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Effective threat assessments for schools: A 5-step framework

Effective threat assessments for schools: A 5-step framework

On November 30, 2021, a 15-year-old high school student brought a firearm to school, killing four classmates and wounding many others. While the incident shocked the nation, there were potential warning signs that could have been picked up with a robust, comprehensive threat assessment plan. Before the shooting, teachers and administrators had noticed several red flags — including concerning videos, drawings, and web searches for ammunition on school computers. Unfortunately, despite repeated attempts to intervene, the administration did not search the student for weapons and tragically, the student was returned to class with his firearm undetected in his backpack.

“Prevention must start before there is a gunman at the school door.” – Professor Dewey Cornell

School shootings like this are becoming increasingly common, with the declining state of student mental health and the social and economic pressures of the pandemic coinciding with a spike in such violence. Administrators are desperate for proven strategies to keep their students safe. One critical resource they can turn to is the Comprehensive School Threat Assessment Guidelines (CSTAG) developed by a team of researchers at the University of Virginia. Professor Dewey Cornell’s team pioneered this work in 2002, and their research on school violence and effective threat prevention, used across the United States, remains a trusted framework in prevention.

Unlike crisis response, which happens when an incident is imminent, a robust threat assessment process enables school officials to evaluate and classify threats ahead of time to identify the best intervention strategies. This approach, which has been empirically proven, is based on the motto that “prevention must start before there is a gunman at the school door.”

“The Comprehensive School Threat Assessment Guidelines have an overwhelmingly high success rate: studies have shown that after implementing CSTAG, 99% of threats are not carried out, and only 1% of students are expelled or arrested.”

Professor Cornell’s 5-step threat assessment framework

At the heart of Professor Cornell’s research is a five-step approach to threat assessments. Here’s how it works:

1. Evaluate the threat.

The first step in Cornell’s model is evaluation — when teachers or school administrators hear of a threat, they need to gather as much data on the incident as possible. This typically includes interviews with the person who made the threat, the intended victim, and other witnesses. This evaluation needs to be conducted by a multidisciplinary team, including teachers, school resource officers, and school psychologists or guidance counselors. Using this information, officials should assess the student’s intentions. Does their behavior suggest the intent to harm someone in the future, or were they just angry in the moment? 

2. Attempt to resolve the threat as “transient.”

After gathering and documenting this evidence, administrators should consider whether they can resolve the threat as “transient,” meaning it was just a passing emotion or misunderstanding that doesn’t require further intervention. A student might apologize, for example, and explain that the threat was a joke or the result of anger or frustration. The threat can be resolved in this instance, and officials can then decide whether the student needs any additional support services.

3. Respond to a substantive threat.

If an incident escalates beyond Step 2 and the intended victim may be at risk for future harm, it’s now considered a “substantive threat.” For example, a substantive threat might be a threat to “hit, fight, or beat up” another student, Cornell explains. He recommends informing the victim and parents about the potential threat, working with counselors to resolve the conflict, and considering disciplinary action against the student when applicable.   

4. Conduct a safety evaluation for a very serious substantive threat.

In rare cases, a threat might escalate to a “very serious substantive threat.” This means that a student may be at risk of committing deadly violence or sexual assault. If a threat escalates to this level, school officials need to act immediately to keep intended victims safe ꟷ as they did in Lee County, Florida, where two teenage boys with weapons and maps of the school security cameras were arrested in 2021, averting an attack. Cornell recommends screening the student for mental health concerns, contacting law enforcement to investigate evidence of a potential incident, and developing a comprehensive safety plan to keep students safe if the student attempts to commit a violent act.   

5. Implement and monitor the safety plan.

Finally, school officials should update their safety plan as needed until they have evidence that a threat is resolved. This includes staying in contact with the student and monitoring the safety plan to determine its effectiveness.

Keeping students safe with a proactive threat assessment process

In an increasingly violent world, the establishment and implementation of a threat assessment program is the cornerstone of violence prevention in our schools. The good news is that studies show that the CSTAG has an overwhelmingly high success rate when implemented effectively: 99 percent of threats are not carried out, and only 1 percent of students are expelled or arrested. Most students who are evaluated after making a threat can even continue their education at the same school.

“The American Academy of Pediatrics recently declared a state of emergency for children’s mental health. Without appropriate intervention, students facing severe mental health challenges may experience symptoms that manifest as violence.”

“Study after study has shown that the establishment of a threat assessment team is the single most effective tool for promoting school safety,” says Tom Wheeler, former senior advisor to the White House Federal Commission on School Safety. “These threat assessments are best performed by multidisciplinary teams that include highly trained professionals from a variety of different disciplines (such as teachers, administrators, school resource officers, school psychologists, and guidance counselors).”

It’s important to note that most students evaluated via the threat assessment guidelines are not malicious — they are simply struggling. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently declared a state of emergency for children’s mental health. Without appropriate intervention, students facing severe mental health challenges may experience symptoms that manifest as violence. A thoughtful threat assessment process provides an opportunity for school officials to respond with empathy and support to students facing mental health challenges and connect them with resources that will support their healing — while keeping their entire school community safe.

Effective school threat assessment webinar

To learn more about establishing and implementing a threat assessment program, view this webinar where we discuss:

  • Background and statistics on targeted school violence
  • The need for threat assessment programs and understanding the pathway to violence
  • Components of an effective threat assessment program
  • Model threat assessment programs and overview
  • Steps for implementing
  • Resources


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