School safety conference: why some districts are using the threat assessment tool

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CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (Nexstar) — After the school shootings in Parkland and Santa Fe, the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center joined its partners to develop a threat assessment model that campuses can use to enhance school safety. 

Mesquite ISD, a district of around 42,000 students, has held at least five trainings over the behavioral threat assessment tool. Executive Director of Administrative Services Shelley Garrett said all of Mesquite ISD’s campus personnel, counselors, school resource officers and administrators took half a day to go over why the behavioral threat assessment was formed, what it aims to accomplish and what is contained in the assessment. 

“The basic tennets are to identify a threat, whether it’s an expressed threat or if somebody poses a threat – to assess it and most importantly, to manage it,” she said. “What we’re trying to do is to get to root causes with students.” 

Kem Edwards spent around half of her 22 years at the district providing counseling services. She now serves as the director of counseling services. The behavioral threat assessment tool asks specific questions about possible motives, what’s been communicated by a student, whether a student’s shown inappropriate interest or engaged in attack-related behaviors. 

“It asks the question why,” she said. “Why does this kid feel this way? Why are they having these thoughts? Sometimes it’s because of things happening at school. Sometimes it’s because of true mental health concern or mental illness that’s presenting in early stages. Sometimes it’s stuff going on at home. When we know why, we can begin to address the problem.” 

According to the U.S Secret Service’s executive summary on the threat assessment model, “threat assessment procedures recognize that students engage in a continuum of concerning behaviors, the vast majority of which will be non-threatening and non-violent, but may still require intervention.” 

“The threshold for intervention should be relatively low so that schools can identify students in distress before their behavior escalates to the level of eliciting concerns about safety,” the summary adds. 

The next steps are to put a safety plan in place and get the student and their parents counseling. 

Having a conversation about the threat assessment requires “being really radically honest and not candy-coating anything,” Garrett said. 

“We can’t afford to use euphemisms and happy words because we’re talking about people shooting people and people dying,” she added. “We’re going to prevent that from happening so it’s about having radically honest conversations with parents and students.” 

The Texas State School Safety Center notes it’s important to not treat the threat assessment like a simple checklist or a way to label students as troublemakers. 

Edwards hopes as the conversations on mental health awareness continue to evolve, educators and administrators recognize the importance of having trainings on the behavioral threat assessment tool. 

“Schools are the first stop for mental health support and for resources,” she said. 

Under Senate Bill 11, all school districts are required to create threat assessment teams.

“A threat assessment team is multi-disciplinary in nature,” Kathy Martinez-Prather, director of the Texas State School Safety Center, said. “It could involve a campus principal, an assistant principal, you definitely want to have law enforcement representation, mental health support or also a teacher.”

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