In addition to a systematic examination of the learning environment, a quality school safety risk assessment should identify significant threat areas, the likelihood and severity of an unwanted event and implementation of realistic control measures/ methodology to reduce environmental risk.
There are three school safety risk assessment thresholds found in any professional learning environment, the probability and impact of an undesired event at each threshold and implementation of recommended best practices to reduce commensurate risk.
As with any risk assessment process it’s best to first define the risk assessment terms as applied to the learning environment.
A threat is a serious, impending, or recurring event that can result in loss which must be dealt with. In terms of the learning environment a threat can range anywhere from mean texting to extreme physical violence.
Vulnerability is the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.
Risk is the measurement of the frequency, probability, and impact of loss from exposure to threats. Risk is the product of threat and vulnerability. The greater threat and/ or vulnerability the greater the risk. The risk management 101 formula is: Risk = Threat x Vulnerability.
Risk Assessment is a rational and orderly approach to problem identification and probability determination. Risk assessment is not a reactive approach, but a proactive approach that should be part of any school safety planning process. It involves figuring out possible risks and how and when to control that risk if it occurs. When properly implemented, risk assessment promotes sustained action for reducing or eliminating long term risk. The goal of effective risk assessment is sustainable threat intervention.
The first step in any properly implemented risk assessment is to identify significant threat areas or risk assessment thresholds. All K-12 schools, colleges and universities are subject to the threat of school violence resulting in injury or death. Such a threat can be introduced to a school in only one of two ways – externally or internally. External threats come from outside the school. Internal threats come from inside the school. External threats emerge. Internal threats evolve. Either one can develop from a potential threat into an active threat. These three – external emerging threat, internal evolving threat, and active threat comprise the three points of a school safety triangle. Viewed as a matrix, the school safety triangle offers three levels of assessment: behavioral assessment, threat assessment and incident control.
There is a corresponding threat status for each assessment level. Applied to either an external threat or an internal threat, the lowest threat status describes a potential threat. A potential threat may be an example of an external student with known disciplinary issues who was dismissed or transferred from another school.
Should a potential threat not be appropriately identified and addressed at this lowest level it then would progress to the next status which is described as a developing threat. A developing threat may be an example of an internal student who has exhibited observable concerning behavior.
Both a potential and developing threat may be identified and addressed at the behavioral assessment threshold. Should a developing threat not be appropriately identified and addressed at the behavioral assessment threshold, it then would progress to the next status which is described as an active threat.
An active threat may be an example of this same internal student who has exhibited observable concerning behavior, now boasting about or actually planning to bring a gun onto the campus. Here, at the threat assessment level, faculty may discover his nefarious plan and intervene.
Failure at the behavioral assessment threshold allows the active threat to carry out his plan. Such an undesired event, which would then require the highest level of assessment and control which is incident control.
The relationship between a threat status and its assessment level delineate opportunities for threat intervention. The earliest threat intervention opportunity is at the behavioral assessment threshold, which is where potential-threat indicators and developing threat behaviors are presented.
Failing intervention at this lowest level, a potential threat can develop into an active threat. The threat assessment threshold is where pre-attack behaviors are presented such as planning and preparation for physical violence.
Failing intervention at the mid-level opportunity, an active threat can progress to physical violence. The incident control assessment threshold is where attack behaviors are presented warranting physical security countermeasures.
Appropriate risk assessment at each of the corresponding assessment levels allow faculty and staff to identify threat status and address that threat at the earliest possible intervention opportunity.
Frequency, Probability, and Impact
A potential or developing threat exhibits observable concerning behavior at the behavioral assessment threshold. Frequency at this lowest level intervention opportunity is at its greatest. You can assess anything and everything here from harassment, to bullying, to sexting, to dysregulated behavior, to fill in the blank. There is an extremely high likelihood that you may observe this type of activity daily. Although it may have highest probability of occurrence, it has extremely low impact on students, faculty and staff.
An active threat exhibits pre-attack behavior at the threat assessment threshold. Frequency at this mid-level intervention opportunity is significantly lower than that of the lower level. Here is where you may see something and then say something such as a student bringing a knife on campus, overhearing a plan to spray paint a wall or to victimize someone. There is lower likelihood that you may observe this type of activity than at the behavioral assessment threshold. Although a low probability of occurrence, it can have significant impact on students, faculty and staff.
An active threat exhibits attack behavior at the incident control assessment threshold. Frequency at this mid-level intervention opportunity is lower than that of any other level. Here is where the predator is executing extreme physical violence. At this critical level, the only appropriate response is use of force to stop a physically active threat. There is good chance you may never observe attack behavior, but as can be attested by more than 1,100 recorded school shootings in the past 20 years, it is very possible. Although death or injury is the lowest probability of occurrence, it is the highest consequence paid for failure at the lower intervention levels.
Risk assessment at the lowest intervention threshold is a proactive measure resulting in threat prevention. Managing risk at the mid-level intervention threshold is an active measure resulting in threat mitigation. Managing risk at the highest-level intervention threshold is a reactive measure resulting in threat response.
Some risk, once identified, can be readily eliminated, or reduced. However, some risks are much more difficult to mitigate, particularly high-impact, low probability risk. Therefore, risk assessment needs to be a sustainable, long term collaborative effort and remain the responsibility of all faculty and staff.