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Threat Assessment

How should school administrators respond to threatening behavior? What constitutes a threat? Should all school-related threats be handled the same?

I recall a middle school principal in New Jersey who would shout profanities, then hang up on people calling in bomb threats.

His position on the subject: people who blow up schools don't call ahead. He said he had a duty to keep school in session, and no prankster was going to disrupt that.

A short distance away in the same school district, a high school principal had a different perspective on how to handle bomb threats. He once evacuated more than 2,000 students and called in the bomb squad because a custodian discovered the letters “Bo” written on a restroom wall.

When asked about his drastic response, he defended his actions by stating he wasn't God, and he didn't take chances when it came to the safety of his students or the future of his career.

In the first case, the middle school didn't blow up. No students were blown up at the high school, either. Thus, the response of each principal seemed to be validated by the results.

Prior to the tragedy at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., in 1999, several people became aware of unusual behavior exhibited by two students. After the students carried out the horrific deed, many of those people came forward and admitted they should have treated the threats seriously and taken steps to intervene.

Since then, other potential acts of violence at schools around the nation have been averted when someone stepped forward to alert authorities.

Those instances underscore the challenges school officials face in their quests to maintain order and keep campuses safe. School officials in suburban and rural jurisdictions no longer can ignore the possibility that a violent act can take place at their schools. They must be prepared to respond to any crisis, and to identify and neutralize legitimate threats.

What is a threat?

A school superintendent who hired me to conduct a security assessment asked how he could make all the schools in his district safe and secure. “Cancel classes and send everyone home,” I replied.

No one can guarantee unsafe acts will not occur on school grounds. However, administrators can do things to minimize opportunities and lower the risk of having violent acts occur.

In determining whether behavior is threatening, school administrators should assess the threat-maker's ability to carry out the act. A grade- school student who shouts out the words “I am going to nuke this place” needs to be disciplined.

The school does not necessarily need to be evacuated — children typically don't have access to nuclear weapons. The potential threat level is minimal.

On the other hand, if a student has been targeted by bullies and has made veiled comments to people witnessing his or her torment, he or she should be investigated.

Such students might be reaching the limits of tolerance and feel compelled to take matters into their own hands. The potential threat level in this situation is high.

Assessing the threat

Many school officials are aware of the benefit of having crisis plans in place. They provide guidance when responding to potential trouble. No threat should be ignored. Once threatening behavior is suspected, it should be evaluated. The crisis plan should address how and when to do that.

For example, the response to a bomb threat might involve a small group of school officials, such as the principal, school police officer if one is available, school custodian and one or two other employees assigned to the building.

This group should assemble quickly and gather as much information as possible related to the bomb threat. Once doing so, they should discuss the incident and make an assessment of the threat.

The team then will decide what action to take. That usually is done in accordance with the crisis plan. No matter what happens next, once a response is taken, no one will be able to support an accusation that the threat was ignored.

The response might require an evacuation with police assistance. Or, the response might require only speaking with the alleged threat-maker, or dismissing the information entirely if it is determined no threat was made.

Zero-tolerance policies

School officials use the buzz words “zero tolerance” to send strong messages to students and the community that they will not condone certain behaviors on campuses. As well-intended as that message may be, carrying out such policies are a bit more problematic.

Grade-school children have been suspended for pointing a chicken wing and shouting “bang, bang,” or simply wearing an offensive T-shirt to class. School administrators defended their reactions by asserting they were following their zero-tolerance policies.

Although corrective action might have been necessary in each of these situations, these types of behaviors should not be handled in the same way as those involving legitimate threats of violence.

What else can school officials do?

It should be easy for people engaged in the business of teaching and learning to recognize that education is a valuable tool. However, many of the best educators have little or no skills in school security or violence prevention. The solution? Acquire those skills.

Many school officials panic after a violent incident occurs at their school. Before even identifying the cause of an incident, they overreact by bringing in high-priced technology or taking other unnecessary steps. That could be a mistake.

Education administrators need to take time to consider various options, including in-service training, attending workshops on school security topics, conducting security assessments with experienced school-security professionals and, finally, identifying remedies.

Dunn served 33 years as a police officer, including seven as the chief of campus police for a high school district in New Jersey. He also teaches criminal justice courses at Franklin Pierce College, Rindge, N.H. He can be reached at [email protected].

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