Behavioral Sciences & the Law

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Volume 37 Issue 4 (July 2019), Pages 3-468

Learning from a failure in threat assessment: 11 questions and not enough answers (pages 353-371)

Threat assessment theory and practice have evolved significantly since Columbine. The US Secret Service's guidelines for threat assessment include 11 questions that school officials should ask to identify, investigate, and manage students of concern. Yet, no research examines how school officials implement these questions. This qualitative case study examines the way that school officials used the 11 questions with a student of concern, who underwent a threat assessment and 3 months later shot and killed a classmate and himself on school grounds. The data include deposition testimony from 12 school and district officials and more than 8,000 pages of records in the case. For each of the 11 questions, the findings reveal what the threat assessment team knew and might have learned; the findings also demonstrate the importance of multiple sources of information, a multidisciplinary team, and an investigative mindset. The questions may prove difficult to answer in “loosely coupled” systems, like schools, where information is unintentionally lost due to the organization's structural hierarchy, specialization of tasks, and heavy workloads. The findings provide critical lessons learned for threat assessment, information gathering, and violence prevention in schools.

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