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…
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