Recognizing and Defusing Risk

How can I identify potentially violent students?

One widely discussed preventive idea is to develop methods to identify likely offenders in instances of lethal school violence or school rampages...Profiling. The Exceptional Case Study an extended case study looking at targeted Violence in the US. Stating in the 1700s. United States Secret Service concluded: There is no accurate or useful profile of the school shooter.

A more promising approach Threat Assessment

Threat Assessment is based on analysis of observable behavior compiled from multiple sources and reviewed by a trained threat assessment team.

The Goal

  • To teach some of the tools of identifying potentially violent students to staff and faculty.
  • To review some strategies of defusing escalated students.

Keep in Mind

The best way to defuse a true crisis:

  • 911
  • Review tools to function in a potentially escalating situation (these tools are listed - keep reading)
  • It is not intended to train you to be first responders in a school crisis.


There are two types of aggression:

Primal Aggression
Is driven by adrenaline
The stereotypically angry manifestation of discovering your spouse in bed with a lover. You snap.
In the extreme, one lacks self-control.
Our actions cannot be predicted.
Cognitive aggression
Is intent-driven.
Cognitive aggressors plan and methodically execute.
They are likely to be withdrawn, determined, detached and devoid of outward emotionality.
As they progress through stages of mounting aggression, their patterns can be detected.
Cognitive Agressors
  • The most lethal of terrorists
  • While the stereotypes of “active shooters” and “going postal” suggest primal aggression (the red-faced, angry actor on TV about to explode)
  • The highest level of threat comes from the cognitive aggressor who is not emotionally engaged in the destruction of the target.

There are three phases the aggressor goes though as he/she becomes more dangerous:

The Trigger Phase
There may be explosions of anxiety
BUT individuals are coping with these anxieties and therefore are under the radar of scrutiny
They do not register as an immediate threat
Faculty & Staff - The Trigger Phase is seen as a departure from an established baseline behavior - "James is acting strange lately"
The Escalation Phase
The individual stops coping with their anxieties
There are culturally neutral, measurable observables of body language, behavior and communication:
Hardening (Level 1)
Harmful Debate (Level 2)
Actions v. Words (Level 3)
The Crisis Phase
An aggressor may then transitions into the Crisis Phase on the Cognitive Aggression Continuum
Having identified a target and committed to its destruction
Aggressors tend to be a 7 or an 8
Limited Destructive Blows (Level 7)
Win/Lose Attack (Level 8)

The Window
These levels illustrate aggressive intent prior to conflict, thereby offering the opportunity to prevent conflict rather than merely reacting to it. Because there are individuals who express their conflict with violence, it is essential to get out-in-front of conflict in order to prevent violence.

Hardening (Level 1)
This aggressor becomes more distant and argumentative
Demonstrates a lack of understanding and empathy
They conceal and deceive as to their motives and intent
Faculty & Staff - Professors may notice this "distancing" in the classroom through:
(1) The student avoids eye contact, (2) Wearing concealing clothing (hoodies or long coats)
Harmful Debate (Level 2)
This aggressor becomes fixated on his or her own view
The individual may perpetrate cutthroat-competition, distrust, proleptic (anticipating objections only) and obstructionist behavior
There is no interest in the perspective of others or finding common ground
Faculty & Staff - This may manifest in frequent destructive and/or frivolous arguments (in class or as advisors confront code or rule violations, enforcing rules). Faculty may find students arguing in class just for the sake of argument
Action v. Words (Level 3)
This aggressor leaves argument behind
Takes action without consulting others appears detached and is self-absorbed
Appears detached and is self-absorbed
Perceives the intent of his/her intended victim(s) as not in their best interests
"So and so does not understand"..."they don’t care at that department"
Faculty & Staff - Advisors and staff may notice this behavior as: (1) Students withdrawing from contact with others, (2) Developing concerning behaviors (punching doors, pushing papers from a desk, throwing pencil or other object)
Levels 1-3 Mild Risk
Confrontation by reporter
Behavioral contract focusing on problem-solving
Conflict management: (1) Calm quiet voice, (2) Invite to safe but more secluded environment, (3) Seated if possible, (4) Take notes of complains and issues, (5) Review Student Code Violations ("not my rules")

Mental Health

The Escalation Phase
In this phase aggressor has now transitioned into covert conflict. These levels are illustrated by:

  • Image Destruction (Level 4)
  • Forced Loss of Face (Level 5)

Image Destruction
This aggressor plants seeds of distrust with the intended victim’s community. Individuals the victim likes and respects and by whom they want to be liked and respected are the focus:

  • Stealing ideas or credit
  • Provoking anonymous/false accusations
  • Subtle undermining
  • Issues become bipolar
  • Attacks intended toward victim’s core identity.

Faculty and Staff
This may involve attempts to embarrass students in class, flouting a teacher’s or advisor’s authority, vandalism on campus or in the community.

Forced Loss of Face
The aggressor unmasks his or her victim as an enemy, direct accusations.

Levels 4-5 Moderate Risk
Confrontation by reporter
Behavioral contract or treatment plan with student
Contact Superior and Dean of Students
Student Code of Conduct response
Consultation Student Health Services
Evaluate for disability services and/or medical referral
Conflict management, mediation (if non violent), problem-solving
Level 6 Elevated Risk
Confrontation by reporter or other school authority
Contacts: Dean of Students, STAT, SHS, Judicial Affairs & Dispute Resolution
Evaluate parental/guardian notification
Evaluate need to request permission from student to receive medical/educational records
Consider interim suspension if applicable
Consider referral or mandated assessment

Threat Strategies (Level 6)
In the final level of the Escalation Phase the aggressor becomes more overt toward his/her victims. They are less able to extract him/herself from the escalation. Often this level of aggression is about controlling or manipulating a victim or victims. The goal is positioning victims so that they feel the full impact of the aggressor’s threat.

Faculty and Staff
This aggressor presents an ultimatum to his or her victim or victims, aggressively responds to perceived threats possibly on the verge of panic. A student aggrieved at the loss of an election lashes out at the winner as "having stolen the election" or threatens that "no one will be President if I can't be the winner".

Crisis Phase
An aggressor may then transitions into the Crisis Phase on the Cognitive Aggression Continuum. Having identified a target and committed to its destruction, aggressors tend to be a 7 or an 8. Limited Destructive Blows (Level 7). Win/Lose Attack (Level 8).

Limited Destructive Blows
This aggressor is the Complicit Tactician (planning and limited violence). An individual who is complicit with the eighth and ninth-level aggressor but does not intend to murder or die for his/her cause. This aggressor will inspire others or aid others in the committing of violence. In the generic sense this individual is an accomplice.

Win/Lose Attack
This aggressor may be prepared to give up his/her life for this cause but intends to survive. Generically, in a military or homeland security context, a combatant.

Levels 7-8 Severe Risk
These levels are direct referrals to law enforcement
Parental/guardian notification and emergency notification to others (FERPA/HIPAA/Clery)
Evaluate for custodial hold
Direct threat eligible,law enforcement response
Background check
Consider eligibility for involuntary commitment

Lose/Lose Attack
This aggressor does not intend to survive. Presents with a profound disconnection from his/her own well-being. Detachment or dissociation results in a calm, methodical execution of his/her plan. The so-called "Thousand-Yard Stare" - The whole body and behaviors lose animation. This aggressor will often take his own life if confronted, to avoid capture or incarceration.

Level 9 Extreme Risk
Direct referrals to law enforcement
Parental/guardian notification and emergency notification to others (FERPA/HIPAA/Clery)
Evaluate for custodial hold
Direct threat eligible,law enforcement response
Background check
Consider eligibility for involuntary commitment