In his fable The Fox and the Scorpion, Aesop attempts to illustrate how people do what they do because of their nature. While there is certainly some merit to this assertion, we can’t fully accept this way of thinking when intervening with a student who is a potential threat.
Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of just giving up and saying, “That’s just who they are.” We have to do the difficult and try to change a person’s nature.
Bestselling author, Malcolm Gladwell, used the analogy of a person caught up in a riot to describe why students may be attacking our schools.
He asserted that like those in a riot who get carried away by the moment (as well as the crowd) and impulsively act in a manner that they never would any other time, so are students who are attacking our schools.
While it’s a very creative analogy, and something worth thinking about, it is unfortunately not the case with school attackers and decades of data disprove it this theory.
To watch the video…click here!
When it comes to preventing violence–you have to act and act fast!
You have to make an initial assessment with the information available (regardless of how little you have). An initial assessment is just that–initial. Keep gathering information and keep updating your assessment as the situation evolves.
In all things, take any actions necessary to save and protect lives!
What do you do when a student (adult) utters this phrase?
This question comes up a lot during threat assessment trainings, but before we look at some specific examples, let me first set the stage.
We live in a contextual world and live a contextual life. To understand a person, we have to look at the context in which they live their life. To determine if a person’s behavior is right or wrong, good or bad, threatening or non-threatening, we have to look at the context surrounding the behavior. Often, it’s only through context that we are able to fully grasp the true meaning or intent behind the behaviors.
If your response to unwanted behaviors is strictly punishment and consequences, then context is immaterial. In other words, the kid did the behavior and regardless of why he did it, he now gets the punishment. Period. Over. Done.
Life would be much simpler if it could only be this way, but it can’t because our job is to educate (better) and protect kids which means we have to intervene and manage behaviors. Yes, there may also be punishment and consequences that go along with an unwanted behavior but these alone will never win the day. They may be very valuable tools and exactly what’s deserved, but they must be used in conjunction with the goal of intervening and managing a behavior.
The best way to effect long-term change as well as to make our school communities safer is to intervene and manage behaviors. Always intervene and manage behaviors.
With this in mind, let’s look at some examples of the phrase, “I’m going to kill you” and how context can help us to accurately determine the true meaning behind the behavior as well as how we should respond (intervene and manage).
John, a six grader, is shoving his books into his locker. Tony, a male friend, comes up behind John and slaps him on the back of the head. Tony then takes off running down the hall, laughing and taunting John over his shoulder. John chases after him yelling, “I’m going to kill you.”
Is John serious that he wants to kill Tony?
Is he going to hit Tony when he catches up to him? Is this behavior a waste of time and simply ridiculous? Absolutely. But is it threatening behavior? Do we need to conduct a threat assessment? I’m going to say with the information available as well as the context of the behavior—no.
In this example, it appears that the phrase was used in the context of a joke.
As far as punishment and consequences—that’s up to you.
A lively discussion about girls and dating spontaneously breaks out before the beginning of first period. Things get a little bit out of hand and a few of the eleventh grade boys begin to make pointed comments, in jest, about each other. Jack turns to Seth and says, “You don’t have to worry about it. No one would ever date you.” Seth, who had been sitting quietly and not participating in the discussion, takes the comment very personally. His face glows red, his brow wrinkles in hurt, and he replies to Jack in barely a whisper, “I’m going to kill you.”
Is Seth serious that he wants to kill Jack?
Not certain, but probably not.
However, is there a high probability that Seth will try to retaliate (verbally or physically) against Jack—I’d say absolutely.
Is this threatening behavior? Do we need to conduct a threat assessment? I’m going to say with the information available as well as the context of the behavior—yes this is threatening behavior and requires intervention and management, but I’d say no to a threat assessment.
How should we intervene?
- Train and require your staff to take immediate action in these situations.
- Seth was publicly humiliated. Unfortunately, for many students a public humiliation requires a public retaliation. Do not let that happen—act now and act fast.
- These types of hurtful comments, even if done without bad intent, should be publicly corrected and the person (Jack) made to apologize.
- Your staff should also report it to school leadership if a student (Seth) leaves the classroom and is still visibly upset after a public humiliation. Do not let this boil over into another period.
- Intervene and manage behaviors.
In this example, it appears that the phrase was used in the context of anger and in response to being hurt. It does not appear to be premeditated, but spontaneous.
As far as punishment and consequences—that’s up to you.
A seventeen-year-old male student is arrested for making threats via Twitter. He’s suspended and when his locker is searched, you find a journal. You read the journal and find disturbing hand drawn images as well as scribbled across several pages the phrase, “I’m going to kill you.”
Is the student serious about killing someone?
Not certain, but probably yes.
Is this threatening behavior? Do we need to conduct a threat assessment? I’m going to say with the information available as well as the context of the behavior—yes this is threatening behavior and we need to immediately began a threat assessment.
- The student has repeatedly demonstrated threatening behavior not only in the journal but also via Twitter. This may demonstrate an obsession and willingness to use violence.
- The journal reflects the private thoughts and personal feelings of the student which are disturbing and violent in nature.
- More information needs to be gathered because this student appears to not only be in need of assistance, but a potential threat to others.
In this example, it appears that the phrase was used in the context of planning and preparing to use violence. It was not spontaneous but appears to be premeditated.
As far as punishment and consequences—the student has been punished and is receiving consequences. Blend these into your intervention and management strategies. Remain flexible and continue to adjust as you gather more data from your threat assessment.
Context is not the same thing as cause and effect. It does not occur because of some external action, but is already present and can serve as a light to illuminate the reason and meaning of behaviors.
Yes, the phrase, “I’m going to kill you” always has implications. That’s why people use it. The question we have to answer is whether it was used as a threat. To be successful in reading behaviors, we have to know the ‘why’ behind the behavior and the only way to get that answer is to look at the context of the behavior.
To ignore the context is to seriously handicap your efforts. Always look to the context…
I’m asked this question a lot from police officers, superintendents, principals, and parents who want help in determining if a person has made a threat. I have never turned anyone down and I’ve never charged a fee for helping. Why do I tell you this? So maybe you’ll feel more comfortable reaching out for ‘another set of eyes’ when and if you’re faced with scary behavior.
So please call or email if you’re concerned and feel as if you could use some extra help. And for the record, you’re not bugging me—not at all.
Now, how do we know when someone has made a threat?
Very simple. A threat is any expression to do harm. The key word here is any….any expression to do harm which can come in the form of words, a look, gesture, drawing, song, story, poem, disturbing behavior such as building bombs, stockpiling weapons, or researching school attacks, mass murderers, how to have sex with a corpse (yes, one school attacker did so), visiting the sites of other school attacks like Columbine High School (yes, one would-be attacker did so), and watching men be hurt and sexually abused by women (yes, one attacker watched this type of movie before his attack).
And…get ready for it…the attacker can do absolutely nothing discernable and still make a threat.
How can that be?
Our minds are supercomputers that are capable of perceiving on the subconscious level what our eyes miss on the conscious level. We call it a ‘gut feeling’ and it’s our body’s way of letting us know that threatening behaviors are present and while we may not be able to fully explain why we feel the way we do, we just know that we’re not safe.
Listen to your gut feelings and those of your teachers, students, and staff members. If you ever want to see the great good that can come from investigating a gut feeling, read how a teacher and her gut feeling saved lots of lives.
If right about now you’re thinking that this sounds confusing, it’s not. Let’s go back to the beginning for one second.
A threat is any expression to do harm.
Don’t get hung on this first step of discernment. If you’re worried, concerned, frightened, or troubled by a disturbing behavior in any way—treat it as a threat and begin a human threat assessment. Your findings in your threat assessment will clarify (and usually pretty quickly) if the person truly poses a threat to themselves or others and if they’re willing to use violence to meet their need.
That’s what we really need to know! Not if they made a threat, but do they pose a threat.
In my experience, schools that have a threat assessment team and the ability to assess a threat are actually much more relaxed and less anxious when an expression to do harm is observed or suspected. They don’t agonize over whether or not there was a threat, but move quickly to determine if the person poses a threat. This is really what we must know and we’re only going to know it by conducting a comprehensive, accurate, and impartial human threat assessment.
So, jump right in there and begin your threat assessment.
One quick reminder – when you do notice an expression to do harm, do not first think punishment and consequences. Punishment is given for breaking the rules and consequences are the natural result of wrong behavior. Neither of these are the best way to prevent violence in the long term. That doesn’t mean that they cannot be useful tools. Incarceration and required mental evaluation can be useful in stabilizing a dangerous situation as well as mandating additional and needed services for the person.
Instead, first think intervention and management. Intervene in the person’s life to prevent the violence and manage the threat (person) in order to lower the risk level. This is our best, long term solution for making everyone safer.
>>> If you liked the information in this article, then you’ll like the class School Threat Assessments which gives you the skills and ability to not only determine if someone has made a threat, but if they pose a threat.
There continues to be articles written by concerned people (some very influential) blaming violent video games for the cause of teen violence and the increase of school attacks starting in the 1990’s. I understand why this connection is proposed, but violent video games do not make people murder or commit a school attack.
How do we know?
Because 40 million people play the first person shooter game Call of Duty II and 40 million people do not then go out and murder anyone or attack our schools. If the game was to blame, we’d see an epidemic of murder and school attacks occurring every day in America.
For the record, this is not a plug for or an argument against violent video games. This is a warning not to get sidetracked and attach too much importance to a teen playing a violent video game.
What do I mean?
A teen playing Call of Duty does not mean they are a threat to attack our schools. If you have this type of perspective, you’re going to be expending too much energy and resources watching 50-60% (or higher) of the male students in your school for no reason. The teens we have to really watch are the ones who play the violent games and are obsessed with the violence. It’s not that they just like the graphics and the cool uniforms, but that they love the violence. They are obsessed with the violence. That’s the real fear.That they only play it for the violence.
These are the teens that are using the game to meet their need for experiencing, seeing, and participating with violence. Eric Harris, Columbine murderer, played Doom because he loved and needed the violence. He even created his own Doom levels so he could craft the violence to his own specifics. Doom didn’t make him murder—he used Doom to release his obsession with murder. Much in the same way that Andrew Golden, 11 year old Westside Middle School murderer, massacred animals to meet his. It’s not the game or the method per se, it’s the intent behind the behavior.
That’s what we have to focus on—what are they getting out of it?
If you find yourself with a student who has made a threat, and you’re concerned about whether the student poses a risk, one indicator may be if he plays violent video games. But don’t automatically assume that it raises the threat level. Instead, figure out exactly what it means to the student and why he plays it. Knowing his true intent will give you a much clearer view as to the real risk he poses.