It is every parent’s worst nightmare – sending their child to school and worrying about whether they will return safely at the end of the day. While school districts have always worked to address school safety and security, new requirements go into effect for the 2023-24 that force districts to take those efforts to the next level. As of September, 2023, every public school in the State of New Jersey must have in place threat assessment teams. Those teams must be part of a larger district-wide effort to proactively identify, address and prevent violence and other harmful activities.
Purpose of Threat Assessment Teams
Under the new law, P.L. 2022, c. 83, threat assessment teams must be established in public schools in order to:
- provide school teachers, administrators, and other staff with assistance in identifying students of concern,
- assess those students’ risk for engaging in violence or other harmful activities, and
- deliver intervention strategies to manage the risk of harm for students who pose a potential safety risk,
- prevent targeted violence in the school, and
- ensure a safe and secure school environment that enhances the learning experience for all members of the school community.
Composition of Teams
Each team must be multidisciplinary, and include:
- A school psychologist, counselor, social worker, or other school employee with expertise in student counseling;
- A teaching staff member;
- A school principal or other senior school administrator;
- A safe schools resource officer or school employee who serves as a school liaison to law enforcement; and
- The designated school safety specialist.
Each threat assessment team must participate in training. The training must ensure that the threat assessment team is able to accurately assess student behavior and to ensure that threat assessment teams do not have a disparate impact on students based on their race, ethnicity, homelessness status, religious belief, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. The training shall, at a minimum, include training on adverse childhood experiences, childhood trauma, cultural competency, and implicit bias.
On July 19, the NJDOE issued K-12 Behavioral Threat Assessment and Management Teams Guidelines in order to provide additional guidance for school districts. The guidelines clarify that, where it is not feasible to have school level teams with all of the required members, a district may choose to have a single district-level team, or the district may choose to have both school-level teams and a coordinating district team.
The NJDOE guidelines outline procedures for establishing a threat assessment and management program in each district, and for conducting threat assessments. The NJDOE guidelines draw heavily on guidelines provided by the U.S. Department of Education – Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and Creating Safe School Climates.
Included in the guidelines is a recommendation for threat assessment teams to review 11 specific questions when conducting threat assessments. These questions include:
- What are the student’s motive(s) and goals?
- Have there been any communications suggesting ideas or intent to attack?
- Has the subject shown inappropriate interest in any of the following – school attacks or attackers; weapons (including recent acquisition of any relevant weapon); incident of mass violence?
- Has the student engaged in attack-related behaviors?
- Does the student have the capacity to carry out an act of targeted violence?
- Is the student experiencing hopelessness, desperation and/or despair?
- Does the student have a trusting relationship with at least one responsible adult?
- Does the student see violence as an acceptable–or desirable–or the only–way to solve problems?
- Is the student’s conversation and “story” consistent with his or her actions?
- Are other people concerned about the student’s potential for violence?
- What circumstances might affect the likelihood of an attack?
Related Legal Considerations
While school districts implement the new threat assessment team requirements, it is important to understand and properly address the many related legal issues that may arise. Failure to do so may result in less effective threat assessments, raise potential discrimination claims and/or undermine the due process rights of parents and students.
While an exhaustive list of foreseeable legal issues is not possible, some issues that may arise include:
- Failure to include case managers or other staff knowledgeable about specific student’s disabilities, which may increase the likelihood of misinterpretation of student behavior regarding potential threats.
- Failing to follow formal procedures required under federal and state law when school officials believe that a student with a disability poses a threat of imminent harm to self or others. Recent guidance issued by the NJDOE reminds school officials that in cases where a student with a disability is barred from returning to school pending a psychiatric clearance, the school district is required to pay for the cost of that medical clearance. In addition, while such students may be immediately removed from the school environment if necessary to address an imminent threat, districts must then immediately file for emergent relief with the NJDOE and an expedited hearing before an administrative law judge in order to justify the need to exclude the student from school. These procedures ensure that the due process rights of parents to contest a student’s removal are preserved. See 20 U.S.C. §1415(k)(3). Districts are urged to consult with your board attorney to ensure these filings occur.
- Failure to ensure effective communication between school officials and students who are multilingual learners and may not be proficient in English, and/or may have parents or guardians who are not proficient in English. Meaningful participation of students and their parents/guardians is essential to the integrity of the threat assessment process.
- Lack of understanding of student search and seizure law, which may result in either unjustified searches, searches conducted by law enforcement which must meet a higher legal standard, and or failure to conduct searches that are warranted. School officials must have reasonable suspicion that a student has violated a law, code of conduct provision or other school law, and that the search is likely to result in discovery of one or items related to the violation. School officials should be aware that once they have consulted with law enforcement officials about a possible student search, the search must then meet the higher legal standard of probable cause that the student has committed a crime and that the search is likely to produce evidence relevant to the criminal violation. The higher law enforcement standard would also be triggered if school officials involve or consult with a School Resource Officer prior to conducting a search. For more information on student searches, please see the NJDOE School Search Policy Manual and NJDOE School Search Checklists.
- Failure to take reasonable measures to guard against, and identify, situations where implicit biases may be interfering with the threat assessment process. These reasonable measures should include training for all threat assessment team members and more broadly, for all staff, on implicit bias and cultural sensitivity, as well as ongoing analysis of data regarding referrals for threat assessment, in order to determine if any subgroup of students is being disproportionately targeted for threat assessments due to staff, student or community biases. For additional information on addressing biases in student discipline, see the August 28, 2023 guidance released jointly by the Attorney General and Acting Commissioner of Education.
By taking the time to fully understand the NJDOE guidance, ensure proper training, and carefully careful foreseeable legal issues that may arise, school officials will be in the best position possible to effectively implement the new threat assessment law and do everything within their power to ensure a safe learning environment for all stakeholders.