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School administrators assume two significant callings when they first step into new roles: to lead and manage effectively. They are repeatedly called to lead and manage their people, processes, protocols, programs, and priorities well. Leadership involves setting the vision for success, while management addresses the daily practices and strategies needed to make the vision a reality.

At risk of stating the obvious, how we manage our schools impacts the  academic, social-emotional, and behavioral outcomes we hope to evidence among students, staff, and other stakeholders. Without strong managerial skills, we will never reach our overarching mission to foster engaged, proficient, inquisitive, and well-adjusted learners who are empowered to advocate for their continuous learning needs.

But, what is “good” school management? What does it look and feel like? We might even go one step further and ask whether good school mangers need things like: Advanced degrees? Pretty calendars? Long-Range walkie-talkies? Oversized key chains? Large committees? Or School newsletters? 

The answer to these questions: “yes” and “no.” Management is about more than the merchandize.

What is Management? Good management mandates we remain abreast of the general happenings inside and outside our building (influences that could disrupt or impact the learning community), while simultaneously communicating effectively with internal and external stakeholders to keep  them in the loop of decisions about changing pathways, protocols, practices, and policies. From buses to varsity basketball schedules, and from grading policies to graduation ceremonies, there is much to manage and communicate to our stakeholders on a daily basis, and we may opt to use many “tools” to complete these tasks (e.g. walkie-talkies, newsletters, tablets, calendars, and more).

Because school management involves so many “things” to manage, it can be either messy and mundane or meaningful and memorable. But the one thing it is NOT is easy, largely because it is time-consuming and overwhelming. For this reason, we cannot afford to exhibit random, illogical, or capricious managerial approaches. Our people – our students – our staff – need us to manage with clarity, logic, compassion, and direction. Anything short of that may put them (or us) at risk, establish unnecessary chaotic confusion, and ultimately complicate the identification of solutions to everyday concerns.

To remove illogical or capricious approaches, I embrace both messy and meaningful managerial tasks through the lens of threat and risk assessment; a field of expertise that thrives on the practice of using explicit and logical analysis and application strategies to prevent the problematic and diffuse the dangerous.

What is Threat Assessment? Threat assessment works well, if done correctly, because of the field’s commitment to synthesized inputs (aka…data) leading to clear outputs and outcomes (decisions and solutions). A good threat assessor can take multiple data points, analyze them well, and rapidly determine whether someone or something may present a threat to self or others. The International handbook of Threat Assessment defines the process as follows:

Threat assessment is a method used by mental health and law enforcement professionals to assess the risk of intended violence toward a specific target,….

Note inclusion of the phrase “assess the risk of…”

Isn’t that what we do every day as school leaders? Aren’t we constantly synthesizing diverse inputs from a unique and ever-changing group of stakeholders, structures, and systems to make solid decisions, while scanning the horizon to identify potential threats to our best laid plans?

As school leaders, we really have no choice but to constantly think two steps ahead, making sure we have fully identified barriers to the school’s mission and vision, and that starts by spending time with our people. Threat assessors largely assess people, but they cannot assess them if they do not spend time with them. Similarly, school leaders/managers must remain engaged with people inside and outside of the building, keeping our thumb on the pulse of local sentiment and thought.

I would argue that if we are to manage schools well, we must act, think, move, and operate like a threat assessor, embracing people-centric, crisis-ready principles, protocols, and practices. Additionally, like a threat assessor, we must allow data to sharpen and expand our thoughts, behaviours, reactions, and decisions. Failure to do so could mean we neglect impactful decisions.

Embracing Threat Assessment Principles: Managing our schools well should lead us to consider and incorporate five core principles or components of threat assessors; markers or beliefs of the trade that lead to positive, desired outcomes. Consider the five:

Threat Assessment PrincipleApplication of Principle to School Management
Every threat is unique and thus requires a unique response.Every school concern is unique and requires a unique response.
Targeted acts of violence are the result of an understandable pathway of thoughts and behaviors. Horrific acts of violence do not just happen.School crises, including meltdowns and emotional displays, are the result of an understandable pathway of thoughts and behaviors. Meltdown and acts of aggression do not just happen.
Effective threat assessment must be based on solid, confirmable factsEffective school-based managerial processes and protocols that impact stakeholders must be based on solid, confirmable facts instead of assumed facts (to build trust).
Successful threat assessment requires an inquisitive mindset that drives toward a solid application of data (a triangulation of data sources).Successful decision-making for school managers requires an inquisitive mindset that desires to understand people and processes, with attention to diverse data sources.
Effective threat assessment requires highly skilled threat assessors who understand how to apply the process to each unique potential threat.Effective school management requires highly skilled, prepared school leaders/managers who apply solid decision-making practices in diverse crises.

Question: In your school, are you thinking, applying information, and responding to information and inputs like a threat assessor? If not, what needs to change to sharpen your approach?

Are Schools Really Threatening? Lest anyone think this approach is recommended because schools are dangerous, allow me to explain that thinking like a threat assessor during your daily managerial tasks may have absolutely nothing to do with dangerous diversions, but everything to do with school climate and curated communities of care. Let us remember that the primary reason threat assessment works to stop potential acts of violence is because good threat assessors acknowledge the diversity of each potential threat and push aside a one size fits all approach for highly nuanced strategies. Our daily processes and procedures must be as unique as the population we service if the people in our buildings are to thrive. 

Always Remember: The bus schedule that works for school A will not always work for school B. The course schedule that works for the high school of the year may not meet your local needs, and the disciplinary framework you selected may be as ineffective for you as it has been effective in other locations.

Threat and risk assessment reminds us, among other things, to embrace the highly unique nature of the people, processes, protocols, and practices that we face daily, because how we manage impacts how much we mean to others. And this is the key to becoming effective school managers – invest carefully and critically in others to make a real impact.  

By: Dr Lori Brown

Dr Lori Brown

Dr Lori Brown is an experienced North Carolina teacher and school administrator who currently works full-time as an educational writer. In her free time, she serves as President of Dawn Star Consulting LLC, writing frequently about safe and secure school concerns. She enjoys travelling with her twin sister!