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Irresponsible Behavior Or Legitimate Threat? It's Important To Know The Difference

(Sergio Souza/Unsplash)
(Sergio Souza/Unsplash)

A high school student grows increasingly withdrawn — spending hours playing video games, neglecting his already slipping grades — and then posts a photo on Instagram wearing a gas mask and holding a gun.

Is this another potential school shooter? Or a troubled student who may need extra support but doesn’t pose a serious threat?

Likely the latter. The truth is that most students who exhibit concerning behavior aren’t dangerous — but they do need intervention.

As a child psychiatrist who has consulted in schools for more than 20 years, I’ve conducted hundreds of what the FBI and Department of Education refer to as “threat assessments” on students with problematic behavior. And in an era where mass shootings have become a seemingly regular occurrence in our news cycle — and parents and educators alike are increasingly on edge — the stakes have never been higher for educators to determine whether student behavior is childish and irresponsible, or dangerous and potentially deadly.

The truth is that most students who exhibit concerning behavior aren’t dangerous -- but they do need intervention.

But what about the fallout of our exaggerated responses to kids who may threaten or exhibit challenging behavior, but who are unlikely to act on their threats? How can schools respond appropriately but not overreact?

My colleagues and I recently completed a first-of-its-kind study where we interviewed students who made threats in school, and their guardians. We learned that a high school career could be torpedoed if a student was falsely identified as a danger to others, and that parents feared that the blame, judgment and the labeling as a “bad kid” would become a self-fulfilling prophecy for their children.

Parents in our study also viewed school disciplinary procedures as unfair and felt that the institution had deemed their child guilty until proven innocent — a significant finding, because families who feel judged or unfairly labeled may reject mental health services and therapeutic school placements as their only means to exert control. While parents did understand how hard it could be for teachers to deal with their kids, they also felt that educators needed more training to understand a student’s challenging behavior.

Schools currently rely on a bevy of tools to ensure safety, including metal detectors, camera surveillance and zero tolerance policies where finger-pointing, drawings and even immature jokes can lead to expulsion. Suspension is a common but less severe punitive practice, but it can also serve as fast-track to the school-to-prison pipeline, making students fall behind in their classes, feel alienated and rejected, and persist in disruptive behavior. Students may ultimately drop out of school and enter the juvenile court system.

In my experience, students who push everyone away with provocative behavior are the most vulnerable and need connection the most. I once worked with a student who left a “hit list” of peers in the cafeteria. We conducted a safety assessment and found the student had no access to weapons but had a difficult family situation at home with a father who drank and who rejected the student’s sexual orientation. (On top of this, the student was also being bullied at school about his sexual orientation.)

All students should feel they have at least one adult at school who actually knows them and can serve as a source of support, not judgment.

Our evaluation did not deem this student a threat. The school’s response focused on addressing the problems underlying the student’s behavior, through family therapy, individual support and an invitation to a school support group, as well as intervention with the peers who had been harassing the student.

I’ve long advocated for schools to create more pathways and opportunities for students to connect with school adults. All students should feel they have at least one adult at school who actually knows them and can serve as a source of support, not judgment. These adults can also build on a student’s sense of competency and strengths, so that the student doesn’t internalize the idea that they are a scary or dangerous person. In many cases, students are able to turn their behavior around because they’re anchored by sports, arts or career endeavors.

While most troubled students don’t commit acts of violence, we all know that missing credible threats can be deadly, which is why schools need a trained safety assessment team that can identify and intervene.

In Massachusetts, today, schools have the final say about how they choose to assess students’ threats. Though there are clear school safety policy recommendations from organizations like Sandy Hook Promise, there is no standard protocol educators are mandated to follow. Earlier this year, State Sen. Barry Finegold filed legislation called the Safety and Violence Education for Students (SAVE Students) Act. It would require all schools to have designated threat assessment teams that are trained how to identify and intervene when students make threats of violence and help before there is a crisis.

At the very least, schools should establish a clear safety protocol and inform students, staff and parents of the protocol, and staff should be properly trained and equipped to carry it out.

Building a climate where information is readily shared and appropriately acted on is essential, and an anonymous reporting system and other tools are also helpful. Once a student is identified as needing help, the next crucial step should be to engage both the student and the family and offer a route to mental health treatment.

Related:

Nancy Rappaport Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Nancy Rappaport is a part-time associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a child psychiatrist at the Cambridge Health Alliance.

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