Threat assessment during distance learning

How districts have ensured their staff continue to collaborate and follow protocol regarding student threat assessment during the pandemic
By: | June 8, 2020
Photo by Toa Heftiba on UnsplashPhoto by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Teachers and related service providers who are only connecting with students remotely during the pandemic still have a responsibility to report when a student makes a threat or exhibits threatening behavior.

“The challenge during this time [of school closures] is there are fewer eyes on kids,” says Courtenay McCarthy, a school psychologist at Salem-Keizer (Ore.) Public Schools who focuses on threat assessment. “Our threat assessment team is making sure we’re collaborating and communicating with all our community partners so we will know if a student is not doing well.”

McCarthy and the rest of the Mid-Valley Student Threat Assessment Team, which includes law enforcement officers and public mental health officials, continue to meet online on a weekly basis to discuss new concerns and follow up on open cases.

Use these tips to ensure you continue to have a robust threat assessment process during remote instruction:

• Follow the same protocol. If a teacher sees or hears something threatening during an online lesson, he should report it to school administration even if everyone is working remotely, McCarthy says. An administrator may contact law enforcement if there is an urgent safety concern, such as a student brandishing a weapon and threatening to hurt someone. “Staff should be reporting in the same way they would report if they were in person,” she explains.

Indeed, even if a student says that he plans to hurt his classmates when everyone returns to school in the fall, the threat needs to be addressed, says James Munnelly, a school attorney at McKenna Snyder LLC in Exton, Pa. “You can’t just say you’ll deal with it in the fall. You still have to take action during [school closures].”

• Emphasize observation. As staff members carry out regular check-ins with students through videoconferences or phone calls, make sure they look and listen for changes in student behavior and what students may say or do that indicates they are struggling emotionally or having problems with another student or something at home, McCarthy says.

At the same time, recognize that students have access to possessions at home that they wouldn’t have at school. For example, “students may want to show off their knives online because they think they’re cool and can’t bring them to school,” she says. “It may not be something more concerning.” Even so, a concerned staff member should still report to an administrator what he sees and hears so a threat assessment team can assess the situation. “The same would go for other weapons, including replica firearms, and for any threatening comments a student makes in an online one-on-one or group setting,” she says.

• Conduct interviews remotely. If you don’t believe the threat is serious enough to involve police from the beginning, you can try to do a videoconference or phone call with the student to determine his needs, McCarthy says. The staff member who initially interviews the student should be someone the student knows and trusts. “It’s harder to establish a rapport with a student over video or phone,” she notes. “You want the adult who is gathering the initial information to have a relationship with that student.”

You may want to offer the staff member a script of what to say to find out how the student is doing. “It’s important for people to understand that anyone can ask a student how things are going,”McCarthy says. “From there, you may hand the case off to somebody with more expertise, but you definitely don’t want people to be afraid to talk with students about hard things.”

• Collaborate with parents. Partner with parents to figure out the threat’s level of severity, McCarthy says. “Parents have the most knowledge about what’s going on with the student currently.” While most parents will understand why a threat assessment needs to be conducted, recognize that some may be defensive or protective. “It’s so important to be open with parents about what the threat assessment process looks like and why you want to work with them on it to get good information,” she says.

• Provide resources. Salem-Keizer is continuing to offer online support groups that existed at school, including grief and social-skills groups. Besides providing similar groups to have more eyes on vulnerable students, you may want to offer families information on community resources, such as counselors who are working with families via telephone and videoconference, McCarthy says. Also remind staff members and families of hotlines they can call if they believe a student is a threat.

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.