Can Researchers Show That Threat Assessment Stops Mass Shootings?

In 2019, Texas passed a law that requires every school district and open-enrollment charter school in the state to assemble a team to conduct “behavioral threat assessments.” According to the Web site of the Texas School Safety Center, a research center behind the program, “Behavioral Threat Assessment provides a proactive, evidence-based approach for identifying individuals who may pose a threat and for providing interventions before a violent incident occurs.” Threat-assessment teams are often made up of school administrators, mental-health professionals, and law-enforcement officers, and they aim to distinguish transient threats from emergencies. They often conclude that young people who make threats can also benefit from support.

The eighteen-year-old suspected of fatally shooting nineteen children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, showed warning signs that could have turned up in a threat assessment. According to news reports and declarations from peers, he picked fights with his mother and co-workers. He stopped going to school. He cut his face with knives. He egged cars and shot strangers with a BB gun. On social media, he shared a wish list of weapons, then a photo of two guns. “Looking at it now, he’s textbook,” one of his former schoolmates told the Associated Press. “It could have been prevented. It should have been prevented.” (One proven way to prevent mass shootings is to restrict firearms, but Republicans in Congress won’t do that.)

The Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District, which is home to Robb Elementary School and the high school that the alleged shooter attended, did not respond to e-mailed questions about whether a threat assessment was conducted before the shooting, or about the details of Uvalde’s threat-assessment team or approach. The Texas School Safety Center said that it was “not aware of this information.” But the district’s Web site mentions threat assessments in a list of “Preventative Security Measures,” which also includes police officers, security staff, and alarms. “Every campus employs an interdisciplinary team of trained professionals that convene to identify, evaluate, classify and address threats or potential threats to school security,” the list says.

Threat assessments are now required in schools by eighteen U.S. states, and a recent book by the journalist Mark Follman, “Trigger Points,” concludes that they are a promising tool. But studying the effectiveness of these kinds of strategies “is really, really difficult,” J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist and co-editor of the “International Handbook of Threat Assessment,” told me. There’s no reliable way to count shootings that were prevented—since, by definition, they didn’t happen. The nature of threat assessments also varies from place to place.

“Texas schools are required by law to have threat-assessment teams, but that does not mean they are all functioning at the same level,” Dewey Cornell, a forensic clinical psychologist and professor of education at the University of Virginia who has authored threat-assessment guidelines, told me in a recent e-mail. “Threat assessment cannot prevent all violence and can only function when someone reports a concern. They are not a panacea.”

So what are threat assessments good for? I called Cornell because he is one of relatively few researchers who have conducted rigorous scientific studies on the impact of threat assessment and management, or T.A.M., as the practice is often known. Threat assessments are not a forecast of individual incidents, Cornell told me; they’re an attempt to reduce risk on a large scale. “We’re not trying to predict violence—we are trying to prevent violence,” he said. (Of course, one could argue that some prediction is involved, as certain individuals are deemed more likely than others to carry out an attack.) He believes that T.A.M. reduces the risk of school shootings, but proving it does is difficult enough that Cornell has focussed on related questions: Can such a practice help troubled students get counselling, stay in school, and avoid suspensions and expulsions?

The answers have been heartening, and suggest that “threat assessment and management” could be more constructive, and perhaps more broadly beneficial, than its name would suggest. In essence, it is a structured process for getting help to people who need it. “Threat assessment and management is not an adversarial process and is most effective when it is not framed or approached as adversarial,” the Texas School Safety Center says on its Web site. “Many persons of concern are seeking to be heard and understood in their grievances.” Researchers have yet to verify that threat assessment consistently curbs school shootings, but they have documented its potential to make schools more hospitable and supportive.

According to Meloy, the field of threat assessment emerged in the eighties and nineties, when law-enforcement agencies and some mental-health professionals identified commonalities in their efforts to prevent stalking, workplace violence, mass murder, and public-figure assassinations. Cornell first became interested in threat assessment in 1999, the year of the Columbine shooting, when he attended an F.B.I. conference on school shootings; in the spring of 2001, he got a grant to develop recommendations for schools. In this same period, the U.S. Attorney General, Janet Reno, wrote that threat assessment needed to be used “judiciously” in schools, “because the risk of unfairly labeling and stigmatizing children is great.” Cornell’s team drafted the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines, trained teams to field-test them in thirty-five schools, and updated the recommendations in a manual called “Comprehensive School Threat Assessment Guidelines.”

If forensic psychologists have the power to stop violent acts such as terrorism, assassinations, and mass shootings, scientists should be able to study their methods, much as they measure the effectiveness of a medicine or a public policy. The gold standard for such studies is a randomized controlled trial, in which a randomly assigned test group receives an intervention and a control group does not. But only one such trial has ever tested threat assessment, according to the researchers I talked to. Cornell co-published the study in School Psychology Review, in 2012, with the psychologist Korrie Allen and the education researcher Xitao Fan.

One of the key difficulties in studying school shootings is that, even though they happen with appalling frequency in the United States, they remain rare in statistical terms. On average, a couple dozen school shootings cause injuries in U.S. schools every year, but they’re spread across more than a hundred and thirty thousand schools. A study would need an enormous control group, perhaps five thousand schools, for the control to include about one incident. A second obstacle to a randomized controlled trial is that, once you start to suspect that threat assessments are helping the test group, it becomes unethical to deny them to the control group.

“We knew at the outset of our project that school shootings are rare, and so we never expected to show that there were more shootings in the control group than the threat-assessment group,” Cornell told me. Instead, the authors focussed on the school’s response to the student, and proxies that might affect the risk of shootings. Counselling could decrease violence, whereas suspensions and expulsions may ostracize students or cause anger and resentment, which could increase violence. Unexpectedly, the school district’s own constraints helped address the ethical concern: the district, in Virginia, wanted to train forty schools to use the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines, but could only handle training twenty per year. So Cornell asked for permission to sort the schools at random into a control group and a test group. “The moon and the stars have to line up to do threat-assessment research,” he told me. “The R.C.T. was very fortunate.”

The Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines are a decision tree designed for typically at least three people: a school administrator, a law-enforcement officer, and a mental-health professional. If a student threatens violence, a member of the team first interviews him to help decide whether the threat is transient—a joke, a figure of speech, a momentary outburst. If so, the team seeks a resolution such as an apology, counselling, or minor punishment. If not, the team classifies it as “serious” or “very serious.” From there, the team moves to protect the target of the threat and generate a written safety plan, which may include mental-health care or a law-enforcement response.

The randomized controlled trial was unique but imperfect. The researchers didn’t have the access or resources “to sit there with a clipboard in the school and wait for a threat assessment,” Cornell told me. “That’s a fantasy that couldn’t be done.” Instead, they asked principals to report data, and some were too overwhelmed to share every relevant detail. The small study size was an obstacle, too. In the course of a year, Cornell’s team documented a total of two hundred and one students who made threats in the forty schools they observed. Only seven were carried out—“too few . . . to conduct meaningful analyses,” the researchers wrote.

But, in schools that received the threat-assessment training, students who made threats were four times as likely to receive mental-health counselling, a third as likely to receive long-term suspension, and an eighth as likely to be transferred elsewhere. Their parents were more than twice as likely to be engaged in a conference. (The study controlled for student demographics and the severity of the threats.) Ultimately, the study identified a separate justification for T.A.M.

Cornell portrayed threat assessment as an antidote to zero-tolerance policies that dole out severe punishments. One study, conducted by a health-policy researcher and a health economist, found that students were much more likely to break the law when they were suspended from school than when they were in school, or on weekends or holidays. “The classic news story is the child who said ‘pow-pow’ with his finger and got suspended, or chewed his Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun and was suspended,” Cornell said. In one extreme case, a six-year-old was sentenced to forty-five days in a reform school for bringing a Cub Scouts camping utensil, which included a knife, to school. In Cornell’s view, T.A.M. affects not only the risk of shootings but also “the many students who are distressed and might be helped, and the many students who made a threat that was not serious and were being subject to excessive punishment.”

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