Behavioral threat assessments harm students

Every child deserves to feel safe and included in school, and that happens when students and staff are treated fairly and have access to the resources they need.

Behavioral threat assessment team models used in some Vermont schools treat students with suspicion, not support. These team models, called BTATs, run a serious risk of violating students’ due process and privacy rights and perpetuating harmful biases, undermining the very premise of protecting young people in our community. 

We oppose the use of behavioral threat assessments in schools. However, if school leaders choose to adopt a behavioral threat assessment model, it is critical that they exercise caution to protect against negative outcomes.

What are behavioral threat assessment teams?

BTATs are groups of professionals who assess whether students or staff pose a threat to the community. Teams are usually composed of educators, mental health professionals, and police. The stated goal of a BTAT is to identify and monitor individuals who may pose a risk to the school and intervene “early” to prevent harm to themselves or others.

SIGMA Threat Management developed a BTAT implementation guide for use in Vermont schools. In the guide, SIGMA recommends a model of behavioral threat assessment and management that includes no due process or privacy protections for school community members who are subjected to threat assessments. They also mandate the deployment of law enforcement in investigating and managing student conduct — including conduct that is typical and age-appropriate for many, if not most, children. The guide offers little information on how to foster a positive school climate and bolster wraparound support services that prevent “behavioral threats” from arising in the first place.

Why should we be concerned about behavioral threat assessment teams in our schools?

Put simply, there is a lack of evidence to support the idea that BTATs can accurately predict or prevent school violence. Furthermore, the potential negative impact of these teams — ranging from social stigmatization to significant civil rights and liberties violations — suggests administrators should exercise caution before implementing a BTAT.

Behavioral threat assessments, particularly as modeled by SIGMA Threat Management, pose a risk to our school communities because:

  • BTATs may circumvent legal and civil rights protections for children. They can be used to suspend students without due process. Even if a threat assessment does not result in removal from school, the fact that the team monitored a student can remain on their record. That record can impact future opportunities.
  • According to the National Disability Rights Network, behavioral threat assessments run a significant risk of turning into discriminatory profiling of our youth.
  • BTATs can undermine school safety by stigmatizing and further ostracizing students who are identified as potential threats. Students who are already marginalized, such as students of color or students with disabilities, may be disproportionately affected by this social stigma and ostracization. A 2022 study showed that heightened stigma, a lack of trusting relationships with adults, and exposure to threat appraisals decreases the likelihood that adolescents will seek support for their own — or a friend’s — mental health challenges. This is extremely important to consider, as research also shows that peer disclosure is one of the most effective ways to prevent violence in schools.
  • Unnecessary interactions between youth and law enforcement officers drive a host of negative consequences for students, especially when police are deployed in disciplinary situations. The inclusion of law enforcement in BTATs runs the risk of further criminalizing our children — especially children of color, children from low-income families, and children with disabilities.

It is clear that threat assessment models can trigger a cascade of negative outcomes for students, who may be misidentified, inappropriately labeled as threatening or dangerous, and denied access to necessary supports — or even wrongly suspended, expelled, or referred to the juvenile justice system. 

Evidence-based supports that might be denied include schoolwide multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) and positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS), or individualized educational support team plans, 504 plans, or individual education programs (IEP) under the IDEA — Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Behavioral threat assessment teams in S.138, the school safety bill

As amended, the “school safety bill” before the Vermont Legislature would require public and approved independent schools that use BTATs to submit certain data to the Agency of Education. 

This should enable state leaders to better understand the prevalence and efficacy of this school safety model and help identify potential disparate impacts on students of color, low-income students, and students with disabilities. The bill will also require professionals involved in BTATs to undergo bias training in consultation with the Office of Racial Equity.

While we oppose the use of BTATs in Vermont outright, we see the reporting requirement as a positive step towards better understanding the scale and impact of BTATs in Vermont.

How can we make schools safer?

Proactive measures that address the challenges facing students, families and our communities enable schools to address the root causes of violence. Alongside existing statewide regulations — which allow for the immediate removal of a student whose conduct or condition poses an immediate threat to themselves, others, property, or the educational environment — there are several strategies school districts can implement to foster safety, inclusion, and belonging.

Foster a positive school climate: Creating a school environment that is positive, inclusive and supportive can contribute to a sense of safety for all students. This can include implementing programs to address bullying, hazing and harassment, and promoting social-emotional learning. 

The Task Force on Equitable and Inclusive School Environments made many recommendations for improving school climate in its 2022 report that the legislature has not yet acted on.

Expand holistic interventions, not threat assessments: Instead of investing school resources in reactive tools that position our students as “threats” to be assessed, we should prioritize the provision of schoolwide and individualized support and intervention services. Implementing holistic MTSS and PBIS systems, bolstering individual education program or 504 plans for students—including individual positive behavior intervention plans for students who may be at risk for behavioral or mental health issues—and expanding mental health services in schools can prevent problems from escalating and lead to more effective outcomes for all.

Bolster mental health services: Providing access to mental health services for students can improve their well-being and prevent crises from occurring. Vermont has the highest prevalence rate in the country of children — 17.36% of those served under IDEA — identified as having a disability in the “emotional disturbance” category. That is over three times the national average rate. 

A case study on Vermont schools found that these students are much more likely than their peers with other disabilities to be subject to disciplinary removal, are four times more likely to be sent to a separate school, and are twice as likely as all students with disabilities to drop out of school. Expanding mental health resources to serve these students directly, as well as implementing policies and services that foster a positive school culture, is essential to ensuring student success and wellbeing.

Implement restorative practices: Using restorative practices can help to build relationships and resolve conflicts in a way that promotes accountability and positive behavior. Several Vermont schools have introduced restorative models of accountability and community-building. Research indicates that restorative programs are enhancing students’ sense of belonging here in Vermont, and nationally they are shown to have positive impacts on student behavior, disciplinary outcomes and disparities, and school climate. 

Collaborate with families and community partners: Engaging families and community partners in the school environment can help to promote safety and support for all students. The Vermont Agency of Education has a Parent, Family, and Community Engagement toolkit and school/district self-assessment, which remain underused resources for many districts and schools.

Implement gun safety measures: Research confirms that stricter gun safety laws help keep our communities safe. Strengthening background checks, safe storage requirements, appropriate permitting and licensure, and other key legislation can help limit unsafe access to these weapons, making our schools and communities safer — not only with regard to violence in schools, but also self-inflicted and domestic violence.

A version of this op-ed appeared in VTDigger and other publications.