Cornell and Sheras’ book shows schools how to determine the seriousness of student threats of violence
Photo by Dan Addison
|Curry School professors Dewey G. Cornell (left) and Peter L. Sheras hope their new book will become a national model for schools.
By Anne Bromley
With the Red Lake High School shooting this past spring having left 12 wounded and 10 dead, including the student-shooter, school administrators across the nation may be starting a new school year concerned about the potential for students to threaten and carry out acts of violence. School officials can turn for help to a new book, “Guidelines for Responding to Student Threats of Violence,” by professors Dewey G. Cornell and Peter L. Sheras.
In the first comprehensive manual of its kind, Cornell and Sheras, both clinical psychologists in the Curry School of Education, present a field-tested model approach that gives school officials a step-by-step decision-tree for assessing and resolving student threats.
The threat-assessment approach represents a radical departure from profiling and zero-tolerance approaches, which are the most widely used practices in the nation’s schools. Contrary to these approaches, the FBI and U.S. Secret Service have advocated the use of threat assessment.
“The FBI [in 1999] made a series of recommendations for schools to use a threat-assessment approach — as opposed to profiling or zero tolerance — to prevent student violence,” Cornell said. “We used those recommendations, along with the Secret Service recommendations, to develop and field-test our threat-assessment guidelines.”
The basis of threat assessment rests in the findings, reported in the “Guidelines” book, that in most cases, threats precede violent acts in schools. Cornell and Sheras’ approach enables a team of school officials to investigate any apparent threatening behavior by students and make a determination of the seriousness of the actions before imposing disciplinary consequences. Their book’s guidelines are organized around a decision-tree that leads school administrators through the process of investigating student threats, determining how serious a threat is and then planning what actions are necessary to prevent it from being acted upon.
“The guidelines call for a multidisciplinary team approach that brings together school administrators with law enforcement and
mental health professionals to assess a student threat and suggest action and follow-up,” Sheras said. “We found that most threats could be
classified as transient threats that are easily resolved, and that about one-third of threats were substantive threats that required more extensive assessment.”
According to Cornell and Sheras, one of the defining features of the threat-assessment approach is that school administrators do not have to take a zero-tolerance approach that results in severe punishment for any kind of threat. If a threatening statement can be identified as a joke or figure of speech — for example, “I could just kill you for that” — it can be resolved quickly with an explanation and apology. If a threat is considered very serious, it triggers a law enforcement investigation and a mental health assessment of the student.
Prior to the book’s publication last month by Sopris West Educational Services, school divisions in Virginia and other states have been eager to receive threat-assessment training. Workshops have already been completed for school divisions in Richmond, Fairfax, Henrico and Roanoke counties and more than a dozen other school divisions in Virginia. School divisions in Oakland and San Diego, Calif., and in Memphis, Tenn., have also received the training.
“We are seeing a lot of interest in our model because threat assessment has been recommended by the U.S. Department of Education for all schools,” Cornell said, “but so far no one else has developed and field-tested these kind of specific guidelines and procedures for schools to use in implementing threat assessment. We hope that these guidelines will establish a national model.”