There Are Lives in the Balance. How Threat Assessment Teams Can Be Utilized to Staunch the School Shooting Epidemic

A former secret service agent provides insights on what K-12 and higher education risk managers can do to stop school shooters in their tracks.
By: | July 18, 2022

It’s impossible to forget May 24, 2022, when 18-year-old Salvador Ramos walked into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, fatally shooting nineteen students, two teachers and wounding seventeen others.   

In the months after the shooting, horrific details about the multitude of ways law enforcement failed to intervene have emerged, including failing to enter the classroom for a full 77 minutes while students and teachers pleaded for help. 

Meanwhile schools in Texas and across the U.S. faced threats of copycat shootings, leaving many teachers, school administrators and parents wondering what, if anything, they can do to keep children safe. 

“We’re seeing a specific, significant increase in school shootings, and especially in mass shootings and mass killings, at K-12 and higher ed,” said Dr. Marisa Randazzo, executive director of threat management for Ontic and director of threat assessment for Georgetown University.

Randazzo, who formerly served as the Secret Service’s chief research psychologist, spoke during a June United Educators webinar “Preventing School Shootings: A Question & Answer Session.” Here are some key insights from her talk. 

Are School Shootings on the Rise?

One of the first questions Randazzo answered was whether or not school shootings have been on the rise in recent years. 

“We have absolutely seen an increase in a whole range of violent incidents and disruptive incidents that are impacting our educational institutions at the K-12 level and at the higher education level as well,” she said. 

So far, Education Week’s school shooting tracker counts 27 incidents in 2022, with Uvalde being the most deadly since 2012’s Sandy Hook shooting. 

“We’ve absolutely seen an uptick, especially post-COVID, in the number of shooting incidents and mass killing incidents that are impacting our educational institution[s],” Randazzo said. 

“The research we are starting to see is showing, yes, an increase in not only school shootings but a whole host of disruptive and violent behavior at our educational institutions, generally.”

The reasons for this uptick in violence vary from school to school and individual to individual, but the financial, emotional and physical health stressors brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic are likely exacerbating these situations. 

Classes were disrupted, students and teachers had to adapt to online schooling and many experienced instability in their homes as a result of the pandemic. Now that many are back in the classroom, Randazzo expects they may be acting out, even on a small scale. 

Take recent data from Miami Dade County Public Schools as an example. Between July 2021 to April 2022 the school saw 323 student aggression claims, Risk & Insurance® reported in May. The period from July 2019 to April 2020 saw 282 student aggression claims. 

How Threat Assessment Teams Help Prevent School Shootings

Given the high risks of school shootings, many K-12 and higher education institutions have started forming threat assessment teams to detect any members of their communities who might be at-risk of carrying out violence, so that the institution can intervene before anyone is hurt. 

These teams often look for signs that a student or staff member may be plotting a shooting or another kind of assault. 

“The whole point of having a threat assessment process is to be able to identify a concern and intervene,” Randazzo said.

In the K-12 space, threat assessment teams often include representatives from the school district, such as principals or school board members, local mental health professionals and local law enforcement, often a school resource officer. 

Higher education teams tend to be more expansive as they tend to address any dangers from faculty or staff and any domestic violence cases that may affect campus in addition to student behavior cases. 

Human resources staff, student counseling services, mental health professionals who work with the school’s employee assistance programs, local law enforcement, campus safety and any deans and administrative staff who oversee faculty and student behavior are all part of a robust higher education threat assessment team. 

“The key for any behavioral threat assessment team, whether it’s K-12 or higher ed, is multidisciplinary,” Randazzo said. 

“That multidisciplinary perspective helps you come up with a multifaceted plan or access resources that you wouldn’t know you could or wouldn’t be able to access if it were just a school-based team alone.”

Though threat assessment teams are best equipped to detect threats within the community, they can also monitor social media to see if someone outside the school is making threats. In these cases, they’ll need to rely more heavily on local law enforcement to help diffuse any potentially dangerous situations. 

The Pathway to Violence

According to Randazzo, school shooters typically follow a similar path, which enables threat assessment teams to identify people who might be at risk and to step in before they commit any harm. 

“We call this whole trajectory a pathway to violence, from idea to plan, to preparation, to implementation,” she said. 

She identified the following signs that someone might be at risk of committing a shooting:

1) They research ways to do harm. Many school shooters start the process by researching how other shooters prepared for mass shootings. During this time, they begin to identify with shooters while making their own plans to commit harm. 

2) They make a plan to commit violence. After the initial research, a potential shooter will start making a plan to commit their heinous crime. This stage usually includes acquiring weapons and drawing up the specifics of their plan.

At this point, a shooter may begin to confide their plan to others. They may tell a close friend or a teacher. Or they may begin writing about mass shootings in their school work. Whatever the case, teachers and administrators should be prepared to flag this behavior and get students the help they need.  

“People planning out school shootings typically often tell other people beforehand about their violent plans before they get to the point of being violent,” Randazzo said. 

“They’re telling other people in part because they want someone to help them to stop those thoughts, to get them off the pathway to violence.”

3)  Implementing the plan. The final step on the pathway to violence Randazzo described is implementing their plan. 

By this time, many are deeply depressed and actively suicidal, Randazzo said. That’s why mental health support is such an important part of a threat assessment team. 

“The vast majority of people who have carried out school shootings in the past have done so when they were at a point of personal desperation or were actively suicidal,” she explained. 

“Now, I want to put a caveat here that the majority of people who are suicidal, who are considering taking their own life, are not going to be at risk of violence to other people. However, when we are working on a case of someone who is talking about carrying out a school shooting, telling other people, researching past school shootings, we need to ask, ‘Why are they doing that? Are they at a point of personal desperation, or are they at a point of being actively suicidal?’ ”

If a threat assessment team detects any of these risk factors in a student or staff member, they’ll need to plan a series of interventions to help get that individual off the pathway to violence. Following up with individuals in these circumstances is key to make sure these dangerous thoughts are truly gone for good. 

“These incidents are absolutely preventable,” Randazzo stressed.

“The people who carry out school shootings in K-12, as well as in higher ed, typically follow a detectable progression of behavior … We know the threat assessment process is the best available tool to identify someone on that pathway and to get them off that pathway.” &

Courtney DuChene is a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia. She can be reached at [email protected].

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