How #IStandWithAhmed Reveals Need for Threat Assessment Training

When Ahmed Mohamed brought the clock he built to his Texas school, nothing went according to plan — quite possibly because his school had no plan for a teacher who believed that the device might have been a bomb. Soon the 14-year-old was arrested, and the story of a young boy in a NASA T-shirt and handcuffs went viral, trending on social media and making headlines around the world.

Ahmed has received numerous invitations, including a visit to the White House to visit President Barack Obama, the Google Science Fair, and the talk show circuit. His Twitter account @IStandWithAhmed has more than 112,000 followers.

The reaction and support from the public reveals an outrage at the lack of protocol and protections shown by the adults at the school and local police.

Why leaders need threat assessment training

Other over-the-top reactions to students who pose no real threat — such as a 7-year-old in Baltimore who was suspended for shaping a gun out of a Pop-Tart — could be prevented with evidence-based threat evaluation training, says Amy Klinger, director of programs for the nonprofit Educators’ School Safety Network, which she says has trained tens of thousands of educators across the country.

When a leadership failure like this happens, it usually comes down to a lack of training, says Klinger. “This could have been resolved in an hour, with no media, no trauma to the kid, no criticism to the teacher.”

Ahmed’s clock: Questions educators should have posed

In the case of Ahmed, educators should have looked at the larger picture to connect the dots, says Klinger. Paying attention to information from a variety of sources, such as what teachers, parents, and students knew about Ahmed — such as that he had an affinity for tinkering with things at home — could have led to an innocuous event.

The staff should have asked questions such as:

  • Is this a transient threat?
  • An issue of poor judgment?
  • A pattern of behavior?

“The question I don’t see being asked is, What if that was really a bomb? Was that teacher qualified to decide? Why didn’t they call in a bomb squad? If [they really thought they were facing] a bomb threat, that protocol put all students at risk,” says Klinger.

The widely held perception is that if Ahmed weren’t Ahmed — if, say, he were white, or Christian, or a girl — the situation wouldn’t have escalated to arrest. “When I have a team of five or six people, it’s much easier to call out that bias,” says Klinger. “It’s important to have checks and balances.”

While the unique public support in this situation mitigates the negative consequences of the mistrust and arrest for Ahmed personally, all the other students at his school remain in what appears to be a biased environment. Teachers and principals have a lot of discretion around behavioral discipline.

“People who are going to be principals are very hesitant about being Ahmed’s principal,” says Klinger, who is also an associate professor of educational administration at Ashland University, where she teaches classes for principals-to-be.

The challenge principals face in assessing threats

In other words, educational leaders are concerned about either underreacting to a real threat, or overreacting without just cause.

“How do I hit that middle ground where I’m being proactive of the school at large and this kid individually? It’s a fundamental dilemma of educational administration. How do I walk that line?” are the kinds of questions she hears. “There are many things where you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. You make the best decision possible.”

Trying to balance an individual student’s civil liberties with the right of the overall school to be safe is the dilemma faced not just with schools that fear a bomber or shooter, but also with students who may harm themselves physically or psychologically.

Threat assessments evaluate if a student poses a real threat — that is, the student demonstrates both the intent and means to carry out a threat — and, when necessary, to take action to prevent it from occurring, according to the Youth Violence Project of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.

Virginia requires threat assessment training

In the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting, many Virginia districts began K-12 threat assessment training. In 2013, the state mandated training for all schools.

Out of 3,283 school threat assessment cases in 2013-2014, there were “no known attempts to carry out the threat” in an overwhelming 96 percent of the cases, according to a May 2015 report, “Threat Assessment in Virginia Schools,” by the Virginia Youth Violence Project in collaboration with the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services and the Virginia Department of Education.

Two percent of the threats were averted when the students tried to carry them out. In another 2 percent of the cases, the students did carry out the threats, which usually involved battery.

The U.S. Department of Education and the Federal Emergency Management Agency support threat assessment training.

Still, public perception often favors active shooter training, either as a complement or replacement. “When they see threat assessment training, they think it’s touchy-feely. The school gets criticized. But it’s the best thing to protect kids,” says Klinger.

How tragedies prompt districts to explore training

Her doctoral dissertation looked at whether or not school crisis events impacted neighboring districts’ preparedness measures: the answer was no. However, big tragedies like Sandy Hook are sometimes triggers to initiating training.

With just over 50 million K-12 students in public schools, and less than one shooting per week nationwide, the chances of any individual school using these tools to identify cutters, substance abuse, or related issues are far more likely.

When considering programs, Klinger recommends those led by educators, rather than by law enforcement. Training with the Educators’ School Safety Network typically takes a day and focuses on a core team, although all staff should understand the protocol. In the morning, teams learn how to identify threats and determine how serious they are. The focus shifts to logistics in the afternoon.

We’ll never know for sure if threat assessment training would have prevented Ahmed’s school from contacting the police. Hundreds of thousands of people used the hashtag #IStandWithAhmed to show their support of the boy, and by extension dismay at the lack of common sense and due process.

Educational leaders can take this as an opportunity to review what, if any, procedures their team has in place for such an incident.

“I’d love to see schools being more strategic. There’s a bias of, ‘Oh, we would never be that dumb to do that,’” says Klinger.

Rebecca L. Weber is a journalist who covers education, the arts, the environment, and more for the New York Times, CNN, USA Today, and other publications. Visit her online at www.rebeccalweber.com or on Twitter @rebeccalweber.

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