“Most of those who plan violent attacks communicate their intentions before the attacks via social media and written communication, either through unintentional ‘‘leakage’’ or intentionally through ‘‘legacy tokens’’ used to explain their motivations. These should be understood as part of their fantasy rehearsals in the aftermath of an attack. Additionally, searching for and attending to such messages provides an opportunity to intervene and thwart potential attacks” – Assessing Threat in Written Communications, Social Media, and Creative Writing, Violence and Gender, 2016.

Violence Risk Assessment of Written Word

NaBITA’s newest violence risk assessment tool is used to assess emails, creative writing, or non-fiction that contain direct threats or violent themes of concern. A team can deploy a set of questions to determine whether these threats are true threats, or if they are simply howling behaviors or part of the student’s creative process. Learn the rubric for VRAW2 and how to apply it in the context of the NaBITA Threat Assessment Tool and the Structured Interview for Violence Risk Assessment (SIVRA-35). The VRAW2 can be used to assess the likelihood of violence from written word communication.

When looking at the writing sample or online social media post, there are five factors that should be taken into account, including:

Fixation and Focus

This factor is based on the concept of a specific target being identified in the writing sample. This is a target in real life, and the target is identified specifically.

  • Naming of Target
  • Repetition of the Target
  • Objectification of Target
  • Emphasis of Target
  • Graphic Language

Hierarchical Thematic Content

This factor is based on the concept of the writer or protagonist in the story being identified in the writing sample as superior or in an avenging or punishing role. This can occur through the anti-hero of the story, or writer, being seen as all-powerful and giving out judgment for past wrongs, or the proletariat or targets in the story being seen as weak, stupid, or naïve.

  • Disempowering Language
  • Glorified Avenger
  • Reality Crossover
  • Militaristic Language
  • Paranoid Content

Action and Time Imperative

This factor is concerned with writing content that conveys a sense of impending movement toward action. This may be communicated by mentioning a specific time, location, or event such as a graduation, academic admission, or results of a conduct meeting.

  • Location of the Attack
  • Time of the Attack
  • Weapons and Materials to be Used
  • Overcoming Obstacles
  • Conditional Ultimatum

Pre-Attack Planning

Many who move forward with violent attacks write and plan in detail prior to these attacks. Sometimes, this pre-attack planning is boastful and can be described as a “howling” behavior designed to intimidate others towards compliance. Other times, the pre-attack planning is unintentionally leaked prior to the attack and discovered by a third party.

  • Discussion and Acquisition of Weapons
  • Evidence of Researching or Stalking the Target
  • Details Concerning Target
  • Fantasy Rehearsal for Attack
  • Costuming Description

Injustice Collecting

The term “injustice collector” was coined by Mary Ellen O’Toole as a risk factor in the first prong of the threat assessment approach: the personality of the student. The injustice collector keeps track of his/her past wrongs, and is often upset in a manner beyond what would typically be expected.

  • Perseverating on Past Wrongs
  • Unrequited Romantic Entanglements
  • Desperation, Hopelessness, or Suicide Ideation/Attempt
  • Amplification/Narrowing
  • Threats to Create Justice

Frequently Asked Questions About the VRAW2

Is the VRAW2 a psychological test that can predict the next school shooter?

No. The VRAW2 is an informal, structured set of items for those who work in higher education to use with individuals who may pose a risk or threat to the community. The VRAW2 is not designed as a psychological test and it is not designed to assess suicidal students.

The ideal approach to violence risk assessment is found in utilizing an individual trained and experienced in violence risk assessment to interview the subject. Since these individuals are difficult to find, the VRAW2 serves as a starting place for BIT members to conduct a more standardized, research-based violence risk assessment with individuals determined to be at an increased risk.

While risk and threat assessment cannot be predictive, multiple agencies (FBI, Secret Service, Department of Education, US Post Office, ASIS International, the Society for Human Resource Management, and ASME-ITI) have suggested risk factors to attend to when determining the potential danger an individual may represent. Several prominent experts in campus violence and workplace threat assessment have also recommended key considerations salient when assessing risk and threat (Meloy, 2000; Turner & Gelles, 2003; Deisinger, Randazzo, O’Neill & Savage, 2008; Meloy, Hoffmann, Guldimann, & James, 2011).

Building on this research, the VRAW2 provides the user a score of based on the endorsement of one of the five factors. The VRAW2 will help those assessing violence risks to organize their thoughts and perceptions in a standardized manner and bring the current literature to the task of evaluating an at-risk individual.

Who can administer the VRAW2?

Those who complete the VRAW2 training can administer the VRAW2 (see below for more information). The VRAW2 is designed as a template to better understanding concerning written narratives and can be used by residential life staff (such as hall directors and executive housing directors), campus police, conduct officers, counselors, and psychologists, student affairs administrators, and anyone connected with the campus student of concern or Behavioral Intervention Team (BIT).

Unlike other psychological tests focused on threat and danger to others, the VRAW2 is designed with non-clinical language and can be completed accurately by those without psychological or forensic training.

Do I have the individual fill out the VRAW2?

No, the VRAW2 is a template used to better understand written narratives that have concerning or threatening content. Staff to gather information to answer each of the data items, which can be scored with the VRAW2 template. As with any assessment of threat, information should be verified by staff (e.g. access to weapons, mental health problems, past criminal history) through additional interviews or record reviews (e.g. by talking to police, residential life staff, parents, and those who know the individual).

The VRAW2 can be administered without the subject individual present based on case history data. As with any administration of the VRAW2, the results are only as accurate as the data entered into the online interface. If the person conducting the interview does not know the answer to the question, this will reduce the accuracy of the results.

How is the VRAW2 administered?

The VRAW2 template should be used to assess the writing sample. In terms of multiple writing samples and emails, the VRAW2 should look at the totality of the writing samples.

Remember, there is no set of risk factors or list of concerning behaviors that can predict a future violent event. VRAW2 is a useful reference tool when conducting a structured interview during a violence risk assessment. Ideally, the VRAW2 should take place after the staff has reviewed incident reports, available documents related to conduct in the educational setting and in the immediate community, and any other information that has led to the initial concern. Any violence risk assessment involves static and dynamic risk factors, contextual and environmental elements, and mitigating factors. There is no current tool or computer model that can accurately predict future violent behavior, and no tool is ever a substitute for professional expertise. Therefore, the use of structured professional judgment in combination with documentation and consultation with trusted colleagues is the current best practice.

While the VRAW2 primarily assists those conducting violence risk assessments through narrative, structured questions, there is a quantitative, numeric scoring key to further assist staff in their decision-making.

How do we receive results?

After answering the template, users build their own scoring system that outlines the individual’s risk (low, moderate, high), and contains relevant research articles to support specific concerns identified by the data.

How do I become trained to use the VRAW2?

Administering the VRAW2 ideally requires the completion of a training course. VRAW2 training is offered as part of NaBITA’s Certification Courses, as well as during the annual NaBITA conference. The training involves a review of the 5 factors on the VRAW2, case study application and a demonstration of the online version.

How is the validity and reliability of the VRAW2 determined?

The VRAW2 is not intended to be a psychological test and is not created to compete with existing measures that are subject to a more detailed research review such as the Workplace Assessment of Violence Risk (WAVR-21), Firestone Assessment of Violent Thoughts (FAVT), or the Historical, Clinical, Risk Management (HCR-20). The VRAW2 is a structured template designed to help BIT staff apply existing research in the area of threat assessment to improve the accuracy of their assessment and subsequent conduct/treatment decisions with at-risk individuals.

The VRAW2 is based on the latest research in the field of threat assessment to ensure that each of the five risk factors are well supported by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Secret Service, Department of Education, U.S. Post Office, Association of Threat Assessment Professionals (ATAP), Risk Assessment Guideline Elements for Violence (RAGE-V), and the research of leaders in the threat assessment field such as Voss, Meloy, O’Toole, Turner and Gelles. As new cases of violence occur (Parkland, Las Vegas, Southerland), the VRAW2 items are updated to reflect new research and findings.

Training and Contact Information

Trainings can be scheduled by bringing Dr. Van Brunt to your campus to train your team. These trainings offer additional detail, case studies and advice on how the BIT can integrate the VRAWinto its current practice. To schedule a visit, please contact Megan BirsterDirector of Marketing Outreach & Business Development, at (610) 993-0229 ext. 1015.

Do you have a question about your VRAW2 scoring results?  Email brian@ncherm.org for assistance. Please allow 48 hours for a response.

Note: Dangerousness and violence, from a student, faculty or staff member is difficult, if not impossible to accurately predict. This training topic offers research based techniques and theories to provide a foundational understanding and improved awareness of the potential risk. The training should not be seen as a guarantee or offer any assurance that violence will be prevented.