The 5 W’s of Threat Appraisals

Are you a K-12 teacher, administrator, school support staff member or parent that feels concerned, confused or panicked when you hear a student make a threat? The following information will help you understand the 5 W’s related to threat appraisals, the safety process and help you create a plan of action to avoid major catastrophes now and in the future.

Who:

  • Any student of any age can make a threat towards self, other individuals and/or property. The individuals can be students, teachers, administrators and/or parents and property is generally a specific location in the building or the school itself.
  • Specific school officials generally manage the credibility of a threat, which can include the principal, assistant principal, dean of students, school psychologist, social worker, restorative justice coordinator, and/or school resource officer.
  • Parents and/or legal guardians are contacted once the credibility of the threat has been established. Each attempt is documented and recorded in the school’s database.
  • It is best practice for all individuals that work closely with the student to work together to discuss the information in an objective and neutral way. These individuals should include (but are not limited to) classroom teachers, specialists, administrators, school resource officers, mental health providers and parents/legal guardians.

What:

  • Transient: A threat made as an expression of anger that can be resolved easily and quickly through restorative conversations and/or disciplinary action.
  • Substantive: A threat that is considered serious, with intent to harm, involves detailed plans and possible access to weapons or other destructive materials.
  • Once credible and preliminary information has been gathered, a roundtable conversation is had to discuss the target and nature of the threat; concerns related to academic achievement and social-emotional development; how student(s) respond to discipline; if student(s) take responsibility for actions; other patterns of behavior; any engagement in practice sessions; and the access/means and plans to utilize weapons.
  • Additionally, suicidal ideation is evaluated by a trained school-based mental health provider and a suicide risk review is conducted if necessary.
  • Next a level of risk is determined by the team based on the responses to aforementioned questions.
    • If the threat is considered Low or Medium, a plan is implemented to increase supervision and provide preventative supports to manage behaviors.
    • If the threat is considered Medium or High, law enforcement is contacted in addition to the implemented plan and preventative supports.
    • Depending on the threat, disciplinary action may also be taken.
  • This information is often submitted to district personnel and documented in a database to ensure safety and confidentiality.

Where:

  • Threats can be made in any place.
  • Threats can be made face-to-face, via online chat services, in a post, on a blog, in a letter, diary entry, text message or a drawing.

When:

  • Threats can be made at any time.
  • If a credible threat has been determined, one of the aforementioned school staff members will gather preliminary information about the target(s) of the threat, the situation that caused a threat to be made, and the potential for access/means and a plan to carry out the threat.
  • Should this information be of concern based on professional judgment, a lengthier appraisal will be conducted with all adults that work closely with the student(s).
  • This appraisal should be conducted as soon as possible to get the most recent and valid information.

Why:

  • Individuals make threats for any number of reasons but can include:
    • Anger/frustration at a person, group of people or situation
    • Inappropriate ways of accepting consequences or outcomes of situations
    • Difficulty using expressive language skills effectively and appropriately
    • Significant mental health concerns
  • Threat appraisals help maintain physical and mental safety and can also improve the general climate of the school
  • Other benefits of conducting threat appraisals include “greater willingness to seek help, fewer instances of bullying, better identification of at-risk students, and fewer long-term suspensions”

In summary, if you are a student, teacher, parent, administrator or citizen and see or hear something that doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not.  Please contact school officials immediately! It’s always better to be safe than sorry. Additionally, it may be helpful to get in touch with your school’s mental health provider(s) (psychologist, social worker and/or counselor) as they have specific training and will be able to answer your questions related to the threat appraisal process. It’s important to remember that school staff members take all threats seriously and specific procedures are followed to ensure the safety of everyone in the building as well as the building itself. More information is available at www.nasponline.org.

Works Cited:

Threat assessment at school: Brief facts and tips. (2015). Retrieved from https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources/school-safety-and-crisis/threat-assessment-at-school

Threat assessment for school administrators and crisis teams (2015). Retrieved from https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources/school-safety-and-crisis/threat-assessment-at-school/threat-assessment-for-school-administrators-and-crisis-teams

About the Author

Sarah is currently a school psychologist in Denver Public Schools where she has worked for the last nine years. Additionally, she is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Denver in the Child, Family and School Psychology program. She is currently in the data collection phase of her dissertation entitled The Intersection of Mindfulness, Teacher Efficacy and School Climate: A Pilot Study. She received her undergraduate degree in Psychology at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, FL. Sarah has professional interests in executive functioning, ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders; Social Thinking and Perspective Taking as well as Threat Assessment, Crisis Intervention and Prevention. She is the leader of her special education team and also has strong interests in the MTSS, 504 and Special Education processes. In her spare time she enjoys baking, reading, running with her dog and watching sports with her husband and friends.