The Importance of Threat Assessment

The following article by Paul Mascari is being re-posted from the December issue of the Wisconsin Association of School Business Official’s Taking Care of Business:

What did you know, when did you know it, and what did you do about it? Inevitably, these are the first questions asked of schools and law enforcement following any school shooting.

But how do you know and what do you do about it? If we could accurately predict violent acts, we would not be in the situation we are in with violence in our schools. There is considerable research on acts of mass violence, including school shootings, and the one thing they all have in common is the conclusion that there is no reliable profile for someone who will commit a school shooting.

So if mental health experts and law enforcement professionals cannot accurately predict violence, how can educators? The simple answer is – they can’t.

What schools can and should be doing is creating a threat assessment team and drafting a district-wide threat assessment policy. While the creation of School Safety Intervention Teams (SSIT) and attendance at mental health/threat assessment training is required under the most recent round of Wisconsin Department of Justice school safety grant funding, this is also the most effective proactive measure a district can take to keep schools safe.

Having served on and chaired numerous threat assessment teams, I can tell you the most important thing any team can do is meet regularly – especially when there is not a threat. Use the opportunity to discuss scenarios, review and refine policy, and take advantage of professional development opportunities as a team. While the training provided by the Office of School Safety is a significant first step, eight hours of training will not be enough for a team to be proficient if they do not take the initiative for further development.

States like Virginia have been mandating threat assessment in schools for years. A threat assessment model adapted to the K-12 setting, the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines (VSTAG), was first developed in 2001 at the University of Virginia and has been the subject of numerous field tests and academic studies.

Because of its proven effectiveness in tests and studies, VSTAG is listed on the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices and is an excellent resource for threat assessment policy and procedure development.

Research also suggests that schools utilizing evidence-based programs like VSTAG see reduced rates of suspensions and racial disparities in school discipline. The Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education has a wealth of information and statistics to support the positive outcomes that come from using threat assessment.

There is no doubt that a heavy burden rests on any threat assessment team. What did you know, when did you know it, and what did you do about it? The good news is threat assessment works, and there are considerable evidence and real-world examples to prove it. If schools put time and effort into developing a sound threat assessment policy and threat assessment team, it undoubtedly will be the single best proactive measure they can take to make schools safer.

Spending Wisely on School Safety

As a leader in education, you know what is needed to keep your students safe. In the last several years, schools have spent millions and millions of dollars on safety improvements like cameras, reinforced doors, emergency notification systems, and access control. You know what you need to do, but do you know how to do it? Who do you rely on for safety and security advice? Security technology vendors? Local police departments?

If you are looking at new construction or remodeling in your district, utilizing the services of an independent security consultant can save significant money in both the short and long run. A security consultant who specializes in school safety can make recommendations based on the unique learning environment and industry best practices.

Furthermore, a review of school safety policy & procedure can lead to evidence and research-based recommendations that offer greater protection for students, staff, and visitors – often for less money than reactive measures like bullet-resistant glass.

Security vendors are experts in the products sold by their company, but they also have a vested interest in selling schools as much as they can. According to RAND Institute policy researcher Heather Schwartz, districts need an independent third party to “wade through the marketing from the different [security] companies.” Unfortunately, some companies are also taking advantage of the genuine and understandable fear and emotions surrounding school safety. After all, can we put a price on the safety of our children?

We can’t and shouldn’t put a price on safety, but we have a responsibility to ensure we are spending limited resources allocated for security in a way that best protects our students. Perhaps you don’t need as many cameras as a vendor recommends. Maybe your current access control system works just fine but could be reconfigured. An independent security consultant can review RFPs and bids, potentially saving your districts considerable money for reinvestment into other safety initiatives.

Understandably, schools often turn to their police department for safety advice. While police undoubtedly have the safety and wellbeing of students forefront in their minds, they usually lack the expertise necessary to make recommendations that fit in a school environment.

Schools should always include police and fire department personnel in any discussion related to safety and security, but also need to consider that, by nature, emergency first responders have an entire community to protect, and they often come to the table with that perspective. It is not safe to assume that someone who is an expert in response is also an expert in prevention.

Whether you are merely updating an aging security system or are about to design and build a new high school, investing a relatively small amount in an expert assessment of your safety and security needs can not only save you a significant amount of money but can also make your school safer.

Take a Holistic Approach to School Safety

Mass shootings first entered the national conscience on April 20, 1999 when two teens* killed 13 people and wounded 24 others at Columbine High School in Colorado. National debates ensued about gun control, bullying, violence in video games, and mental health. Following Columbine, many schools instituted airport-like screening procedures at entrances and “zero-tolerance” policies to violence. However, school safety did not improve, and most of those schools rolled back some of the more extreme measures they had put in place.

On April 16, 2007, a gunman* opened fire on the Virginia Tech campus, killing 33 and injuring 23. It was the most violent mass shooting in modern U.S. history. The national debates were the same, but the response of higher education was very different. After the Virginia Tech shooting, and the mass shooting that followed less than a year later at Northern Illinois University, college campus administrators responded swiftly by:

  • creating multidisciplinary teams to address the breakdowns that had occurred in communication
  • forming threat assessment teams and providing training to faculty and staff in an attempt to identify people who might be on a path to violence
  • ensuring campus and local police had the training and capability to respond to a shooting in progress
  • putting mostly sensible physical security and mass notification systems in place

In short, higher education took a decidedly holistic approach to preventing campus violence.

Arguably, the advantage higher ed had over K-12 was, despite the internal silos existing on college campuses, all the people necessary to the safety conversation were all still part of the same institution – part of the same team. Most colleges and universities have dedicated security or police and dedicated counseling services. Faculty or professional staff of some sort are involved in nearly every aspect of an undergraduate student’s time on campus. Getting representatives from these areas together was instrumental for creating a safer environment.

To address violence in K-12 schools, district administrators need to take a similar approach. But this can be challenging when the people who need to be at the table are not all from the same institution. School districts primarily rely on local law enforcement for safety and security on their campus. While some larger school districts might have security staff, it is the police who respond during a crisis. Police have an entire community to serve, and it’s unreasonable to expect them to adopt the culture of a particular school district on their own. Rather, school districts need to work with an expert who understands both cultures.

When addressing safety, the first thing a school needs to do is get an overall assessment from an independent professional. This evaluation would examine:

  • physical security (cameras, alarms, access control, etc.)
  • policy and procedure (building access, emergency response, threat assessment and management)
  • training protocols for faculty and staff

Receiving an unbiased, independent review from someone who not only specializes in school safety, but who also is not selling any of the products or services the district might need to buy, gives a district superintendent the proper foundation for producing an effective safety and security “master plan.”

As a former police chief at a major university in Milwaukee, I understand both viewpoints – that of the police and that of the academic institution. Speaking the language of both cultures, I serve as an intermediary between law enforcement and school administration, helping both parties understand what the other one brings to the table, as well as the unique challenges each face in responding to security threats. Together, we can develop a unified approach to help keep students and staff safe.

* More often than not, perpetrators of mass violence are seeking notoriety. Thus, commentary on school shootings in this blog will never refer to a shooter by name.

Putting Limited Resources to Best Use

Availability of resources is an issue for most organizations – especially school districts. Schools can maximize their resources and plan for the future by having a security master plan in place. A master plan developed with the help of an independent security consultant will ensure you spend your money wisely and the technology you put in place will allow for future growth and integration.

The following article from Security Management explains their best practices in developing master security plans to help you make better decisions.



​My grandfather once told me, “If you build a levee six feet high but the water rises to seven, you’ve wasted 100 percent of your investment. But if you build that levee to eight feet, and the water rises to seven, no one will care about the over-investment.”

A good master security plan helps you spec and budget for that seven-foot flood with an eight-foot levee. And ultimately, a good plan leads to a good security system.

That’s what one of our clients, a large private university in the Puget Sound region of Washington State, discovered when we went through the planning process for its access control and video surveillance system. In developing the master security plan, we realized that just expanding the existing systems would not meet the school’s future needs, and updating the systems as an interim step would ultimately be more expensive than putting in new systems. 

So how should a security manager develop an effective plan? Here are my suggestions for best practices in creating a master security plan, based on 30 years’ experience in the facility vulnerability sector.

Start at the End

Where do you want to be in five, 10, or 15 years? Once that is established, work backwards from there. If you have a vision for your security plan, you can build in enough flexibility to get there without having to rip and replace every few years, and you can identify long-term cost savings and operational efficiencies along the way.

For example, what if, someday, your access control system could interact with the IT system to enhance network logins? Or if the video surveillance system could automatically release the car gate when the correct license plate is read?

Looking at the ultimate goals of our university client, we discovered that what managers really wanted was an integrated video and access control system, with higher-resolution security cameras. While that decision meant delaying implementation of some access points and cameras, choosing flexibility was a better long-term decision to meet the organization’s security goals.

Keep Going Broader

Once you have your video surveillance and access control needs handled, look for additional opportunities and vulnerabilities.  For example, look at how you can leverage existing video data for business goals, such as reducing inventory waste or worker productivity. Look for ways to integrate systems to reduce security headcount. Integrate physical security with cybersecurity systems to reduce human-created security vulnerabilities. Think big so you can do more than protect; you also help your business thrive.

In our example, the college wanted to ultimately create a single card that would act as a student ID, a food service card, a library card, and an access control card. While this integration would save money down the line, we needed to bring several different departments together to make sure that their interests would align. We ended up selecting a slightly more expensive card than it had been using—but the selected card had a proximity chip, a chip for financial information, and a bar code for library information. Everyone got what they wanted, and the cost was lower than purchasing four separate cards.

​Ask the Hard Questions

These are the questions that are hard to consider because the answers may be embarrassing, or they require negotiations between groups, or they require more resources. Some examples follow.

    • Are there hidden security flaws in our facility? How do we find them?
    • What are the known issues and what capacity for the unknowns should we build in?
    • What have we learned from past crises? ​
    • Where do we think emerging threats will come from?
    • How do we navigate between competing agendas?

College administrators had to consider choices such as spending on beautiful landscaping versus creating a safe environment. Other hard questions arose. For example, one department wanted a single-use card, but others preferred a multi-use card.

​Focus on the Future

Make sure your plan will help you grow. That means searching for products that can be integrated, that are scalable, and that can segment data and reports. It may also mean installing a larger conduit than you currently need or choosing the vendor that has a scalable architecture. And it requires investing more today to save on ongoing maintenance and configuration costs tomorrow.

In the college’s case, its existing video surveillance system was entirely centralized and was not capable of communicating with the access control system. It couldn’t record high enough quality images to meet the ultimate surveillance goals.  The access control system also had issues. It was at the end of its lifecycle and would not be supported within a few years, and its software was antiquated and incapable of integration with other systems. 

For the college, the least expensive decision today would have meant a lot more investment in the future. Thus, we oversized the new server to handle additional video surveillance needs in the future. In addition, as the college added new buildings, we made sure they were integrating a higher wire volume than current needs, as well as building in access control during construction. This last element can reduce access control costs dramatically.

When you apply these best practices in developing master security plans, you make better decisions.

Erick Slabaugh has more than 30 years of experience in the specialty contracting industry and is a serial entrepreneur.  He is CEO and majority stockholder of Absco Solutions and founder and CEO of FCP Insight, a SaaS business solution for specialty contractors.

Create a Culture That Encourages the Reporting of Concerning Behavior

When taking a holistic approach to safety and security, school leadership must ensure they are addressing threat assessment and threat management. Just having a threat assessment team and plan is not enough.

Schools need to develop programs and cultures that encourage reporting of concerning behavior, not only out of the concern for the safety of the community but out of care for the individual exhibiting the concerning behavior, as well. It is impossible to predict violent behavior with certainty, but we can identify actions that might indicate someone is on a path to violence. Programs like those offered by Sandy Hook Promise address the genuine issue of bullying in schools and can help in early identification and intervention of students exhibiting concerning behaviors.

The following press release can be found on their website: 




Sandy Hook Promise to Partner with Broward County Public Schools to Train Students

How to Identify Warning Signs of At-Risk Individuals Before Violence Happens


Newtown, CT – As the community of Broward County continues to heal from the devastating shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018, school officials are taking steps to ensure that its students are safe as they head back to school in the fall. One measure the school district is taking is to train students how to identify, intervene, and get help for someone exhibiting at-risk behaviors, as well as how to create a more connected and inclusive community through its partnership with Sandy Hook Promise (SHP).

“As a mom who has also experienced devastating loss from a school shooting, I understand that safety is a top priority for every parent in Broward County, and across the country, as students head back to school. Sandy Hook Promise is honored to partner with this resilient community to train its students how to be ‘upstanders’ in their community,” said Nicole Hockley, co-founder and managing director of Sandy Hook Promise and the mother of 6-year-old Dylan who was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting.

Broward County Public Schools plan to roll out two of SHP’s proven programs to its students, Say Something and Start With Hello.

The Say Something program teaches youth and adults the signs of at-risk behaviors and how to properly intervene before that person harms themselves or others. In 4 out of 5 school shootings, the attacker told someone of his/her plans prior to the attack and 70% of people who complete suicide told someone of their intention or gave some type of warning. To date, trained students have helped avert multiple school violence plots, teen suicides, and other acts of violence and self-harm.

SHP’s Start With Hello program empowers students to create an inclusive and connected community by reaching out to those who may be chronically isolated, marginalized, or rejected to let them know that they are valued. Social isolation, which is a growing epidemic across the country and in our schools, is the overwhelming feeling of being left out, lonely, or treated like you are invisible. Excessive feelings of isolation can be associated with violence and suicidal behavior. Young people who are isolated can become victims of bullying, violence and/or depression, and as a result, many pull away from society, struggle with learning and social development, and may choose to hurt themselves or others. Schools that have rolled out this program have reported a decrease in bullying and how students have created a culture of looking out for one another.

For more information, go to or email

Since its inception, Sandy Hook Promise has educated over 3.5 million youths and adults in all 50 states with its Know The Signs Programs on mental health & wellness, identification of at-risk behaviors and how to take action and get help before a situation escalates. Those trained are now able to spread SHP’s vital messages and help prevent gun violence BEFORE it happens.

About Sandy Hook Promise: Sandy Hook Promise (SHP) is a national, nonprofit organization based in Newtown, Connecticut. SHP is led by several family members whose loved ones were killed in the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. SHP’s mission is to prevent gun violence (and other forms of violence and victimization) BEFORE it happens by educating and mobilizing youth and adults to identify, intervene and get help for at-risk individuals. SHP is a moderate, above-the-politics organization that supports sensible program and policy solutions that address the “human-side” of gun violence by preventing individuals from ever getting to the point of picking up a firearm to hurt themselves or others. Our words, actions and impact nationwide are intended to honor all victims of gun violence by turning our tragedy into a moment of transformation. For more information, visit or call 203-304-9780.



Media Contact:

Dini von Mueffing Communications

Stephanie Morris


What Makes School Resource Officer Programs Successful?

If utilized correctly, a School Resource Officer (SRO) can be a valuable addition to any district safety and security program. Sometimes, however, the SRO can end up being a daily reminder of the cultural and philosophical differences that exist between school districts and police departments. It is essential for schools and police to work together to keep students safe.

This article published on gives some helpful recommendations for a successful SRO program.

School Resource Officer: A Collision of Philosophies Makes it Unique

Newly released standards focus on what makes a successful SRO program.


The National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) announced a set of recommended standards for deploying School Resource Officers (SRO) successfully.

SROs can be one of the effective layers of security for schools but there are keys to getting the right fit that include the right officer, collaboration between law enforcement and schools and having an understanding between law enforcement and school district of what is expected from each for the position to be successful.

“It’s not for everybody,” said Mo Canady, NASRO executive director. “It’s kind of a collision of philosophies, bringing law enforcement and education together, but if done the right way can be a difference-maker.”

The recommendations included four main areas:

  1. Administrative standards, including an outline of the definition and purpose of an SRO.
  2. The careful selection of law enforcement officers for SRO positions.
  3. Specialized SRO training, including adolescent mental health, threat assessment and active shooter response.
  4. Interagency collaboration between school districts and law enforcement agencies.

Canady said one of the most important pieces to the successful equation is a foundational memorandum of understanding, signed by the school superintendent and the sheriff or police chief.

“It’s really impossible for the program to be successful if the school district and the law enforcement agency are not on the same sheet of music,” he said. “It doesn’t mean they have to agree on everything but there’s got to be foundational agreements for how it’s going to work.”
He said the No. 1 goal of an SRO program is effectively connecting to youth through relationships.

Some of those foundational keys include the roles each entity will play, the chain of command, who the SRO ultimately reports to, issues surrounding arrest procedures, and how to handle disciplinary matters. Those vary by jurisdiction, but there are solid standards.

Selection of the officer is critical. It has to someone passionate about working with youth and someone with experience, whether professional or volunteered, leading young people, such as through being a coach or scout leader. “As a former SRO supervisor, that may have been the biggest challenge I had and the most important challenge,” Canady said. “It’s the most unique position in law enforcement, there’s a lot involved in the package.”

It’s a high-visibility position in the community as well, so there is pressure on both the office and the police or sheriff’s department because putting the wrong person in that position can cause headaches for everyone involved.

The candidate should have at least three years of police work. That allows for a good frame of reference and a chance for recruiters to get a real feel for the person. Tactical experience is important too, as are firearms skills. “He has to be a well-balanced officer,” Canady said.

There is an initial 40-hour training course, but training is ongoing and varied. “They have to be able to take the skills they have and apply that to the school environment,” Canady said. “They have to learn about things like understanding the adolescent brain, special education and working with diverse groups of students, how to interact with educators.”

There are also state and national trainings and most SROs spend the summer months or those times when school is out on continued education.