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Ethical Considerations for Threat Assessments
Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.
Thursday September 01, 2011
by: Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.

Section: Inside Insight

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Scenario: A student, Beth, came into my office with a letter from her best friend, Janey. The letter suggested Janey wanted to hurt another female student. In the letter, Janey implied that the girl who was being threatened might have been the cause of the breakup between the Janey and her boyfriend. Janey was very descriptive about the violence she wanted to inflict upon the other girl. Since I know Janey fairly well, I was sure she wouldn’t do such a thing. However, since the threat was made in written form and given to me, do I have to tell the administrator since this was supposed to be confidential? I don’t want to get Janey in trouble. She has enough issues in her life without being suspended.

Threats of violence by students against other students and/or educators have seemingly increased over the past few years. Many researchers agree that violence in schools is a complex problem. Evaluating the level of intent and lethality is equally as complex, since many things factor into effectively conducting a threat assessment. It may seem that the ethical mandate of keeping the student population safe, (ASCA Ethical Standards, A.7) while advocating for the individual student (ASCA Ethical Standards, A.1 and A.2) at the same time is an oxymoron. However, educated professional school counselors do indeed have an ethical commitment to both sides of this coin.

In the scenario above, defending Janey by saying that she wouldn’t do anything would not hold up in court if some violence were to occur. Applying ethics in this situation, consulting with another professional and following district policy and protocol, which would likely include disclosure to the administrator, would be a sound approach. In the school setting, one person in the system shouldn’t shoulder the burden of threat assessment. Effective assessment includes many steps and involves a team approach for appropriate implementation.

Today’s fast-paced culture requires district policy and an assessment protocol in order to responsibly evaluate the nature and danger of a student threat. An intentional and methodical plan to evaluate threat level and immediacy of the threat should be a component of threat assessment implementation. In a threat assessment, utilizing a practical, well-thought-out, research-based protocol protects educators and students alike.

Because the prevalence of threat seems to be increasing in schools, involving school counselors seems to be a natural fit for risk assessment. This ethically requires school counselors to be educated in threat assessment evaluation and procedures. Therefore, the first ethical consideration for school counselors is the level of training they have regarding effective threat assessment. School counselors must be educated and up-to-date on current research and best practice. School counselors should recognize the high standard of care necessary for this position and take the initiative to stay abreast of current research.

The review of literature cautions that there is a tendency for overidentification in some of the more restrictive protocol. Research in this area also warns that profiling can lead to stigmatizing a student, which could possibly violate students’ constitutional rights. Validity and reliability is hard to pin down in some threat assessment protocol based on the research. However, training in best practices for this topic is important to effectively keep the student population safe.

Ethical practice encourages documentation of the training received by the school counselor, and professional development updates so the school counselor can stay current on best practices and standard of care. However, the court case of Wyke vs. Polk County School Board, 1997, warns that without this type of training (threat assessment) there is a tendency for educators to underestimate the lethality of suicide and violent behavior. Underestimation exacts an even higher price than overestimation of violence in schools, but again, the ethical standard is the understanding and evaluation of violence potential.

If a legal situation were to occur from a threat assessment, it would be the “standard of care” against which the school counselor’s actions would be measured. Currently, the court system supports suspending students from school when they pose a threat to other students’ safety as in Davis vs. Monroe County Board of Education, 1999. The rejoinder in this case warned school personnel they would be held responsible for failing to protect students from student-to-student violence. Although the courts encourage educators to take threats seriously, they also ask education personnel to act reasonably. Legal vulnerability is present when the school personnel cannot demonstrate that reasonable care was taken in preventing school violence. Included in that caution are documented steps used to determine why the threat was classified as a “true threat,” as in the court case of Lovell vs. Poway Unified School District, 1996. It is important in this assessment process to use guiding principles of threat assessment to evaluate for “true threat.”

Whether it is an actual assessment, which requires a rigid protocol, or another type of assessment procedure, documentation of the process is important. Identifying risk factors is a vital part of the process. Although risk factors don’t always predict violence, research supports that as the volume of risk factors escalates the level of violence potential also increases. Developing interventions for a student’s risk factors demonstrate responsiveness on the part of school personnel. However, it is not the sole responsibility of the school counselor to develop and implement the interventions for each of the risk factors identified. It is nonetheless, important to track the implementation and effectiveness of interventions.

Kerry Bernes and Angela Bardick in their article “Conducting Adolescent Violence Risk Assessments: A Framework for School Counselors” include risk factors such as biological, psychological, cognitive and environmental. According to the authors, consideration for risk factors should also be given to personal history of violence including previous violent acts; age at first violent incident; family and peer relationship instability; employment problems; substance use problems; and early maladjustments such as lack of insight, negative attitudes, active symptoms of major mental illness, impulsivity and unresponsiveness to treatment. Lastly, these risk management factors should consider feasibility of any intervention, student’s exposure to destabilizers, lack of personal support, noncompliance with remediation and stress. Another aspect to consider in identifying risk factors is whether the language and context of the threat indicates a serious intent to do harm. These authors reason that the accumulation, as well as the interactive and dynamic nature of these risks, should be evaluated and that the information gathered should be substantiated prior to taking action against a student.

Threat assessment tools aren’t 100 percent accurate, nor are they fool-proof. However school counselors can mitigate professional vulnerability by employing ethical strategies. A threat assessment should include informed consent so the student understands the parameters of confidentiality. Consideration must be given for each individual case. “Serious and foreseeable harm is different for each minor in schools and is defined by students’ developmental and chronological age, the setting, parental rights and the nature of the harm.”

An ethical “fail safe” in the above-mentioned scenario would include documentation of all steps of the evaluation process, clarifying the details of where and how this information was attained. It is important to verify the information, along with documenting how interventions were developed and problem solving planning occurred. Of course the tried and true ethical step is professional consultation and documentation of the consultation.

In a Professional School Counseling journal article by Mary Hermann and Abbe Finn, “An Ethical and Legal Perspective on the Role of School Counselors in Preventing Violence in Schools,” it is suggested that school counselors are involved in policy making for such situations. Following the established district policies and protocol will help guide the school counselor and the response team to effective problem solving. These policies and procedures will allow the participants in the threat assessment to focus on the standard of care and responsible decision making. Hermann and Finn also recommend that the ethical school counselor create a referral method for potential violent behaviors in the school setting, while also providing ongoing training for the faculty and staff about suicide and violence prevention and intervention.

Although participating in a threat assessment can be intimidating, it is still an important component of our professional skill set. In these difficult and emotional situations, it is important follow established procedure and consider the needs of the at-risk individual, while keeping the needs and safety of those being threatened in balance. Both sides deserve your best and most ethical knowledge, decision making and problem solving skills in the ongoing effort to create a safe school.