Like the United States Secret Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has turned its attention to the nation’s schools. The FBI has released a new school safety guide, independent from the Secret Service’s Safe School Initiative, intended to give school officials a tool for judging the seriousness of potential threats and intervening appropriately.

“All of the experts who made this report possible share our common goal—to give those charged with educating our children useful tools to help prevent these tragedies,” said FBI Director Louis J. Freeh. “Every instance of school violence is one too many. The actual threat level may be low, but the consequence is severe. Preventing that consequence and protecting our children deserves all of our attention.”

The report, titled “The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective,” is available online in PDF format. Its “threat assessment protocol”—a modified version of the system used by the FBI to identify serial killers and terrorists—divides students’ threats into four categories.

A direct threat—the most serious—describes a specific act against a specific target, such as “I am going to place a bomb in the school gym.” An indirect threat tends to be more vague, as in “If I wanted to, I could kill everyone at this school.” A veiled threat is a hint at violence in which the interpretation is often left to the victim, such as “We would be better off without you around anymore.” A conditional threat resembles extortion, as in “If you don’t pay me one million dollars, I will place a bomb in the school.”

The idea is that “all threats are not created equal,” according to the report; therefore, they should be evaluated and addressed on a case-by-case basis. Adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with threats inevitably fails because it overreacts to many situations, while possibly overlooking others that could be more serious.

The report recommends that school officials take into account additional factors in evaluating the seriousness of a potential threat. For example, did the student provide any details? Specific, plausible details could indicate that substantial thought, planning, and preparation have been taken, suggesting a higher risk that the student will follow through with his or her threat.

The FBI guide recommends a four-pronged approach to assessing threats, based on the “totality of the circumstances” known about the student in these four main areas: personality of the student, family dynamics, school dynamics (and the student’s usual role in these dynamics), and social dynamics.

Based on these various factors, the report presents a guide for categorizing threats as “low level,” “medium level,” or high level,” and offers a blueprint for acting in each case.

The FBI report repeatedly warns educators not to try to “profile” students who might pose a danger to themselves or others. “This is not a profile of a school shooter. It simply does not exist,” said Mary Ellen O’Toole, a special agent at the bureau’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime and the author of the report.

But it does urge school officials to watch for students who are “preoccupied with themes of violence,” familiar with weapons, and ostracized by their peers.

The report has gotten mixed reviews from educators and mental health experts. Some have welcomed the agency’s suggestions, while others fear the guide could be used irresponsibly.

“The report says three times, ‘This is not a profile,’ and then they go and give you a profile,” William Pollack, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, told Education Week.

Pollack, who served as a consultant on the Secret Service guide to be released this month, said the FBI report also fails to take into account how gender differences play into violent behavior.

“Boys show depression and express acts of bravado in ways different from girls,” he said. “And unless you understand gender as one factor, then you may misunderstand what’s being communicated to you, and boys will be scapegoated.”

Still, other educators praised the FBI guide. “I welcome these reports because they help us see how we can best turn students around,” said Jamon H. Kent, superintendent of the Springfield, Ore., public schools. Springfield was the site of a school shooting in May 1998 in which two students were killed. n

The FBI report can be downloaded in PDF format from http://www.fbi.gov/library/school/school2.pdf (requires Adobe Acrobat reader).