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How Crisis Intervention Informs Proactive Security in Schools

Target-hardening at schools has been a hot topic in the United States, especially as mass shootings continue and school administrators take on a more active role in security. Schools started adding bulletproof windows and desks, stronger locks on doors, alarm systems that directly communicate with law enforcement, and artificial intelligence (AI) enabled camera systems, among other target hardening techniques. They have conducted drills and established better emergency response plans. 

Although these measures are costly, hardening the target has a positive effect—these measures have notably kept some attackers outside student-populated areas. More than 61 percent of school shootings between academic years 2009 to 2019 took place outside of the school building, according to a 2020 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

However, locks only work when the door is closed and the lock is engaged, and bullet-resistant films on glass will delay access but not prevent it. Quicker calls to police through an alarm system are invaluable, but the average law enforcement response to a shooter can be anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes depending on the jurisdiction. More than half of active shooter incidents are finished by the time law enforcement arrives, according to data from the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center.

With this in mind, the best time to address a violent incident is before it occurs, which is where crisis intervention techniques and behavioral threat assessment come in.

The Layer Between Nonviolence and Violence

Not every school security concern is an active shooter situation. Children, teenagers, and young adults have a wide array of problems. They are going through hormonal changes, social and peer pressures, educational challenges, and extracurricular activity struggles. That’s in addition to mental health problems, complications at home, and employment issues.

Consider the stressors U.S. children face regularly. Around 9.8 percent of children under the age of 17 are currently diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Roughly 5 percent of children are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). An estimated one in every 36 children have autism. One out of every seven children are not getting enough food to eat. One in every eight teenagers regularly use illicit drugs of some kind. Furthermore, many students have learning disabilities or mental health problems, such as bipolar disorder, depression, eating disorders, and schizophrenia.

Many students experience these struggles and might feel isolated or unsupported—potentially turning that struggle into a grievance. While the vast majority will never pose a danger to a school, they are still going through some type of crisis. This could create disruptions in classes, unintentionally place the student in an unsafe situation, or make their peers and teachers feel unsafe.

Research shows that active assailants are not people who just snap. There is a buildup, oftentimes focused on a perceived grievance, and that person will often leak ideations about acts of violence to friends, family members, peers, or teachers. Being present and regularly communicating can help disrupt this process.

This highlights the need for security personnel to have training in crisis intervention.

What is Crisis Intervention?

Crisis intervention teams (CIT) started as a training program for law enforcement officers to build a partnership with mental health and addiction professionals. The training helped law enforcement officers respond to people with mental health problems or drug addictions with compassion while finding ways for them to access the services they need. 

At its core, CIT training is a communication school. It helps a person learn new communication techniques and practice those skills using empathy. The training emphasizes the need to understand communication techniques, mental health problems, and learning disabilities.  Furthermore, the training includes information about prescription medications, the effects of illicit drugs and alcohol, and how those substances affect mental health problems and learning disabilities.

Additionally, crisis intervention trainees learn how to control their own emotions; emotional responses during a stressful situation will only exacerbate problems. Even when a problem seems minor to the responder, it is always major to the person experiencing the crisis. These are emotionally charged situations, and when emotions are high, rational thinking is low. By lowering the emotional temperature of a situation through crisis intervention techniques, the person in crisis can think more rationally and grasp the consequences of their own behavior.

To practice, CIT training courses use specially trained actors who understand mental health problems and learning disabilities. Students must work through numerous stressful scenarios, learning how to adapt and communicate during a crisis.

The basic communication skill set is active listening, which can be remembered by the acronym MORE PIES: 

  • Minimal encouragers
  • Open-ended questions
  • Reflecting and mirroring
  • Emotional labeling
  • Paraphrasing
  • “I” statements
  • Effective pauses
  • Summarizing

Using these listening skills with a caring tone and nonaggressive body language will calm the other person and help open lines of communication with them. 

The goal of any crisis responder is to assess the situation and then start using active listening skills to build empathy. Empathy is not giving the person involved a pass for their behavior but understanding their viewpoint and placing yourself in their shoes. You’re trying to understand their feelings. Understanding leads to rapport, rapport leads to influence, and influence can lead to changes in behavior.

Official CIT training is not designed for brand-new security professionals, but ones with at least one or two years of experience. Participants need to know how daily operations are conducted and experience different types of communication to fully understand and apply this training. However, crisis intervention techniques are open to everyone and can apply to nonemergency scenarios as much as potentially violent ones.

Despite misconceptions, this empathy-driven communication method does not sacrifice safety. The first step in crisis intervention is to assess the situation. In most cases, there is not a need to rush in (obviously, active assailants or life-threatening scenarios need an immediate response). Any time there is no active violence, there is an opportunity to communicate—even if it’s not face to face—to defuse tense situations.

Crisis intervention techniques can be used with anyone experiencing high stress—they do not apply solely to people with a disability or struggling with addiction. Students—with all the stressors they face daily—can find the more human and connection-driven crisis intervention techniques supportive and comforting when personal challenges become overwhelming.

For instance, I know a student at the middle school I work at who has a learning disability, which can make him emotional and causes other students to bully him. Recently, this student was struggling in class. He was in tears and screaming at his teachers, before getting up to leave the room.

As a school security professional, I was called to respond. I met him in the doorway of the school where I used CIT techniques to help calm him down. During the interaction, I let him express his thoughts to me while focusing on his feelings. I gave him space and made him feel heard. I slowed the situation down and gave him time to not feel rushed. With school administrators, we were able to provide him with options while staying honest about future actions, such as school requirements for attending class and potential discipline.

As tempting as it might be, never lie in crisis intervention; this will destroy future trust and the ability to intervene later. It will ruin all rapport. This incident took around 1 hour, and security and school personnel leveraged nonviolent de-escalation to improve school and student safety while finding a productive path forward for the student in question. 

This is a regular occurrence when dealing with teenage students. Empathetic conversations during tough times help build a bridge between security and faculty while showing children there is another person to available to confide in.

It also helps obtain buy-in from teaching staff who might not understand modern security needs. When crisis intervention techniques are in play, teachers know there will be a security response to their calls and that the response is not always violent or aggressive. Educators usually know the students better than security personnel do, so they tend to be on the student’s side, even when the teacher is being attacked or having a class disrupted. Understanding how security will respond in a more empathetic manner encourages additional reporting and involvement from teachers.

Crisis intervention is a tool to help cross-collaboration within the school but also with assistance from local entities, such as district behavioral health personnel, emergency medical services, fire department representatives, law enforcement, local behavioral health organizations, parents, and security personnel from neighboring districts. This is an opportunity for different groups to regularly work together and build trusting relationships, which ultimately supports a safer school.

How Crisis Intervention Fits into Threat Assessments

Students’ concerning behavior often triggers a next stage in proactive security—a threat assessment, which is a systematic fact-finding investigation meant to discover whether, or to what extent, an individual is a risk to themselves or others. This is a proactive role requiring investigative skills, such as open-source searches, reviews of student records, witness interviews, and ultimately an interview of the student of interest.

CIT training and skills will assist in any communication about a threat, but especially during the interview of the student. Giving people the time to express their emotions will produce better results during a threat assessment. If they get the sense that you don’t care and are trying to hurry through the process, then they might feel unwilling to volunteer additional information. 

Several years ago, I went to assist a new officer on a reported sexual assault. The woman making the report had been drinking, and the other officer didn’t believe her story. She was also taking a long time to tell it.  When I arrived, however, I used empathetic communication strategies (remember: MORE PIES), and gave her a lot of time to explain the story. She opened up and provided a lot of details that she previously had not shared. Those details enabled us to gather witnesses and video evidence of her interactions at a local bar and convince her to go to the hospital for an exam. These same techniques can be used to glean additional details from concerned students or staff about students in crisis or conflicts among the student body.

A quality threat assessment allows for proper intervention before a grievance can escalate to a violent event. For example, a student with a learning disability made several comments about shooting the school. A threat assessment allowed us to find out what access she had to weapons, how often she was alone, and how severe her learning disability was. Together, these factors helped us determine that she had little to no ability to carry out an attack—particularly not one that would overcome the other physical security measures in place at the school. 

In another case, students reported finding a firearm in a student’s locker to school officials. Physical security protocols were initiated, and a full threat assessment was conducted to determine what the student’s end goal was. Police confiscated the firearm and arrested the student.

School security officials and threat assessment teams should follow up on any allegation, no matter how minor the issue seems. Although some reports may seem minor or illogical, they were extreme enough to the source that he or she reported them, which is often a daunting and potentially socially isolating step for students to take. Some students avoid reporting because they don’t want the reputation of being a snitch or a tattletale. In other cases, teachers might not want to make a report about a student’s concerning comment, drawing, or story because they think it was a one-time event.  However, this could have happened in other classes, with other teachers, with other students, and in other schools. It could be an ongoing issue that needs to be addressed through intervention, which has a wide array of options. 

In one case, a teacher reported that a student had gang paraphernalia. A different teacher reported that the same student emailed her a vague statement that she took to mean that he would conduct self-harm. After research, reaching out to the student’s advisor, and conducting an interview with the student and his parents, it turned out that he was frustrated and just wanted someone to listen to him. But without both teachers reporting and their concerns being viewed in context, his frustrations could have gone unanswered and potentially escalated.

In some U.S. states, this type of assessment and intervention is now law. For example, in 2015 Colorado passed the Claire Davis School Safety Act, which allows victims to sue schools if they fail to exercise “reasonable care” to protect all students, faculty, and staff from reasonably foreseeable acts of violence at school or school-sponsored activities.

The law is named after one of the victims of a 2013 shooting at Arapahoe High School in Colorado. Multiple people had reported substantive concerns about the assailant’s anger problems and gun ownership during a two-year period before the attack. A threat assessment was conducted, but was a minimal attempt to obtain information about risk factors for the assailant, deeming him a low level of concern, according to an after-action report. A more thorough threat assessment could have created an opportunity for intervention, preventing the incident.

Taking each report seriously can lead to more actionable information, and it will also demonstrate that school personnel care and are interested in keeping students safe along with preventing violence. 

By conducting behavioral threat assessments, investigating all concerns of targeted violence, and using empathy-driven active listening skills to communicate with students in all levels of crisis, security professionals can demonstrate their wide spectrum of protection and de-escalate situations. It will help maintain school security while building relationships with students, staff, and parents. 


Kevin Jones, CPP, is a school protection specialist.  He spent more than 18 years working in law enforcement before starting work in a school district and more than a decade as a crisis and hostage negotiator. He was also a firearms instructor, drug recognition expert, field training officer, investigator, and supervisor. Jones regularly conducts threat assessments and intelligence reports, and is passionate about crisis intervention, de-escalation, and early intervention. He has experienced firsthand the results of active shooter and workplace violence incidents and strives to help prevent them, including developing training curriculum from personal experiences. He is currently working on attaining a master’s degree in strategic security.