Things are heating up on the Front Range of Colorado. An 18 year-old woman who is said to be “infatuated with Columbine,” left Miami and flew to Denver, bought a gun, and is believed to be a credible threat by the FBI and local law enforcement. Law enforcement reports that she has made verbal threats against schools but has not made a specific threat to any specific school. However, all schools in the area are closed on Wednesday, after many schools conducted lockouts on Tuesday afternoon. The woman, last seen in a black t-shirt, black boots, and camouflage pants, is considered armed and extremely dangerous and law enforcement has asked the public to call the FBI tipline at (303) 630-6227 if they have seen this individual or have information on her whereabouts.
The FBI conducted a threat assessment of this young woman’s behavior and has concluded that she is a credible threat of potential violence. Threat assessment is a process of identifying, assessing, and managing threats against a target with the goal of preventing an attack before it occurs. Threat assessment focuses not only on those who have made threats, but also on those who pose a threat.
A threat can be expressed verbally or in writing, and conveys an individual’s intent to inflict harm or damage. Not all threats are equivalent, and they should be evaluated for content, context, and the circumstances in which they occur. For example, is the person a student in a creative writing class and the assignment requires a detailed description of some event or activity? What are the actual words that were used or the actions that were engaged in? What is the relationship between the person of concern and the target?
There are four types of threats:
- Direct Threat – A specific, straightforward statement of intent to do harm toward a specific target – e.g., I’m going to shoot up the gym on Friday after school when all of the jocks are at practice.”
- Indirect Threat – A vague, unclear, or ambiguous threat, target, or motivation. “It would be so easy to kill somebody if I wanted to.”
- Veiled Threat – Implies violence and leaves the interpretation of the message open to the hearer. “We would be better off without him. I’m surprised nobody has ever gone Aurora Theater on him.”
- Conditional Threat – Warns that certain violence will happen unless specific conditions or demands are met. “If I don’t get on the team, I’m going to shoot the coach.”
Because each threat means something different, we should avoid “one size fits all approaches” to threats and zero-tolerance policies, which can cause us to over-react to some threats or under-react to others. It is important to select appropriate and proportional responses to each threat.
Differentiating Between Making a Threat and Posing a Threat
Making a threat usually involves telling someone about one’s intent to attack. The US Secret Service and Department of Education Safe School Initiative studied 37 incidents of targeted school-based attacks, committed by 41 individuals over a 25-year period from 1974-2000 and published their findings in a widely cited report in 2002. According to the Safe School Initiative Report, most school attackers did not threaten their targets directly prior to the attack, therefore, it is important to evaluate when a person poses a threat even if they have not made a direct threat.
Posing a threat means engaging in behaviors that indicate intent, planning, or preparation for an attack. The woman in question here in Colorado has reportedly made verbal threats, has traveled from Miami to Denver, has purchased a weapon, and is now at large in the area. The FBI has determined that she indeed poses a threat to our community.
A person posing a threat may have also made a direct threat––providing details such as identity of the victim, motives, means, weapon, date, time, or place, but may not have the opportunity to carry it out or take preparatory steps. The presence of specific, plausible details is critical for evaluating when someone poses a threat and signals that it is time to engage your threat assessment or behavioral intervention team.
The FBI offers these reminders about differentiating between making a threat and posing a threat:
- Some persons who make threats ultimately pose a threat
- Some persons who pose a threat never make threats
- Many persons who make threats do not pose a threat
Fein, R., Vossekuil, B., Pollack, W., Borum, R., Modzeleski, W., & Reddy, M. (2004). Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates. US Secret Service and US Department of Education: Washington, DC. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/threatassessmentguide.pdf
US Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Investigation (2016). Making Prevention a Reality: Identifying, Assessing, and Managing the Threat of Targeted Attacks. US Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved from https://www.fbi.gov/file-repository/making-prevention-a-reality.pdf/view
Vossekuil, B., Fein, R., Reddy, M., Borum, R., & Modzeleski, W., (2002). The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program and U.S. Secret Service, National Threat Assessment Center, Washington,D.C. Retrieved from https://www.secretservice.gov/data/protection/ntac/ssi_final_report.pdf
Dr. Peggy Mitchell Clarke, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and retired psychology professor with almost three decades of combined experience in mental health, education, threat assessment, and violence prevention. She is a Certified Executive Instructor and Curriculum Author for SSI Guardian, a subsidiary of School Specialty, Inc.