importantly, what can we as a team do to help with those underlying issues to connect this person to resources that can help get them off the pathway to violence and onto a better path. So it is feasible. It is such important work that threat assessment teams do. And I just want to encourage everyone who’s been listening to continue the work of your teams or to start one now. It’s a great time over the summer to start one if you don’t have one. And also to encourage your team to look after each other and find some ways to decompress as well.
Keehan: Well, that’s all the time we have for today. If you have a question that wasn’t answered and you’re a UE member, please go ahead and email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org — again, that’s email@example.com — and a risk management consultant will help you with your question. I’d like to thank Marisa very much for fielding all the great questions we received, as well as our audience members for providing those questions. I’d also like to thank my colleague, Joanne Dunlap, for her technical support. As a reminder, you can find UE’s collection of campus violence resources — and all of our risk management resources — on our website, www.ue.org.
And finally, I’ll just ask our audience members once more to please complete the survey you’ll receive on today’s program. Thank you everyone. You may now disconnect.