- Threat assessment teams in high schools are necessary.
- California law now mandates how they manage a case.
- Management includes a multidisciplinary team with a school resource officer.
By Reid Meloy and Molly Amman
In February 2012, a California high school student named Bryan O. threatened to both shoot students and bomb his auditorium while returning to school from a bus trip to Universal Studios. Chaperones overheard this conversation, and filed reports with the assistant principal, the designated leader of the school threat assessment team. Other team members were the school psychologist and the school resource officer. Bryan was suspended for five days, and a threat assessment was initiated. A determination was made that there was “insufficient evidence of violence potential, sufficient evidence for the unintentional infliction of emotional distress upon others.” Bryan would be allowed to return to school, and have counseling for a month by the school psychologist. The psychologist met with Bryan, but sometimes the counseling was waving at him on the campus and asking how he was doing. His bedroom was also searched with the consent of the mother a month later, and no lethal weapons were found. So far, somewhat adequate.
Over the course of the next year, parents and students expressed fears concerning their own safety in relation to Bryan’s escalating behavior: he made other threatening statements, he drew drawings of school shootings, there was a rumor of a “hit list” but only one person had seen it, he posted a story of a “psychopath” who committed violence, he made stabbing gestures in class with a pencil, and then there was Sandy Hook.
On December 14, 2012, 28 people died in a massacre, including 20 children, six adults, the mother of the perpetrator, and himself, in an elementary school. It shook the emotional and moral foundations of the country. Bryan had his backpack and books stolen that same day too. His backpack was found, but no one talked to him.
Multiple adults and students visited the assistant principal to report these events over the year, but a threat assessment had already been done in February. “No worries, we’ve got this.” There were no threat assessment team meetings to manage any ongoing risk, no further meetings with the mother, and no contact with other family members. And then the older brother bought a 12 gauge.
On January 10, 2013, Bryan O. came to his first-period class with the shotgun. He severely wounded one student in the chest, targeted another and missed, and surrendered to a school supervisor. Bryan O. was criminally convicted and sentenced to 27 years in prison. The day before, Bryan had warned several friends to not come to school since “something bad was going to happen.” They didn’t believe he would do anything because the assistant principal had told them for almost a year that he wouldn’t do anything. After all, a threat assessment had been done. How can an adolescent trust his own judgment and feelings of fear when the adults in the room tell him not to worry?
Then came the civil suit, a trial by jury concerning threat assessment and management. The school district attempted to shield itself by claiming immunity. The jury, the district court, and the California Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment that the TAM was 54% negligent in a verdict of $3.8 million for the plaintiff, Bowe Cleveland.
In his opinion as an expert for the plaintiff, Dr. Meloy testified that the threat management team breached their duty of care because (1) the threat assessment was not carried out by the team collectively; (2) the school resource officer (i.e., the law enforcement officer assigned to the school) should have been a core member of the team; (3) the threat assessment team failed to communicate among themselves about Bryan; (4) the threat assessment team failed to adequately communicate with Bryan’s parent; (5) the threat assessment team failed to recommend counseling to Bryan’s parent as an intervention technique; and (6) the threat assessment team did not continue to collectively monitor Bryan and reassess the safety plan.
The court further opined, “The multiple failures of District employees to handle information with ordinary care combined (i.e., concurred) to cause the assessment team’s failure to adequately address the threat Bryan posed, resulting in plaintiff’s injuries. This is not a case of an unknown assailant where the trier of fact had to guess how the unidentified assailant might have been stopped. Here, the causal chain was identified by Meloy, who testified that if the threat assessment team had operated within the standard of care, it was more likely than not that the shooting would have been prevented (p. 44).”
The Appellate Court ruled in March 2022 that these six prongs are now a matter of law concerning threat assessment and management in secondary schools throughout California.
This was only the second school shooting case to go to a civil trial in the country. The Appellate Court also held that in the context of statutory immunity relating to the psychiatric examination of an identified student of concern, there was no blanket immunity to the school district for all the actions of the threat management team.
We think this case, although limited to a particular state, may have eventual legal ramifications throughout the country. Time will tell. But it is also significant for another reason: the assistant principal’s confirmation bias—she had already determined he was not a risk for violence—precluded her from reassessing Bryan’s escalating tempo of risk over the course of the following year. This failure to treat threat assessment and management as a dynamic, changeable process as new information becomes available was catastrophic. That opinion is now California civil law, captured in the sixth prong of this case law publication (Bowe Cleveland v. Taft Union High School District, F079926 (Super. Ct. No. S1500CV279256).