Book excerpt: Stop the Killing: How to End the Mass Shooting Crisis

Former head of the FBI’s active shooter program, Katherine Schweit, shares an insider look at how to prevent shootings and the role threat assessment teams play


The following is an excerpt from "Stop the Killing: How to End the Mass Shooting Crisis" by the former head of the FBI’s active shooter program, Katherine Schweit, who shares evidence-based research and the most up-to-date information around shooting prevention efforts and shooting aftermaths. Order here.

"Stop the Killing" offers insight into what each of us can do to end the active shooter crisis plaguing America.
"Stop the Killing" offers insight into what each of us can do to end the active shooter crisis plaguing America.

Chapter 6: A Peek inside Threat Assessment Teams

Even if everybody who sees something says something, you may be wondering what happens to all that information going to Threat Assessment Teams, or TATs.

In truth, not too many people know, and it is that way by design. The personal details of someone’s life brought to a TAT can include embarrassing information and may reflect a time in their life when they are struggling with work, family, school, financial troubles, friends, or physical challenges.

An effective TAT has privacy and discretion must be at the forefront of a TAT’s work, breaking confidentiality only to those who can help to person on a bad trajectory. In addition, laws limit what can be shared, just as law enforcement are limited on what they can share with the public.

Despite that, a brief explanation of the makeup and of TATs and the operation of a TAT can assist everybody in understanding that the information they share isn’t left in an in-basket that no one will see.

Teams Doing Threat Assessment and Threat Management

Whether you have a TAT or are just forming one, here are some considerations:

  • How strong is the team? Is it a team that exists on paper alone and not really functioning? Maybe there is a school counselor or principal or a human resources person or clerk working alone to consider random information coming in.
  • Sometimes organizations don’t have the right mix of people to look at the information as a whole and intercede. One person – particularly the person already responsible for so many other things – is apt to fail to connect the dots and likely not able to devote the time to properly assess and manage a threat.
  • Assess the membership and the members themselves. Look through the matters they have considered and do a compliance check on your methods. Ask the group whether issues could have been handled better or any changes that might need to be made.
  • Do TAT members understand exceptions to privacy laws that allow them to share responsibilities?
  • Though the team should include law enforcement support, are they aware arrest isn’t the first or preferred goal.
  • Is the TAT earning a reputation that information gathered will be evaluated promptly, discreetly, and thoroughly, making the community stronger and more likely to report concerns immediately?

If you don’t have a team and are charged with developing one, there are many resources available. [1]

In 2018, the US Secret Service released Enhancing School Safety Using a Threat Assessment Model, which offers these tips for establishing a team. [2]

  • A team should have some written parameters that indicate membership desires, the process for taking in and analyzing information, and how it will meet and assess information of concern.
  • The makeup is as varied as the needs of the community and teams should include law enforcement and non-law enforcement.
  • Pick a set time to meet, which could be once a week, once a month, or just when called. Frequency depends on the volume of information they need to assess. Start with once every two weeks, for example, and set a time to re-assess the workflow.
  • A single team member should be assigned to each new lead to ensure nothing falls between the cracks and each piece of information is thoroughly vetted. Each lead should be evaluated to see if the information could be matched to other existing individuals of concern or whether new cases should be opened.
  • The team should keep good records of information received and actions taken.
  • Remember that a good TAT has a great relationship with local law enforcement.

Threat Assessment Operations

Once established, TATs have three primary functions: collect information, assess its value, and design a strategy to help the identified person who may be struggling. A TAT’s function compliments that of law enforcement, school disciplinarians, and human resource department personnel, since TATs are able to assess and resolve non-emergency matters and situations that do not warrant a call to 911.

Effective TATs meet on a regular schedule to assess information collected from various sources. Perhaps information comes into the team that high school student “Sally” has said she is so mad she wants to kill someone.

For the assessment, one TAT member is assigned to lead an assessment on Sally. Having one responsible person helps to have one person accountable and not have any leads fall through the cracks, particularly if people leave a school, a company or retire.

Maybe the school counselor is assigned this lead and her initial checks show Sally was heard making this comment at basketball practice.

For a business, the human resource TAT member is assigned the file and he learns that employee Sally made the comment at a union meeting.

Whether the assessment is in a high school or a business environment, the TAT’s task will be to use their collective skills and knowledge to resolve the concern. This is why the makeup of the team is important. It should reflect the diversity of the needs of the community served and include people who have the ability to make decisions or recommend change.

Therefore, a school TAT might have principals, counselors, teachers, coaches, a school nurse, in-house school security, and school resource officers. A business TAT might include many of those but also a representative from human resources, managers or executives, or an on-staff industrial psychologist. A religious organization may have clerics and laypersons, including teen group leaders, and congregation members.

No matter the team makeup, each should have the ability to get immediate input on the assessment from law enforcement, as well as mental health and social service experts. Assessing the value of the information is a team effort.

For the team to assess Sally’s “kill someone” there are likely going to be interviews required and the team will need to review electronic and paper records to search out any previous incidents at work, at school, or in the criminal justice system. These could include criminal and mental health records, employee files, disciplinary records, and academic records.

This allows the TAT to look not just at what the last reported item is about Sally, but also any history of violence, her exposure as a victim of violence, mental and behavioral health history, prior concerns raised, her social support structure, and other stresses in her life.

This may be trickier if Sally is a student who may move from one school to another or has risen from high school to university. It may be even more challenging if Sally is new to the company or has brought her troubles with her from another city. The latter situation is where law enforcement may be able to help since officers can quickly contact peers in another city and share concerning behavior without violating privacy concerns. 

Cornell’s team at the University of Virginia offers a free 23-page, editable document to guide TAT assessments. [3] Cornell’s work was designed for schools, however, I know Cornell consults with businesses and his materials are easily adaptable for businesses.

Many other threat assessment and threat management resources are widely available to start you off, but I reference the work from Cornell’s team here because everything they use, including interview forms and assessment checklists, are available for free in a Word format that is downloadable and alterable.

I particularly like that the forms for interviewing people already have some key assessment questions on the documents. This best ensures the interviewer doesn’t miss important items.

The guide walks teams methodically through an assessment using the decision tree here. Benefits of using a systematic way of evaluating are twofold. First, every person on the TAT understands the process and applies it without bias to all individuals. And, second, a consistent assessment method will allow TAT members to work more efficiently and faster, preventing wasted time and burnout.

Cornell notes that about 90% of threats are resolved quickly resolved leaving more resources to focus on the remaining 10% of more substantive and serious threats. [4] 

Analysis begins by assessing whether the threating material is substantive or what Cornell has termed, transient. Transient by definition means something that only last momentarily – like the anger you feel when you drop that bag of groceries or hit your hand on a door jamb as you walk by. The anger level is often disproportionate to the actual incident or injury, and the feeling is transient. Substantive threats are more of a concern.

Step one in a TAT evaluation is to look at the threat itself by doing interviews and considering circumstances. If Sally’s communication demonstrates an intent to harm someone or behavior suggesting intent to harm, then you move to step two. If not, the information is filed away in case another incident raises concerns about Sally.

In Sally’s case, wanting to “kill someone,” clearly gets her past step one.

In the second step, the TAT considers whether Sally’s threat might be an expression of humor, rhetoric, anger, or frustration that can be easily resolved. Maybe Sally retracted the threat; maybe she apologized or had a good explanation. This is when the TAT would determine the threat was transient and there was no real intent to cause physical harm.

Initial research into threats at 339 Virginia public schools in the 2014-2015 school year found that 78 percent, or 652 of 841 threats, were categorized as transient threats. [5]

If Sally’s threat is deemed to be substantive, the TAT shifts into high gear. Their actions may include warning intended victims, parents, and employers to take precautions to protect them. A school-based TAT will look for ways to resolve the conflict, including disciplinary efforts. For businesses, this may be a dismissal, which can be a shortsighted solution if handled messily and Sally returns to take revenge.

The more serious the TAT finds Sally’s threat, the more steps the TAT will take including likely engaging law enforcement and mental health professionals.

 Unless the matter merits that 911 call, the TAT’s job is to then manage the threat.


Listen to Katherine Schweit discuss her new book on Police1's Policing Matters podcast


Threat Management Operations

A threat management plan should help Sally turn the corner on whatever is going wrong in her life. Maybe she is dealing with an abusive parent or an ill child. Maybe she is dealing with a very demanding parent or boss. Maybe a relationship or job has ended. Maybe a friend has moved away. Maybe she is under mental health care but not taking her medication properly. Maybe she is hanging with the wrong crowd. Maybe she simply doesn’t want to feel so alone. Maybe she feels she cannot get out from under financial debt.

Just like parents, TATs develop a plan to set boundaries, care-take and move a person from concerning behavior to stability.

Team members engage supportive family members, if they exist, help Sally set positive and realistic goals, and constantly gauge her receptiveness to assistance. They learn how to help a person of concern develop a healthy social network and develop positive coping mechanisms for real or perceived problems.

An endless list of options is available to make this happen and mitigate the situation. If Sally makes the threat to a person at work or school, the TAT could recommend and help her to apologize to those who heard the threat. This may allay their fears, help her save face, and get her back into her old social structure.

If Sally is a student, a parent conference might be part of a plan if her family can show how they can support her. If Sally has money troubles, financial counseling resources might help or maybe she can find comfort if encouraged to seek support through a religious organization of choice. Maybe Sally is asked to stop by the school counselor or company industrial psychologist once a week to touch base.

County mental health departments and company employee assistance programs can be a resource for mental health counseling and added support. Sally could be invited to engage with a volunteer group or be asked to mentor or tutor someone to help her gain confidence in her own skills and value. Still, serious threats could result in days off work or school suspensions to cool off.

Law enforcement engagement that results in an arrest can be part of a plan too, but most TATs see little information actually rising to that level of concern.

Every situation is unique, so it’s impossible to say what is typical for TAT members as they work through threat assessment and threat management. But their essential duties involved identifying a person of concern and finding ways to help them.

Threat management can be a one-day effort or extend years. Often these actions fly under the radar of nearly everyone, so though you may not see something happening, that does not make it so. This is particularly true where a younger Sally has displayed concerns and a watchful TAT helps guide her through those challenging teenage years where her brain in developing from child to adult.

TATs Under Scrutiny

The TAT way of managing threats is not without critics. Many voice concerns about threat assessment unnecessarily tracking, documenting, and elevating what traditionally would have been considered someone’s random braggadocios or momentary frustration.

Pennsylvania is one several states mandating the TAT system in schools. Yet it is not a perfect system.

In 2019, officers from a police department in Pennsylvania spent time interviewing parents of a 6-year-old with Downs Syndrome who pointed a finger at a school administration and declared, “I shoot you.” [6]

When news of the police involvement went public, the parents were frustrated to find the information on their daughter would remain in TAT files, a permanent digital stain on her reputation.

“This is a real setback,” Harold Jordan, senior policy advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, told the Pennsylvania Gazette. He worried that excessive involvement of police in schools could make students less likely to report concerns to adults.

“This is not a process that’s going to catch the next school shooter,” he said.

And compare that to a recent situation in Los Angeles where a parent of a 7-year-old second-grader insisted her daughter be moved from a classroom where a child had written a “kill list” on a piece of construction paper. [7]

The classmate was not removed from his classroom because the threat assessment team found the threat to be transient with the boy not even having access to weapons.

But the girl’s mother felt the school was “brushing it aside,” she told the Los Angeles Times.

When deciding whether to support a TAT for your business, school, or religious organization, consider this. In June of 2020, Pew Research Center polled 4,708 adults in the United States, asking them how they felt about the “way things are going in this country today.” Eighty-seven percent said they were dissatisfied. [8]

Pew researchers also asked those surveyed, “in thinking about the state of the country these days, they feel…” American’s responded, saying 7% felt angry and 66% felt fearful.

With more states mandating TATs and the social and political climate of the past few years leaving the country angrier as a whole, [9] it seems sensible to encourage more ways to not only detect brittle individuals going down the wrong path but also give them the tools to reverse course.

Right now I vote yes on TATs.

Notes

1. “Making Prevention a Reality: Identifying, Assessing and Managing the Threat of Targeted Attacks,” see also, School Threat Assessment Consultants LLC, “Forms for Comprehensive School Threat Assessment Guidelines.”

2. Enhancing School Safety Using a Threat Assessment Model: An Operational Guide for Preventing Targeted School Violence. U.S. Secret Service, see also, Enhancing School Safety Using A Threat Assessment Model: An Operational Guide For Preventing Targeted School Violence, U.S. Secret Service.

3. School Threat Assessment Consultants LLC. Forms for Comprehensive School Threat Assessment Guidelines.

4. School Threat Assessment Consultants LLC. Training in School-Based Threat Assessment.

5. School Threat Assessment Consultants LLC. Training in School-Based Threat Assessment.

6. Hanna M. Finger shoot from 6-year-old causes threat assessment in Philadelphia suburban school. Pittsburgh Post Gazette, February 16, 2020.

7. Taketa K. What should schools do when a second-grader makes a threat? Los Angeles Times, January 2, 2020.

8. Pew Research Center. Public’s Mood Turns Grim; Trump Trails Biden on Most Personal Traits, Major Issues. June 2020. 

9. Pew Research Center. Public’s Mood Turns Grim; Trump Trails Biden on Most Personal Traits, Major Issues. June 2020, see also, Charles Duhigg, The Real Roots of American Rage: The untold story of how anger became the dominant emotion in our politics and personal lives—and what we can do about it. The Atlantic.

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