- The threat assessment model features an approach to violence prevention that emphasizes early attention to problems such as bullying and teasing before they escalate into violent behavior.
- Research shows that the model’s use has led to a reduction in suspension rates for students of color and students with disabilities.
By Mike Marsee
Even before it became law, Jim Feger was convinced that threat assessment was a good idea for Kentucky’s schools.
Feger has been spreading the word for the better part of two years about a program that takes an equitable approach to reducing the risk of violence while at the same time improving equity for students of color and students with disabilities who are more likely to be suspended.
In the relatively short time since Feger introduced the Comprehensive School Threat Assessment Guidelines (CSTAG) to the board of the Southeast/South-Central Educational Cooperative in March 2018, it has spread across the state to dozens of districts through regional trainings.
“In the last few months it is just picking up momentum,” said Feger, who formerly worked for the Southeast/South-Central co-op and is now a behavior consultant with the Greater Louisville Education Cooperative.
CSTAG is an evidence-based model for schools to use in conducting threat assessments in K-12 schools. The model, originally known as the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines, was developed at the University of Virginia (UVa) in 2001 and has been used at schools nationwide.
CSTAG’s use has spread rapidly in Kentucky since the passage of Senate Bill 1 (2019), a bill intended to enhance school safety that was approved by the Kentucky General Assembly in February and signed into law in March.
Included in the bill’s mandates is a charge for the school safety coordinator in each district to establish a safety and security threat assessment team at each school to identify and respond to students exhibiting behavior that indicates a potential threat.
Feger said threat assessment has become a hot topic both in the realm of law enforcement and in the political arena in the wake of school shootings, and he said it’s important not to confuse threat assessment with crisis response.
“The threat assessment piece has, sadly, been thrust to the front, but threat assessment is really about violence prevention,” Feger said. “The softening of schools is just as important as the hardening of schools.”
The chief purpose of threat assessment is to prevent targeted violence, and the Virginia model of threat assessment is an approach to violence prevention that emphasizes early attention to problems such as bullying and teasing before they escalate into violent behavior.
“A lot of schools already had some sort of threat assessment in place, but not a problem-solving approach,” said Lisa Loague, a behavior consultant with the Green River Regional Educational Cooperative (GRREC) and one of two people at the co-op who conduct trainings on CSTAG. “Threat assessment is not designed to determine whether a student has made a threat, but whether a student poses a threat.”
School threat assessment teams are typically headed by a principal or another school administrator and may include teachers, school counselors, school psychologists, school resource officers and school-based mental health professionals and others, including contracted personnel.
“We help them work through the problem-solving protocol,” Loague said. “We follow the five-step decision tree for identifying the seriousness of the threat and we give them the opportunity to apply the problem-solving model with some case examples. Then we give them some scenarios and allow them to work through those in small groups.”
Feger said the trainings begin by focusing on the importance of differentiating threat assessment from crisis response and on how fear can become an impediment to protecting students.
“We teach and structure them toward positive approaches and to use suspension judiciously for safety purposes,” he said. “When schools adopt the model, it levels the disproportionality. Students of color and students with disabilities are not suspended at a disproportionate rate.
“It’s a huge win. Certainly it helps reduce the risk of violence, but your big win is that you’re creating that culture of inclusion, that culture of safety.”
Feger said he was attracted to the CSTAG model because of the research that supports it and because of its ability to lead to different disciplinary outcomes for those students.
CSTAG’s principal author, UVa professor and forensic clinical psychologist Dewey Cornell, came to Kentucky in August 2018 to train about 20 consultants from education cooperatives across the state. Those personnel now train school threat assessment teams.
Those who attend the trainings are told that students of color and students with disabilities are at a much greater risk of being suspended as a result of threats or perceived threats.
Kathy Maciel, a GRREC behavior consultant who conducts trainings with Loague, said research on the threat assessment model has shown that a decrease in suspension rates and an increase in counseling leads to a more positive school climate.
“The threat assessment model is really helping us be consistent in our approach to all students,” Maciel said. “There are no significant disparities between general education and special education, and there are no significant disparities between races or ethnicities like there are with other measures.”
“It also leads them to address mental health issues and the trauma that students are dealing with now,” Loague added. “It brings more stakeholders to the table and more resources to address the needs of all the students.”
Trainers stress that threat assessment fits seamlessly into the system of interventions that is already in place.
“It’s really a great complement to the tiers of support that Kentucky has been promoting for a long time,” Feger said.
School resource officers and other law enforcement personnel also frequently participate in the trainings as part of schools’ threat assessment teams.
“They’re going to be a part of the process anyway, and it integrates them into the process and also provides them with the training and the protocols to use,” Maciel said. “I’ve had school resource officers say, ‘I’ve always wanted something like this.’”
Feger said he has heard from numerous administrators who have said the CSTAG model is preferable to a zero-tolerance approach to threats.
“One of the big things I’m hearing is that principals feel supported in what they know is right, in the desire to get past that zero-tolerance approach,” he said. “It is affirmation and support because they recognized the need for something else but didn’t have that model to support it.”
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