School Shootings, Comprehensive Prevention, Mandatory (Mental Health) Reporting, and Standardized Threat Assessments (Part II)

What Schools, Staff, and Students Need to Do, and The Help that They Need to Do It

Dear Colleagues,


Too many times during my career, I have heard school staff members across the country state the following:

“We’ve tried everything.  No one is responding, and the student is not getting the help he needs.  I’ll tell you one thing . . . we’re going to be reading about him in the newspaper at some point in the future.  He’s going to hurt someone.”

Just yesterday, in a coaching call with a district Director of Student Services (I have had monthly coaching calls with her for well over a year), we were talking about the District’s strategies to prevent tragedies like the Parkland, Florida massacre three weeks ago at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.  During our conversation, she said:

“We have a school resource officer.  But I’m not really sure what he does when conducting a Threat Assessment, and we don’t have a set protocol for referring students who are troubled across our schools.”

In Part I of this two-Blog series, School Shootings: History Keeps Repeating Itself. . . What We Already Know, and What Schools, Staff, and Students Need to Do. . . 

[LINK HERE to Part I]

. . . I emphasized that, while we need to remember the fallen and mourn our losses, the ultimate school violence goal is to prevent the next act of violence, the next (God forbid) school shooting. 

To help attain this goal, I re-reviewed the June 2004 U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education document, The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. 

Analyzing 37 targeted school shootings from 1974 to 2000, this Report discussed the many different motives underlying these atrocities— concluding that most of the investigated shooters had no diagnosed mental health issues.

The Report concluded that there is no single profile of characteristics that can predict a school shooter, to which I added two missing components:

  • First, the factors related to school shootings are complex, and the ways to prevent them are layered and comprehensive.
  • Second, more focus is needed on school safety, school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management, and the root causes from each past shootingneedsto be applied to prevent any future potential events.

Beginning with the End in Mind

At the end of the first Blog in this Series (published on February 24th—not ten days after the Douglas High School shootings), I encouraged students and staff, schools and districts, and parents and community leaders to take the actions in their power to make our schools safer. . . and to NOT wait for statutory changes crafted by our state and federal legislatures and elected officials.

This is not to say that some of our laws don’t need to be changed and strengthened.

This is simply to emphasize that while laws guide behavior, it is the people who make choices, take actions, and influence others’ (hopefully) for the common good.

But we must be specific about what needs to be done.

Indeed, what are the “layered and comprehensive ways to prevent future school shootings” . . . as referenced above?

During the past week, I received an e-mail from an interdisciplinary coalition of colleagues who issued a “Call to Action to Prevent Gun Violence in the United States.”  Their Call is directed to federal and state political leaders, as well as to law enforcement, advocacy, social services, mental health, and educational agencies and organizations.

Significantly, the Call has been endorsed by over 150 state and national associations, and over 2,300 well-regarded experts and advocates in the fields above.

I believe that the “crux of the Call” (with two critical additions) begins to frame-out the next layer of actions needed to prevent future school violence and shootings. 

Critically, none of the recommendations are new, and many schools, communities, and states have already embraced and enacted them (see below).

Yet, they exist as reminders that we largely know what to do, and a “call to action” to move to the next level of implementation.

The recommendations from the Call are:  

On the first level we need: 

1. A national requirement for all schools to assess school climate and maintain physically and emotionally safe conditions and positive school environments that protect all students and adults from bullying, discrimination, harassment, and assault;

2. A ban on assault-style weapons, high-capacity ammunition clips, and products that modify semi-automatic firearms to enable them to function like automatic firearms.

On the second level we need:

3. Adequate staffing (such as counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers) of coordinated school- and community-based mental health services for individuals with risk factors for violence, recognizing that violence is not intrinsically a product of mental illness;

4. Reform of school discipline to reduce exclusionary practices and foster positive social, behavioral, emotional, and academic success for students;

5. Universal background checks to screen out violent offenders, persons who have been hospitalized for violence towards self or others, and persons on no-fly, terrorist watch lists.

On the third level we need:

6. A national program to train and maintain school- and community-based threat assessment teams that include mental health and law enforcement partners. Threat assessment programs should include practical channels of communication for persons to report potential threats as well as interventions to resolve conflicts and assist troubled individuals;

7. Removal of legal barriers to sharing safety-related information among educational, mental health, and law enforcement agencies in cases where a person has threatened violence;

8. Laws establishing Gun Violence Protection Orders that allow courts to issue time-limited restraining orders requiring that firearms be recovered by law enforcement when there is evidence that an individual is planning to carry out acts against others or against themselves.

On an educational level, Recommendations #1 and #4 are either required or are consistent with the precepts in The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA/ESSA).

On a legal level (see below), many states already have laws on the books (or are currently reviewing these laws because of the Parkland assault) that embody Recommendations #2, #5, #8.

But I would like to add two additional recommendations.

Mandatory Reporting of a School Violence Threat (Additional Recommendation #1)

Every state in this country (including the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands) has statutes identifying individuals who are required to report suspected child maltreatment to an appropriate agency, such as child protective services, a law enforcement agency, or a State’s toll-free child abuse reporting hotline.

We need similar statutes—or wording added to these child maltreatment statutes—whereby those suspected of potential school violence (including students, staff, and others) are reported both to law enforcement and to community mental health agencies.

Mandatory Child Maltreatment Reporters 

In approximately 48 states (and in most U.S. territories), specific professionals are required to report child maltreatment.  Collectively, these professionals include:

  • Social workers
  • Teachers, principals, and other school personnel
  • Physicians, nurses, and other health-care workers
  • Counselors, therapists, and other mental health professionals
  • Child care providers
  • Medical examiners or coroners
  • Law enforcement officers

In a scattering of states, other legally-mandated reporters include:

  • Commercial film or photograph processors
  • Computer technicians
  • Probation or parole officers
  • Directors, employees, and volunteers at overnight and day camps, youth centers, and recreation centers
  • Domestic violence workers
  • Animal control or humane officers
  • Court-appointed special advocates
  • Members of the clergy
  • Faculty, administrators, athletics staff, and other employees and volunteers at all public and private institutions of higher learning

Significantly, some states identify any person who suspects child abuse or neglect as mandatory reporters. And so:

In the recommended “Mandatory Reporting of a School Violence Threat” statute above, it is further recommended that all of the individuals listed above be included as mandatory reporters.

Consistent with this recommendation, teachers, administrators, mental health, related services staff, and all other school-employed staff should be legally-mandated reporters of a potential school violence threat.

Moreover, they should be required to internally report a potential school violence perpetrator to administrators, and to externally report the threat to law enforcement and community mental health.  Once appraised, administrators should take immediate and measured actions to assess and alleviate the threat—especially as related to potential students, staff, or other aggressors who have access to a school or school event.

Standardized Threat Analysis to Accompany a Mandatory Reporting(Additional Recommendation #2)

Accompanying or embedded in the recommended Mandatory School Violence Reporting law and actions above, should be language that, when a potential perpetrator is reported . . .

A mandatory multi-dimensional, multi-respondent threat assessment, (a) that conforms to field-validated standards and characteristics, (b) be completed by trained professionals within a specific period of time.  The threat analysis should be completed by relevant community-based professionals and agencies, with contributions by school-based professionals when a student or employee is involved.

A review of the websites of the federal agencies involved in this issue (including the Department of Education, TSA, and the Secret Service), as well as a number of state education departments and related state agencies, respectively, revealed a small number of threat analysis protocols or manuals written specifically for schools and other educational settings. 

Most of the written documents found, however, either are or cite other documents that are well over 10 years old. 

The Colorado School Safety Resource Center (organized under the Colorado Department of Public Safety), for example, just updated (June, 2017) its 2009 Essential of School Threat Assessment: Preventing Targeted School Violence document.  

[LINK HERE for Document.]

While this is a good model example, many of the threat analysis protocols in this revision still cite other guides and studies from the early 2000s.

The point is:  All states need to research, update, and publish valid, scientifically-based, and field-tested threat analysis protocols and manuals that reflect their laws, statutes, and mandatory standards, and their science-to-practice successes.

In making this recommendation, I hope that this does not spark a “cottage industry” (beyond what already exists) of marketers and entrepreneurs whose interests do not lie in “the common good.”

In the final analysis, we need effective, (re)validated practices that will protect our students, staff, schools, and communities.

Gun Control Laws at the State Level:  What We Already Have

Since the Parkland shooting, the U.S. Congress (unsuccessfully, so far) and a handful of state legislatures (with varying degrees of success) have attempted to change and upgrade their gun control laws.  Critically, at this point, it appears that changes in current law are more likely to occur at the state, rather than the federal, level.

And yet, consistent with the Second Amendment, it is also significant to note that any changes will necessarily relate to gun control, and not gun abolishment. 

Indeed, while many states already have gun control laws on the books, the key questions right now are,

“Are they the attaining their goals (and what are their goals)?” 

“Do they need to be revisited and adapted to reflect the complexities of America in the 21st Century?” and

“How do they balance and protect our unalienable rights (in the Declaration of Independence of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’), while simultaneous maintaining our Constitutional rights (in the Second Amendment as ‘the right of the people to keep and bear Arms’)?”

Significantly, some state laws have answered these questions and maintained the third question’s balance and protection.  Below, we will briefly review the “Child Access Prevention Gun Laws” currently on the books in states across the country.

The point of this review is to recognize that while some states need to strengthen their laws, other states already have strong laws on the books. 

These stronger laws can be both a model for other states, and a comfort to some who do not believe that strong, preventative gun control laws can be passed.

Child Access Prevention Gun Laws

Child Access Prevention (CAP) laws help to reduce preventable shootings and suicides by children and adolescents across the country by encouraging the safe storage of firearms at home, and by holding adults liable when they allow children to have unsupervised access to guns.  Research has found that millions of children live in homes with unsecured firearms and ammunition, and that this access correlates with increases in child and adolescent suicide, unintentional deaths, and deadly school shootings.

According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, there are no CAP laws at the federal level.  Nonetheless, current Federal law makes it unlawful for any licensed importer, manufacturer or dealer to sell or transfer any handgun unless the transferee is provided with a “secure gun storage or safety device.”  Federal law also immunizes the lawful owner of a handgun who uses a secure gun storage or safety device from certain civil actions based on the criminal or unlawful misuse of the handgun by a third party.

At the state level, as of Fall 2017, 23 states do not have CAP laws.  At the same time, the different states that do have CAP laws (since 1990) have reported notable reductions in gun-related suicides and unintentional firearm deaths and injuries of children and adolescents. 

State CAP laws vary. According to the Giffords Law Center [CLICK HERE],

“The strongest laws impose criminal liability when a minor is likely to gain access to a negligently stored firearm regardless of whether the minor actually gains access (California). The weakest merely prohibit certain persons, such as parents or guardians, from directly providing a firearm to a minor (Utah). There is a wide range of laws that fall somewhere between these extremes, including laws that impose criminal liability for negligently stored firearms, but only where the child uses the firearm and causes death or serious injury. Weaker laws impose penalties only in the event of reckless, knowing or intentional conduct by the adult. State CAP laws also differ on the definition of ‘minor.’”

From a “numbers perspective,” here is a quick overview:

  • Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have laws that impose criminal liability on persons who negligently store firearms, where minors could or do gain access to the firearm. 
  • Eight states impose criminal liability for allowing a child to gain access to a firearm, regardless of whether the child uses it.  An additional seven states affix criminal liability only when a child accesses and uses a firearm, for example, in a threatening manner, for a crime, or to cause death or serious injury
  • Hawaii, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia impose criminal liability for the negligent storage of a firearm even if it is unloaded.  Massachusetts requires that all firearms be stored with locking devices in place to prevent accidental discharge. 
  • Finally, different states allow several exceptions to their child access prevention laws. 

Once again, according to the Giffords Law Center,

The most common exception applies where the firearm is stored in a locked container (California, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Texas). Another common exception applies where the minor gains access to the firearm via illegal entry of the premises (California, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Texas). Other exceptions include cases where the firearm is used for hunting, sport shooting or agricultural purposes, where the minor uses the gun in defense of self or others, where the firearm is used to aid law enforcement, or where the child has completed a firearm safety course.

Mental Health Reporting Laws in the United States

While there are federal laws that prohibit the sale of firearms to individuals with a history of mental illness, many of these laws have loopholes and voluntary provisions that can result in gun purchases and/or access to weapons by those with significant mental health concerns.

Indeed, federal law does not require states to report individuals who are dangerous and/or with a history of mental illness to the federal or state agencies that perform background checks for gun purchases.  Moreover, many states do not voluntarily report these individuals to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). 

NICS consists of four federal data-bases.  Two of them contain records that may disqualify someone from possessing a firearm as a function of their mental health or developmental disability history or status.

This is not a privacy issue.  NICS only identifies individuals by name, birth date, and other demographic indicators.  It does not identify individuals by diagnosis, or with any other clinical information or data.

From a state law perspective, 43 states have firearm purchase background check laws that require or authorize specific individuals to report an individual with mental health issues to NICS.  An additional four states require the reporting to go to a state data-base.

Significantly, however, most of the state mental health reporting laws limit a “mental health concern” to individuals who have been committed to a state mental health inpatient stay under certain circumstances.

In addition, for those states with required reporting laws, the time period for reporting an individual with mental health concerns ranges from “immediately,” to 25 to 30 days, to “promptly” or “in a timely manner.”

Implications for Schools and School-Aged Students.  At some point, in a re-review of existing (or new) state laws, the issue of when, how, by whom, and which students with mental health concerns should be reported either to NICS or to a state data-base.  Somewhere in this determination, each state will need to consider these students’ “age of consent,” or the “age of majority” (i.e., adulthood).

Clearly, all of this is very complicated—especially when state laws differ across the many variables relevant to gun ownership, access, and possession.  While it would be “simpler” to have universal, federal laws in this area, history has demonstrated that this is not simple at all.


After so many gun-related deaths, injuries, and other incidents, all of us—parents, community members, educators, other professionals, citizens—need to decide how to “do our part” to prevent future events.  While some of us will communicate with our elected officials, others will take more personal— sometimes, unseen— steps.

Clearly—as discussed in the two Blogs in this series, we need to address the availability of guns to children and adolescents, the types of guns that have been used against students and school staff, how those who are potential threats—including those with mental health issues—are assessed and reported, and how to address the root causes of past events so that future attacks are prevented.

While this is a daunting task, I have tried to demonstrate that we do have laws and systems in many states that can be used as models, and to remind us that the task is not impossible.

For now, I again recommend that districts and schools complete an immediate audit of the areas discussed in these two Blogs, and independently take the steps needed to protect themselves.

As noted, there are multi-faceted and multi-layered solutions that are in place in some schools, but that must be present and successfully implemented in all schools . . . even as we wait for the federal and state legal decisions and changes that will hopefully strengthen and complement these here-and-now actions.

We can’t prevent every school shooting.  But we can prevent the vast majority of them.  We need to prevent the violence that we can, and take every step possible to minimize the effects of those that can’t be fully prevented.

I hope that this information has been useful to you.  Regardless of your political position on the issues discussed, I know that we all agree that we need to protect our students, make our schools safe, and address the needs of those who are vulnerable among us.

Let’s use this common belief as the foundation of our continued discussions.  Let me know how I can assist you in this charge.  I am always available by e-mail or conference call.