Managing Threats: Preventing Violence and Creating Safe Schools

The Centers for Disease Control did a nationally representative survey in 2011 to see how much violence occurs in schools. Twenty percent of students in grades 9-12 reported that they had been bullied, 7.4% were threatened or injured with a weapon, and 12% were in a physical fight on school property in the 12 months before the survey.ManagingThreats1 Approximately 7% of teachers report that they have been threatened with injury or physically attacked by a student at their school.

In addition, a new study by the FBI says that active shooter incidents are on the rise. A quarter (24.4%) of active shooter incidents took place in an educational setting and 16.9% happened in a pre K-12th grade school.

Sometimes shootings and violent acts are sudden and happen without warning. But other times, violence is preceded by a statement of intent to inflict pain, injury, or damage: a threat is made.

How do we respond to threats before violence happens? School personnel must make timely and comprehensive responses to student threats in order to prevent school violence. The following excerpt is from the program Managing Threats by Geoff Colvin. This is Part 1 of a four-part series.

Managing Threats: A Schoolwide Action Plan

Understanding threats is the first step in preventing threats. Here we will define threats, classify threats into two main types, look into the function of threats, and consider how serious they may be.

1. The Definition of Threats

“A threat is an expression of intent to do harm or act out violently against someone or something. A threat can be spoken, written, or symbolic.” (The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective- FBI Report – Page 6).

2. The Classification of Threats

In general, threats can be classified as either explicit or implicit.

Explicit threats are defined by their level of specificity. Typically, these threats have detailed information such as:

  • How the person(s) will be harmed (assault, shot, knifed, blown up)
  • When it may occur
  • Where it may occur

Explicit threats are plausible in that the perpetrator indicates the means by which the threats can be carried out. Moreover, these threats are often delivered in a calm and planned manner. Clearly, explicit threats imply imminent danger and usually require implementation of school emergency procedures.

ManagingThreats3Implicit threats as the name suggests, lack specificity on what will happen, how it will happen and when it will happen. Typically the individual discloses some general intent to cause harm such as, “You’re gonna pay for this.” These threats are sometimes called veiled or indirect.

Implicit threats may or may not imply imminent danger. The threats could be a result of motivation other than the actual desire to cause physical harm (see below, Function of Threats). Even though implicit threats may not impose imminent danger, they need to be taken seriously, investigated thoroughly, and support plans developed accordingly.

3. The Function of Threats

Threats, as with behavior in general, serve a purpose for the student making them and this purpose may vary. In other words, the threat has a function and if the function can be determined, then a more accurate assessment and corresponding intervention can be formulated. Some common functions of threatening behavior include:

  • Revenge
  • Attention getting
  • Avoidance and escape
  • Face saving
  • Thrill seeking
  • Response to pressure and stress
  • Power and control

In general, if we can identify the function, we are in a stronger position to eliminate the threats and replace them with appropriate behaviors that have the same functions.

4. The Seriousness of Threats

There is general consensus among authorities in the field of violence prevention that all threats should be taken seriously. There are several reasons for this position because threats:

  • May be a predictor of violence
  • May cause significant fear, anxiety, and concern when there may not be intent to follow through on the threat
  • Can cause disruption to the school schedule

However, there is also general consensus that all threats are not the same and should not be treated the same. This means that some threats can impose imminent danger while others may be delivered without the intention of following through with harm. Clearly, a protocol needs to be in place so that schools can adequately assess the seriousness of a threat and develop an appropriate response.

Coming up: Protocols for Managing Threats