By March, every North Carolina public school will need a threat assessment team — a group of school- or district-level employees that fields concerns about student behavior and decides how to act on them.
The teams could save lives, experts say, by ensuring schools have structured and consistent responses to myriad concerns about violence or mental health challenges. At the same time, they’ll be responsibilities shouldered by schools that are already short-staffed.
“The primary purpose is to get that child some assistance, identify some resources, so that that child will not be a threat to themselves or other children,” said Karen Fairley, the executive director of the North Carolina Center for Safer Schools.
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While the fear of a school attack is prominent — especially after years of increasingly frequent mass shootings in the United States — threat assessment teams more often find themselves handling concerns about self-harm and suicidality.
According to state tip line data from this school year, most concerns about student-on-student interactions are related to bullying and harassment — not necessarily threats of physical or serious violence. Threats of school attacks are relatively rare and nearly always unfounded. Tips about drug use and distribution are more common.
The North Carolina Center for Safer Schools is developing guidance for schools on implementing the threat assessment teams. The guidance must include best practices for assessing the threats, intervening and involving an assessed child’s parents, the new law says.
Still, the teams are resource-intensive — something that could be taxing on already-stretched school staffs.
Threat assessment teams would be required to train students and school employees to recognize and report behavior that threatens harm to the community, school or the student themselves. Once someone reports a threat, the team figures out who else needs to know about it and then finds out if it’s credible. Once the team determines a threat is credible, they can recommend mental health care for the person, provide notice to the person or their parents, and provide notice to law enforcement. Whatever information the team shares among themselves is confidential.
Once teams are up and running this spring, they’ll report annual data on the number of threat assessments conducted, the demographics of the individuals assessed, the number of times they found a threat to be present, actions taken and the results of those actions.
Every school must have a threat assessment team, although teams may serve more than one school.
School boards must also create policies for threat assessment.
Cabarrus County Schools, one of the first districts in the state to have a threat assessment team in every school, accepts reports of threats through the Say Something Anonymous Reporting System app, and an after-hours, on-call system. It also uses Gaggle, an artificial intelligence-powered tool that monitors students’ Internet activity.
Teams use a 20-page toolkit to assess threats, going through checklists to investigate threats, measure them and act on them. The toolkit provides consistency across teams and takes subjectiveness out of the process, said Amy Jewell, Cabarrus County Schools’ director of student and family support.
Threat assessment teams or techniques aren’t without some criticism.
Parents in Durham County protested against the use of Gaggle to monitor students’ web activity, and advocacy groups opposed a new Wake County schools policy that allowed the district to monitor students’ Internet use. Those systems have since ceased use of Gaggle.
Whenever Gaggle flags something in Cabarrus County Schools, threat assessment teams are supposed to vet whether the flag is warranted. If a student in an English class types “suicide” numerous times, the team might learn from the teacher that the child is reading Romeo and Juliet, said Amy Lowder, director of student safety and well-being for Cabarrus County Schools. Then, they’d know the flag is likely not a real threat, she said.
On the other extreme, if the flagged word isn’t dismissed as coincidental, the team could have a counselor intervene. If it’s after hours, they may call the child’s parents and ask if they’re with their child right now.
Sometimes, a reported threat can result in a home visit by police. That’s rare, Lowder said, and may only happen if a threat is deemed imminent and a parent isn’t answering their phone.
Threat assessment plays out in Florida
In most cases, the threats reported may not amount to much — a better-safe-than-sorry reality of threat assessments in general.
A University of Virginia study last year of Florida’s threat assessment program found that most threats reported were false reports or unserious threats. An unserious threat could be a joke or flippant remark. About 13.4% were serious threats to fight and about 4.7% were serious threats to kill, rape or use a lethal weapon on someone. Less than 1% of threats reported resulted in serious injury, such as a broken bone or hospitalization. About 5.9% of threats resulted in a physical attack taking place before intervention could occur.
Despite just 18% of threats being serious, 40.7% of threat assessments still resulted in suspension.
Law enforcement were involved in 13.4% of cases, most of which were below the level of charging or arresting a student. Involvement might have been a welfare check or home visit.
Researchers suggested studies in the future look at the long-term impact of threat assessment on those who are assessed and those who were purported potential victims of a threat.
But researchers were fairly positive of Florida’s threat assessment approach.
They said threat assessment appears to be better than “zero tolerance” approaches to purported threats because they allow staff to evaluate and focus on the most serious threats, while suspending fewer students whose threats may not have been serious.
“Overall, these results indicate that the ongoing implementation of school threat assessment in Florida has been widely, but not uniformly, successful,” researchers concluded.
Nationally, advocacy groups have raised concern about the potential for students to be punished based on reports that they may be a threat, through additional scrutiny or suspension. Some argue students suspected of threatening behavior aren’t helped.
Jen Story, managing attorney of the Right to Education Project at Legal Aid of North Carolina said implicit bias can play a role. People might perceive the same action by a student differently, depending on their race or disability.
Limited funds, stretched staff
The lack of funding for these teams has been a concern for Story and other advocates. The Right to Education Project focuses on families who contend their children have been denied access to their education.
Threat assessment work is often done by people who had other full-time duties before they joined a threat assessment team.
“Some days are harder than others,” said Lowder, the Cabarrus Schools safety official. “Some days, many of our teams, this may be how they spend their entire day … is just running through behavioral threat assessments and helping support students with the intervention needs out of those.”
But dedicating resources to the work is critical toward achieving the goals of the teams, Story said.
Sometimes, she sees cases in which schools hear about a threat and confirm what was said but fail to look into anything else. The school doesn’t look into whether the student has been struggling or what other people around them are seeing — things that could help school officials understand the student better and provide them with help. Instead, the school tells the student they can’t return to school until they receive an outside mental health evaluation, she said
“We’ve seen students waiting months for evaluations,” Story said. That means months out of school, without being formally suspended. “There’s a backlog and it’s not easy to get students in.”
Students don’t have to be pushed out of school indefinitely to ensure safety for others, Story said. Schools can do more to assess what’s going on than outsourcing it.
“It’s a false dichotomy to say that we either let students stay in school and issue threats and disrupt the school environment, or we take it seriously and we pull in law enforcement and mental health,” Story said. “It’s just not true that we have to operate in those extremes.”
Schools are dealing with staffing shortages, especially special education departments that can play a role on these teams.
“Schools and teachers feel like they’re doing the best they can, with what they’ve got,” Story said. “They don’t feel equipped to go through the processes and do the work that’s needed to do this therapeutically.”
Guidance from the Department of Public Instruction could help ensure schools approach these teams from the right perspective, Story said. When schools approach threat assessment from a lens of trying to understand the student and get them help, they can succeed, she said. But if they start from the lens of believing that children are threats to be neutralized, they end up alienating their students and making school a worse experience for them.
Jewell, the Cabarrus official focused on students and parents, said intervention for the student who is being assessed for a threat is critical.
Every tip is different, and conversations with parents and the students can be very productive, Jewell said. Those conversations can help school officials learn what kids need, whether it’s a short-term or long-term intervention. The goal is not to use the threat assessment process as a disciplinary measure.
School culture has shifted more toward supporting students now, said Lowder, the Cabarrus student safety official.
“We literally have children approach us and say, ‘Your team saved my life,’ ” Lowder said. “But they actively let us know, it is as a direct result of this intervention.”