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Threat Assessment Not Profiling

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Dear Chicago Reader:

Thanks for telling your readers about the MOSAIC for Assessment of Student Threats (MAST) in your September 8 issue. There is one important point I'd ask you to set straight.

The article states that "Even education secretary Richard Riley has weighed in on MOSAIC," and then quotes Secretary Riley speaking disapprovingly about profiling of students. Secretary Riley was not commenting on MOSAIC, which is a threat assessment method and thus the direct opposite of profiling.

The word "profiling" is much misunderstood by the public, so indulge me a moment to explain the difference between profiling and threat assessment:

1. Profiles are hypothetical. For example, the FBI might theorize that an unidentified serial killer will turn out to be a male Caucasian in his mid-30s who likes fast cars. MOSAIC is never hypothetical. It always concerns actual, identified individuals.

2. Profiles are often applied to large groups; an airline might develop a "hijacker profile" and then observe all passengers to see who matches. In direct contrast, a threat assessment method such as MOSAIC is never applied to groups, only to those individuals who come to the attention of officials because of self-identifying behaviors, most notably, making a threat.

3. Profiles are often collections of demographic factors. MOSAIC is never concerned with such things as race, appearance, socioeconomic level, or gender. MOSAIC explores only behavior and circumstance.

4. MOSAIC seeks to recognize risk in situations, not to identify so-called "dangerous" people from amongst a population of students. MOSAIC is only applied to situations in which students make threats.

I strongly agree with Secretary Riley in opposing profiling as a method for enhancing safety, and I am arguably the nation's most vocal opponent of profiling for this purpose. My book The Gift of Fear is all about the threat assessment approach to safety. My book on keeping children safe from violence (Protecting the Gift) applies these same concepts to school safety, as do my many television appearances on Oprah Winfrey, 20/20, Larry King Live, Good Morning America, the Today show, etc.

The MOSAIC for Assessment of Student Threats (MAST) was specifically designed to reduce overreaction to threats. The method makes clear that a threat is to a school shooting what a cough is to tuberculosis--just one symptom. Yet in the wake of Columbine, students all over America were being evaluated on that one symptom only. Teenage boys have poor impulse control, live in a time when bravado and intimidation are regular parts of entertainment, and will predictably make threats. The issue is how to assess their entire situation in order to develop the best interventions.

Communities are quick to criticize a school that handles a threat inartfully, yet schools have not been provided with tools to help them meet these challenges. MOSAIC is one such tool that has been used for years by universities and government agencies, and has now been modified for the high school application. Many schools are seeing the benefits of bringing a structure, consistency, and method to the management of threats: School Resource Officers in Orlando, Florida, are applying MOSAIC in more than a hundred schools, and a version will be provided to more than 600 police departments in California.

Thank you for the opportunity to set the record straight, and thanks for your dedication to accuracy.

Gavin de Becker

Brian Moore responds:

Gavin de Becker is correct. Riley was quoted in a Washington Post story that mentioned MOSAIC 2000, but his comments weren't about the software.

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