School threat assessments and how they differ from enterprise environments

Dr Marisa Randazzo, Executive Director, Threat Management at Ontic, details the nuances around carrying out threat assessments in schools. Speaking from a United States perspective, Randazzo also offers a view on the differences between behavioural and vulnerability threat assessments, and how these might differ from an enterprise setting.

IFSEC Insider (II): Where do the differences begin in carrying out a threat assessment of a school environment compared to an enterprise? From the very start or is it more nuanced than that?

Marisa Randazzo (MR): Behavioural threat assessment and management (often referred to simply as “threat assessment” or “BTAM”) is recognised broadly as the best-available tool for evaluating threatening behaviour and preventing violence – whether that behaviour is in a K-12 school, university, workplace, or in the community.

The major steps in the threat assessment process are:

  • Identifying a person/situation that raises concern about potential violence
  • Gathering more information from multiple sources
  • Analysing the information and assessing the risk
  • Developing a threat management plan to mitigate the risk

While this threat assessment process is essentially the same in schools and in enterprise settings, there are some key differences – particularly in gathering information and in developing a threat management plan.

There may be more information easily available about a student who has engaged in threatening behaviour in a school setting when compared with information available about an employee, or former employee, or customer, or external threat actor threatening violence in an enterprise setting.

And with respect to mitigating a threat, the resources that schools have available to intervene with a student are often different from resources that a workplace has available to mitigate threats to the workplace environment from an employee or external threat actor.

But the process is fundamentally the same across these environments.

II: What advice would you give to a security or estates manager at a school when beginning the process of a threat assessment?

MR: The term “threat assessment” can be confusing because it can refer to two different security-related processes:

  1. Behavioural threat assessment, which is the process of evaluating threatening behaviour and intervening to prevent violence or self-harm; and,
  2. Physical threat and vulnerability assessment, which is the process used to evaluate a wide range of potential physical and operational threats to a building or campus – such as break-ins, hazardous chemical spills, and extreme weather – and identifying ways to prepare and respond to those adverse events (based on the likelihood that they may occur).

When it comes to behavioural threat assessment, the best way to start is by building and training a multi-disciplinary team that can do the work of threat assessment, whether in a school environment or for enterprises.

The team should be multi-disciplinary – involving not just security personnel but also administrators and mental health professionals and others as needed – because preventing violence in a school or enterprise environment is best accomplished as a partnership among these departments and professionals.

It makes it easier to get information from various components of the school or enterprise environment, as it allows for access to a wider range of intervention resources to mitigate a threat.


Credit: Jason Freeman/AlamyStock

II: How can security professionals support teachers/educational support staff/senior leadership to recognise signs of a potential threat?

MR: If someone makes a threat, says something to a classmate that sounds scary, puts a concerning message in a homework assignment, or posts something on social media that raises fear and concern, one of the best ways for security professionals to support teachers and support staff is to encourage reporting of any concerning behaviours and provide a process to do so.

People planning violence (including students and employees) often communicate their violent plans in advance of doing harm – but those who hear or see those communications (including teachers, friends, online contacts, and family) don’t know what to do.

By encouraging people to report any threatening or worrisome behaviour, security professionals can help increase the likelihood that they will learn about these threats – and have the opportunity to do a behavioural threat assessment and mitigate the threat before harm can occur.

To prevent missed signs, security teams can share resources with schools that outline examples of how concerning behaviours can present and should provide a place and process for individuals to easily report any signs of potential threats easily and anonymously.

They can also give a simple message that people should report any behaviour that raises concern about their own physical safety or the safety of a colleague.

II: What are the key evolving threats that are likely to impact all schools?

MR: In the US I am hopeful that we are going to see an overall decrease in school violence, as many states now are engaging in statewide efforts to help their schools develop and train behavioural threat assessment and management (BTAM) teams.

At the same time, there has been a recent trend of false reports of active shooter incidents at schools around the country. If law enforcement is engaged to respond to an active shooter threat, they will likely bring SWAT personnel and other resources with them, assuming there is an immediate, looming threat. When a false report is created, it adds a tremendous amount of stress not only to students, but teachers, staff, parents and responding law enforcement.

These “swatting” calls are and will continue to impact schools and law enforcement as they continue to delegate resources to unfound threats, while also having the potential to further increase fatigue of all involved, including students and parents.


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