Labels...and Student Safety Assessments


As a society, we have become terrible at spotting indicators of danger or those behaviors that reveal if a person is truly a threat. Unfortunately, it’s become common to label those with different beliefs, causes, likes, dislikes, and membership in certain groups as extremists, terrorists, villains, and threats.

In the past, these labels were only used when they truly applied and because of it, we were all safer. These labels served as a valuable warning to the community because they could be trusted and we could believe them.

Now, they are used too often to simply discredit, demean, cancel, silence, or to pressure the other person to think and act differently. This has made us far less safe because you can’t trust the labels anymore so most people simply just ignore them.

It’s the boy who cried wolf and we’re the villagers.

For those who work in a school with students doing threat or student safety assessments, we can never follow this trend or emulate society’s practices. We must be more objective, prudent, compassionate, careful, and absolutely rigid in our fairness.

We must be like the wise person who, “Knows the true tastes of all things.”

Centuries ago, this was the standard in which a person would be judged as wise. It has nothing to do with food but being able to draw accurate and truthful distinctions. Food was just a metaphor.

The valuable and wise person has always been the one who can label things properly. In other words, this action is good and that action is bad. This is statement is the truth and that statement is a lie. Your alternator is broken but your engine is fine. You need to take this medicine but not that medicine. This person is safe and that person is not.

When it comes to assessing students, I’m often asked who the person should be to make the decision about whether or not a student is a threat.

Typically, it’s the principal or a counselor, but it should be the person who knows the true taste of all things and it must be based on the student’s behavior.

It cannot be based on our own beliefs, prejudices, preconceptions, predispositions, or fear…all of which can be valid emotions. I’m not discrediting these feelings as much as I am saying that you must guard against letting human error blur something so important as making a proper assessment which at its very heart is assigning a student a label of being safe or unsafe.

Just hearing that phrase should make everyone shudder…assigning a student a label.

Society throws labels at people all the time without blinking an eye or seeming to care about potential damage it can cause to the person, their family, and our communities if they get it wrong.

One of the best ways we can protect our students as well as ourselves from making a mistake, is to use the Path to Violence model.

Every school attacker anywhere in the world, has been on the Path to Violence. The Path to Violence has four distinct stages.

1) Idea. 2) Plan. 3) Prepare. 4) Attack

These stages go in order from 1-4.

First the person commits to the IDEA of violence and then they PLAN and PREPARE for violence and finally if no action is taken, they ATTACK by attacking the school.

The Path to Violence is only for targeted violence and not random violence. Every school attack is an act of targeted violence. A spontaneous fight between two students is an act of random violence. Both can cause great damage, but an act of targeted violence is potentially far worse because the person has planned and prepared to be successful.

The way to use the Path to Violence is to take a behavior of the student you are assessing and see if it fits on the Path to Violence. If it does, the student may be a threat. If not, chances are the student is not a threat.

There are of course exemptions, explanations, and mitigating factors that should be taken into account. The Path to Violence is not the only way to determine risk but it is a fantastic threshold to help you in the process.

Example #1:
The student draws a map of the school. The map highlights points of entry, targeted classrooms, and points of escape. This is clearly an attack map.

  1. Does this behavior indicate that the student is committed to the IDEA of using violence?
    Yes, absolutely.
  2. Is this a concrete behavior of PLANNING to use violence?
    Yes, absolutely.
  3. Is this a concrete behavior of PREPARING to use violence?
    No, it doesn’t seem so. Planning is thought and preparation is action. Therefore, this seems to fit better in planning.
  4. Is this a concrete behavior that the student has breached the school property and is about to do violence—ATTACK the school?
    Yes, absolutely.

From this piece of the puzzle, it appears that the student has at least committed to the IDEA of using violence and has take a concrete step in PLANNING to use violence (planned how he was going to enter the school, planned which classrooms to attack, and planned how he was going to escape). It does not appear to be a concrete behavior of the other 2 stages (prepare/attack).

Therefore, at this time the student appears to be on Stage 2 (Plan) on the Path to Violence which would indicate a potential threat and a medium risk.

Each stage on the Path to Violence represents a risk level.
Stage 1: low risk.
Stage 2: medium risk.
Stage 3: high risk.
Stage 4: critical.

Example #2:
A student has been repeatedly bullied. He’s a loner, plays first person shooter video games, and he often wears black.

  1. Do these behaviors indicate that the student has committed to the IDEA of using violence?
    No, not committed. He plays violent video games so there may be a fascination with violence but that does not make someone a threat.
  2. Are these concrete behaviors of PLANNING to use violence?
    No, there’s no evidence so far of active planning/thought to use violence.
  3. Are these concrete behaviors of PREPARING to use violence?
  4. Are these concrete behaviors that the student has breached the school property and is about to do violence—ATTACK the school?

None of these behaviors fall on the Path to Violence. Yes, some school attackers in the past have shared these traits, but none of them are concrete behaviors that the student is planning or preparing to use violence let alone accept the idea to use violence.

Therefore, from these behaviors alone the student appears NOT to be on the Path to Violence..

It’s important to note that if a student does not immediately fall on the Path to Violence, that doesn’t mean that you stop being involved or assessing the student. In this example, the student has been bullied and therefore is a victim in need of other services.

You would continue to care for them until they are at a better, stronger, and safer place.

When most people think about a threat assessment, it’s with the expectation that the student is a threat. To be fair, it makes no sense to do one if you think the student isn’t a threat. However, you must be open to the idea and absolutely resist the urge to place a label until you’re certain that it is as accurate as you can get it.

Use the Path to Violence!

It will help you provide clarity and charity…both of which are desperately needed with students who appear to be on a negative or harmful trajectory.


If you want to learn more about student safety assessments and intervention and growth plans, or prepare your district to be able to complete comprehensive threat assessments, please review our program Assess & Progress.

If you need help when conducting a student safety assessment (threat assessment), Call or email I'm happy to help.

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