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Disability Rights of West Virginia

Threat Assessment


Threat Assessment.jpg

Looking at Angry Words in the


Media Age

We can all think of a mass shooting that has occurred at a school within the last 10 years.  It might be the first thing we think of when we hear a child has made a threat at school.  And we all have differing opinions on how that child should be handled.

However, every child who mentions shooting someone at school or bringing a gun to school does not plan to do so.  How do we determine which child is an actual threat and which child simply said something stupid in the heat of the moment?  Likewise, how do we get our schools to separate these children out to only exclude the true threats?

Availability Heuristic

The availability heuristic describes our tendency to use information that comes to mind quickly and easily when making decisions about the future.  Because of this bias, we may believe any child who says anything about shooting someone at school or bringing a gun to school needs to be excluded from the school for the safety of everyone else.

Availability Heuristic

(What actually happens in the world)

All the Information

The information most available to you that you use to make a decision:

  • Recent

  • Emotional

  • Vivid

There are two biases emanating from the availability heuristic: Ease of recall and retrievability.

When we make decisions we tend to be swayed by what we remember. What we remember is influenced by many things including beliefs, expectations, emotions, and feelings as well as things like frequency of exposure.  Media coverage (e.g., Internet, radio, television) makes a big difference. When rare events occur they become very visible to us as they receive heavy coverage by the media. This means we are more likely to recall it, especially in the immediate aftermath of the event. However, recalling an event and estimating its real probability are two different things. If you’re in a car accident, for example, you are likely to rate the odds of getting into another car accident much higher than base rates would indicate.


Because of the availability bias, our perceptions of risk may be in error and we might worry about the wrong risks. This can have disastrous impacts.


Ease of recall suggests that if something is more easily recalled in memory it must occur with a higher probability.


The availability heuristic can distort our understanding of real risks.

Policy Changes Regarding School Safety 

Since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018, policy changes to address school safety have been proposed at the local, state, and federal level. The proposed changes are wide ranging, and some have the potential to cause great harm to children of color and children with disabilities.  Many of the proposals focus on increased access to personal information about students. The new anonymous reporting mechanisms and softened information barriers may be mis-used, permitting implicit bias to take hold and undermining civil rights protections.

There is no one specific or accurate profile of a school shooter.  Louvar Reeves, M.A. & Brock, S.E., School Behavioral Threat Assessment and Management, Contemp. School Psych. 22, 148-162 (2018)  It is known that children of color and children with disabilities currently are removed from school and arrested at disproportionate rates due to decisions by improperly trained, supported, and supervised school staff.  Smith Howard, D., National Disability Rights Network, Storm on the Horizon: Federal and State Proposals Re: “School Safety,” Washington D.C., March 22, 2019, available at

Further, removal of children from school for non-violent disability related behaviors does not prevent school shootings nor will it improve school safety. Id.  Instead, it can actually cause harm as profiles can be stigmatizing and may result in discrimination, invasion of privacy, unfair punishment, isolation and/or exclusion from school and activities without due process.  Reeves & Brock, supra.

Threat Assessments

Threat assessments may be used by schools to determine which children are at high risk, but not every child who makes a threat needs a complete threat assessment to determine he is low risk and is not likely to act on his words.  The central question of a threat assessment (of any type) is whether the child is truly a threat, not whether the child has made a threat.  Reeves & Brock, supra.  This central question recognizes not every child who makes a threat is threatening or dangerous.

Five Stages of School

Threat Assessment


Initiate Threat Assessment






Determine Whether Student Poses Threat








School-based threat assessment must be a flexible and efficient process that can quickly resolve threats that are not serious and concentrate efforts on the small number of serious threats.  Cornell, D.G., University of Virginia, Overview of the Comprehensive School Threat Assessment Guidelines (CSTAG), May 26, 2020, available at:

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