A Guide To Conducting Threat Assessments In South Dakota's Public Schools

The United States Secret Service’s report on creating programs for conducting a threat assessment in schools provides a guide for officials to compare to their own systems.

The Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) studied 41 incidents of targeted school violence that occurred at K-12 schools in the United States from 2008 to 2017. The report builds on 20 years of NTAC research and guidance in the field of threat assessment by offering an in-depth analysis of the motives, behaviors, and situational factors of the attackers, as well as the tactics, resolutions, and other operationally-relevant details of the attacks.

Key Findings From The National Threat Assessment Center Report

There is no profile of a student attacker, nor is there a profile for the type of school that has been targeted. 

Attackers varied in age, gender, race, grade level, academic performance, and social characteristics. Similarly, there was no identified profile of the type of school impacted by targeted violence, as schools varied in size, location, and student-teacher ratios. Rather than focusing on a set of traits or characteristics, a threat assessment process should focus on gathering relevant information about a student’s behaviors, situational factors, and circumstances to assess the risk of violence or other harmful outcomes.

Attackers usually had multiple motives, the most common involving a grievance with classmates.

In addition to grievances with classmates, attackers were also motivated by grievances involving school staff, romantic relationships, or other personal issues. Other motives included a desire to kill, suicide, and seeking fame or notoriety. Discovering a student’s motive for engaging in concerning behavior is critical to assessing the student’s risk of engaging in violence and identifying appropriate interventions to change behavior and manage risk.

Most attackers used firearms, and firearms were most often acquired from the home. 

Many of the attackers were able to access firearms from the home of their parents or another close relative. While many of the firearms were unsecured, in several cases the attackers were able to gain access to firearms that were secured in a locked gun safe or case. It should be further noted, however, that some attackers used knives instead of firearms to perpetrate their attacks. Therefore, a threat assessment should explore if a student has access to any weapons, with a particular focus on weapons access at home. Schools, parents, and law enforcement must work together rapidly to restrict access to weapons in those cases when students pose a risk of harm to themselves or others.

Most attackers had experienced psychological, behavioral, or developmental symptoms 

The observable mental health symptoms displayed by attackers prior to their attacks were divided into three main categories: psychological (e.g., depressive symptoms or suicidal ideation), behavioral (e.g., defiance/misconduct or symptoms of ADHD/ADD), and neurological/developmental (e.g., developmental delays or cognitive deficits). The fact that half the attackers had received one or more mental health services prior to their attack indicates that mental health evaluations and treatments should be considered a component of a multidisciplinary threat assessment, but not a replacement. Mental health professionals should be included in a collaborative threat assessment process that also involves teachers, administrators, and law enforcement.

Half of the attackers had interests in violent topics 

Violent interests, without an appropriate explanation, are concerning, which means schools should not hesitate to initiate further information-gathering, assessment, and management of the student’s behavior. For example, a student who is preoccupied or fixated on topics like the Columbine shooting or Hitler, as was noted in the backgrounds of several of the attackers in this study, may be the focus of a school threat assessment to determine how such an interest originated and if the interest is negatively impacting the student’s thinking and behavior.

To read the Secret Service's full report - click here.

Scott Swier
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