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New University Of Virginia Study Shows How Schools Can Safely Deal With Student Threats Of Violence

January 31, 2005 --

University of Virginia professors Dewey G. Cornell and Peter L. Sheras have released a new study demonstrating how schools can safely respond to students who make violent threats. Appearing this month in School Psychology Review, the field’s leading journal, the study reports on guidelines for student threat assessment that were field-tested at 35 schools over one year. During that time, school officials successfully resolved 188 incidents in which students threatened to commit violent acts.

The incidents included threats to kill, shoot, stab and assault others. The threats were aimed primarily at other students, but also included threats intended for teachers and school administrators. Following the new guidelines, each incident was investigated and resolved by the school’s threat assessment team without a single threat being carried out. Almost every student investigated was able to return to school within a few days. Only three students were expelled and six were arrested. One-half (94) of the incidents resulted in a short-term suspension, typically one to three days, before the student returned to school.

The field-testing was conducted in the City of Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle County public schools, which have a combined enrollment of approximately 16,000 students. All elementary, middle and high schools participated in the study. School principals, assistant principals, psychologists and school counselors completed threat assessment training prior to the field-testing. School resource officers assigned to schools by the Charlottesville and Albemarle County police departments also participated.

This was the first study to field-test recommendations resulting from the FBI’s 1999 investigation of school shootings. 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.

“The FBI 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.”

In separate reports, the FBI and Secret Service have condemned the use of student profiling to identify potentially dangerous students. Profiling uses a checklist of character traits, behaviors and other signs considered common among violent or dangerous youth, but has been criticized for over-identifying youth as “dangerous.” According to Sheras, “The basic problem with student profiling is that many adolescents who are not dangerous will have a few characteristics on the checklist that cause them to be falsely identified and stigmatized as violent, even when they may still be in elementary school.” 

Another popular approach, zero tolerance, involves the use of long-term suspension or expulsion for any violation of certain school rules. A typical zero tolerance policy, for example, will call for the automatic expulsion of a student who brings any type of weapon to school, without regard to the circumstances of the infraction. Such policies have resulted in the expulsion of students for inadvertently bringing objects, such as a bread knife or a miniature toy gun, to school.

The basis of threat assessment is that in most cases, threats precede violent acts in schools. The approach requires school officials to investigate any apparent threatening behavior by students and make a determination of the seriousness of the actions before imposing disciplinary consequences. The Virginia threat assessment guidelines are organized around a decision tree that leads school administrators through a step-by-step process of investigating student threats, determining how dangerous 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, both of whom are clinical psychologists and faculty members in the Curry School of Education at U.Va., 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. The guidelines include criteria for school administrators to use in determining the seriousness of a threat.

Prior to the study’s publication, 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 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.” 

Researchers developed the guidelines as part of the Virginia Youth Violence Project of the Curry School. The threat assessment project was funded with a three-year grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund in 2001. The initial version of the guidelines was developed in 2001 and the field-testing began during the 2001-2002 school year, with follow-up interviewing and data collection during the 2002-2003 school year.

Researchers then spent an additional year analyzing data, revising the guidelines and preparing a detailed training program for school staff. They are planning additional studies to confirm the safety and utility of the threat assessment guidelines.

 “Our field-testing is an important step toward establishing our guidelines as a national model for how schools can safely deal with student threats, but must be followed up with additional controlled studies,” Cornell said.

See for more details.

Contact: Anne Bromley, (434) 924-6861

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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