Secret Service Threat Assessment Suggestions

We as education and support staff are frequently placed in the difficult position of having to assess specific people (e.g., students, staff, teachers, and others) who may be likely to engage in targeted violence in which there is a known or knowable target or potential assailant. The following suggestions for threat assessment investigations are based on guidelines developed by the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC). They were developed primarily for preventing the assassination of public officials so they may not be applicable to all school situations.

 

To identify threats, District personnel are advised to:

  • Focus on the individuals’ thinking and behavior as indicators of their progress on a pathway to violent actions. Avoid “profiling” or basing assumptions on socio-psychological characteristics. In reality, accurate “profiles” for those likely to commit acts of targeted violence do not exist. School shootings are infrequent and the great majority of individuals who happen to match a particular profile do not commit violent acts. In addition, many individuals who commit violent acts do not match pre-established profiles.
  • Focus on individuals who pose a threat, not only on those who explicitly communicate a threat. Many individuals who make direct threats do not pose an actual risk, while many people who ultimately commit acts of targeted violence never communicate threats to their targets. Prior to making an attack, potential aggressors may provide evidence they have engaged in thinking, planning, and logistical preparations. They may communicate their intentions to family, friends, or colleagues, or write about their plans in a diary or journal. They may have engaged in “attack-related” behaviors: deciding on a victim or set of victims, determining a time and approach to attack, and/or selecting a means of attack. They may have collected information about their intended target(s) and the setting of the attack, as well as information about similar attacks that have previously occurred.

 

Once individuals who may pose a threat have been identified, ten key questions should guide the assessment of the threat:

  • What motivated the individual to make the statement or take the action that caused him/her to come to attention?
  • What has the individual communicated to anyone concerning his/her intentions?
  • Has the individual shown an interest in targeted violence, perpetrators of targeted violence, weapons, extremist groups, or murder?
  • Has the individual engaged in attack-related behavior, including any menacing, harassing, and/or stalking-type behavior?
  • Does the individual have a history of mental illness involving command hallucinations, delusional ideas, feelings of persecution, etc., with indications that the individual has acted on those beliefs?
  • How organized is the individual? Is he/she capable of developing and carrying out a plan?
  • Has the individual experienced a recent loss and/or loss of status, and has this led to feelings of desperation and despair?
  • Corroboration--What is the individual saying, and is it consistent with his/her actions?
  • Is there concern among those that know the individual that he/she might take action based on inappropriate ideas?
  • What factors in the individual’s life and/or environment might increase/decrease the likelihood of the individual attempting to attack a target?