Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Threats of Violence"
Top school problems. You know when I first started working on
this back in the early 1990s, there was a survey that came out
that some of you saw and this survey talked about the top problems
in the 1940s. Such dreadful problems as talking and gum chewing
and making noise and you might also recall another survey that
came out that said that the top problems then were drug abuse,
violence, and pregnancy. And this was a pretty frightening, compelling
survey. Extraordinarily discrepant results and in fact, this survey
was publicized in all the major television networks. It was presented
in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Newsweek and Time did
feature stories on this survey and its significance.
was certainly envious of a researcher who was able to do such
a well-known and widely publicized survey and so was another
academic professor of marketing, actually Barry O’Neill,
who tried to trace down and find out where that survey came from
because none of these authorities who reported the survey actually
said where it came from. And he discovered that the survey actually
was an invention of a Texas oil business man who was opposed to
public schools and who developed the survey himself and of course,
it was wildly successful.
What did T. Cullen Davis say? “The weren’t done from
a scientific survey. How did I know what the offenses were in 1940?
I was there. How do I know what they are now? I read the newspapers.”
In working on the book School
Violence – Fears Versus
Facts, I discovered that this survey wasn’t, this may
be the best example, but it wasn’t the only one. That in
fact, there is a lot of data out there. A lot of misinformation.
A lot of extrapolation from surveys that are erroneous and one
of the most common is the claim that there are 135,000 guns brought
to school everyday. And in fact if you google 135,000 guns, there’s
over a hundred websites that tout this statistic. Many prestigious,
respectable organizations site this finding. I tried to figure
out where it came from. They all site different sources. I spent
months calling folks, tracking people down trying to find out
where this survey came from.
adolescent health survey in 1987, now mind you twenty years ago,
this survey was conducted on eight grade and tenth grade students
and it had the question, “While at school, how often did
you carry a handgun?” This is a terrific question to ask
eighth graders, as you might imagine. And in fact, eight-tenths
of one percent said
“nearly everyday”. Now I have to think when I was an eighth grader,
if they had given me a survey that said, “Have you brought a bazooka
to school?”, I would have said, “Yes. Of course. All the time.” You
know, just to be difficult and so it’s not surprising that eight-tenths
of one percent of any group of eighth and tenth students might in fact say
yes to some question like that.
then staff in an unrelated National Center on School Safety,
someone there and they won’t say who because they are kind
of embarrassed that it came from them, but they did sort of own
up to it. Talking to reporters said well eight-tenths of one percent
bring a gun to school everyday. We can multiply that by the number
of high school-age students or teenage students and we come up
with 135,000. So this number is still prevalent today even though
at best, it is twenty years out of date and it certainly is going
to be erroneous.
also have had the school shootings. The rampage school shootings
of the 1990s that have continued to the present day intermittingly.
Have gotten a lot of attention and they’ve stimulated a lot
of fear and concern. Fear that has been, I think, magnified by
the tabloid approach that the news media originally took. ‘The
monsters next door’. ‘Cold-blooded evil children’. ‘Teen
violence wild in the streets’. Okay? Language and images
that are extremely compelling. Fears that arouse and overwhelm
the sort of factual approach that we might take or that I advocate
that we take because even at the time that the general public thought
that schools were getting dangerous, that young people were more
violent, that we had a “crime wave of super predators” one
authority said, in fact, it was just the opposite.
the 1990s, juvenile violence declined marketedly. So why did
violent juvenile crime decline? There are a number of factors.
This has been widely written about and debated. Certainly economic
improvement was important, particularly economic improvement
that increases opportunities for young adults, raises the minimum
wage, and particularly, economic improvement that benefits single
parents. Because as it turns out that if single parents can earn
more money, fewer of them will be taking a second or third job.
More of them will be available to supervise their children after
school. It turns out that after school supervision is really
a critical factor on youth violence. Certainly we had improvements
in law enforcement – community
oriented policing, and the response to the crack market into juvenile
gangs. We’re talking also about improvements in education.
Educators are probably last, but not least to get credit for the
decline in youth violence and they get credit I think for the thousands
of programs that have been implemented in schools to teach people
how to resolve conflicts, how to avoid drugs, gangs, and weapons.
recently, we’ve had some more school shootings in the
United States and this has aroused again fear that we’re
seeing some type of increase. Every reporter that has contacted
me starts off by asking me “Aren’t you concerned about
the increase in school violence?” and I have to say, “What
increase are you talking about?” And they say, “Well
what about the shooting in Colorado? What about the shooting in
Pennsylvania?” I say, “Okay. That’s two. How
is that an increase?” And often such conversations don’t
go much further if I don’t have something to say about how
scary and how frightening things are. But certainly this was a
terrible, tragic shooting. It is very heart rending and it is certainly
something that we would like to try to prevent, but it doesn’t
signal some type of massive change in the safety of children in
of this fear has created the perception that schools are dangerous
places even though all of the data says that schools are actually
among the safest places for kids to be. Far more violent crimes
take place in homes and residences than anywhere else. Or on
the street or in office buildings and last, but way down the
list is violence in schools. Now we have used this term school
violence. We talk about school violence. We talk about school
shooters. We have created a new category of event and we have
created a new category of crime and criminal because of this
attention to this term ‘school violence’ and
that is very unfortunate because it reifies it and it becomes
a sort of self-fulfilling, self-perpetrating idea.
are the causes of death for young people? Well young people,
as you can see, are at some risk of being shot at school and
in 1999, the year of the Columbine shooting, when three-fourths
of American parents in a Gallop poll thought that such a shooting
could occur at their child’s high school, in fact only seventeen
percent of young people were killed in schools. Far more died of
the flu or pneumonia. And far more died of accidents, typically
automobile accidents. So if we really want to protect our young
people, we need to convince them to wear their seatbelts and not
to drink and drive. Okay? But that’s not very sensational.
That’s kind of old news, but statistically, that’s
going to save far more lives.
the ten worse years, we have ninety-three total student homicides.
That is ninety-three times that a student came into school and
killed somebody. Well this works out to 9.3 per year, but we’ve got 119,000 schools so on a given year, we have
nine of these shootings that result in fatalities but we have 118,991
schools that don’t have a shooting. So what is it going to
take? What is the probability that it is actually going to occur
in your school or the average school? Okay? We divide this out
and it turns out to be about seventy eight millionths. Very remote
probability. No one is going to bet on a horse with odds like this
right? Well, we can convert this to a rate, okay? The average school
can expect a homicide by a student every twelve thousand years
so we are preparing for an event that is extraordinarily unlikely
Now this does not mean that I am not concerned about school safety
or school violence. But I am not as much concerned about a student
killing somebody as I am the other types of violence and disruptive
behavior that we see in our schools and as long as we think that
there might be a school shooting in our school, we are going to
treat children differently. We are going to perceive them as more
dangerous than they actually are. Okay? This has been the effect
of Columbine. The legacy of Columbine. To think that a lot of our
kids are just like those two boys and are going to commit a similar
act of violence. Okay? And by that I mean the expansion of zero
tolerance is an example of a good idea gone bad. Zero tolerance
for drugs, for guns. Who can be opposed to that? Certainly politically,
a very popular idea, but after Columbine, zero tolerance went
on steroids. Zero tolerance was expanded to cover all sorts of
events that are not truly dangerous. So we outlawed toy guns
and nail clippers and plastic utensils, even kids who pointed
their finger and went “pow pow” in some school districts were suspended.
In some they were actually arrested and expelled from school. And
we have seen all over Virginia and all over the country, many cases
of young people who have been subjected to zero tolerance based
on fear. So we have had a ten-year old who accidentally bought
his G.I. Joe toy gun, a little one inch piece of plastic that he
left in his pocket. He turned it into his teacher because he knew
he wasn’t allowed to have toy guns at school. That was a
big mistake because the teacher turned it over to the principal.
The principal said the school board says mandatory expulsion for
any type of toy gun regardless of size, shape, or what have you.
So because of this one inch piece of plastic, he was expelled from
I hear these stories frequently. I have parents who call me anguish,
upset, distraught saying you know, my child is a boy scout and
he went camping over the weekend and he left his pack in his car
and they did a search of the parking lot and somebody saw that
he had a boy scout knife in his car and now he is out of school.
Now he is expelled. These sorts of stories that we hear with too
what is wrong with zero tolerance? Zero tolerance gives schools
no flexibility. No ability to consider the context or the meaning
of the child’s
behavior. There is actually no evidence that it increases safety.
There is a task force at the American Psychological Association
that recently released a report showing no evidence that zero
tolerance makes schools safer. And in fact, I am concerned that
it has the opposite effect because it shuts down communication,
it makes kids unwilling to come forward when they are concerned
about a dangerous situation. So if we add up these zeros, my conclusion
is that it has zero value as a school policy.
am not the only one of course with this view. Many organizations
- the American Bar Association, the ACLU, the Rutherford Institute – these
organizations which are at the extreme left and the extreme right
are both opposed to zero tolerance. Both of them have filed lawsuits
against schools for zero tolerance. You know you’ve got a
problem when both the left and the right are suing you for the
same basic problem, okay? Our national education organizations
still, or have continued to, take issue with zero tolerance and
have called for the modification of zero tolerance.
this opinion against zero tolerance, we have the Gun-Free Schools
Act that mandates a zero tolerance approach to firearms and we
have in most schools, including most schools in Virginia, an
expanded zero tolerance for other types of contraband – drugs,
weapons, certain behavior. Actually I know a school where they
have zero tolerance for bullying. You will be expelled from school
if you are found to bully and what I was told is actually a school
administrator who told me that did not want to tell me what school
district it was because he was embarrassed that his school had
zero tolerance for bullying and not surprisingly, the school reports
no bullying. Okay? Because the teachers do not want to report a
child as bullying because they know that child’s going to
be expelled from school. So this is the problem of zero tolerance.
It forces us or drives us to ignore problems.
the Secret Service conducted it’s own independent study
of school shootings with the Federal Department of Education and
they recommended that there be teams in schools that can conduct
threat assessments. Well, when the Secret Service, FBI, and the
Department of Education all recommended that schools develop threat
assessment approach, the schools’ reaction was, well what
is threat assessment? How do you do it? No one had ever implemented
threat assessment procedures because we weren’t really familiar
what we decided to do here at the Curry School of Education here
at Virginia was to try it out and in fact, we developed a set
of guidelines for schools to use. Very detailed, step by step
guidelines for what to do when a student is reported to have
made some type of threat. And then we field-tested these guidelines
in thirty-five schools. That is our local schools: elementary,
middle, high, and alternative schools. This meant we had to do
a lot of training. We trained staff teams at each of these schools
in threat assessment. In each school we had a team. An interdisciplinary
team, which schools of course are very comfortable with and have
similar procedures headed up by an administrator with law enforcement
representative and mental health folks. We had one hundred and
eighty-eight threats that were investigated by our threat assessment
team over the course of the school year. As you can see, we had
threats at every grade level, K through twelve. And then we asked
schools to make a distinction between two basic types of threats – transient
threats, which are most threats that are not serious. They are
temporary. They are not really true threats or they are easily
resolved if they are. And substantive threats, threats that have
substance. Threats that imply some danger, okay?
threats might be rhetorical. They might be jokes. They might
be expressions of feeling, but the key issue is when the school
staff member brings the student in, they are able to resolve
the threat through explanation, through apology, through making
amends. There is a process of resolution, okay? On the other
hand, if you are having some trouble resolving the threat. The
student isn’t cooperative or you think the student is still angry
or you think the student may want to still carry out the threat,
we treat the threat as substantive and we take protective action
and go further in our decision tree. In fact, let me jump ahead
and say if you are really concerned, if the student has made a
threat to kill somebody or commit some other serious act of violence
and you are not able to resolve it through our transient threat
assessment process, then we classify it as a very serious substantive
threat and we have a seven step procedure that we ask folks to
go through. Okay? In which they conduct a safety evaluation. A
safety evaluation led by or conducted by a disciplinary team, okay?
And this threat assessment involves two main components. One is
a mental health assessment and we have details in terms of what
you want to evaluate in the child. May of these kids of course
are angry, depressed, some of them having pressing mental health
needs. We have had cases like this where the child is needed to
be hospitalized, but we have also had cases where the child doesn’t
need to be hospitalized, but maybe the child is a victim of bullying
or is involved in some type of pure conflict that he or she is
not able to resolve and we can come up with recommendations for
resolving that issue or conflict.
So it is a problem-oriented mental health assessment aimed to
try to understand where did this threat come from and what can
we do to resolve it. Now in these very serious cases, we also have
a parallel companion evaluation, by law enforcement, by the school
resource officer, there may be violations of law. There may be
legal steps that need to be taken so we have both a law and mental
health approach to the very serious substantive threats.
The team then pulls the results of these two evaluations and comes
up with an action plan for the student. Is the student going to
be removed from school and if so, how long, and what alternative
setting? Under what conditions are we be able to maybe bring this
student back to school assuming we are eventually able to resolve
the threat and deal with the risk of violence? Okay?
we did this with our one hundred eight-eight cases. Most of them,
seventy percent of them were transient and thirty percent were
substantive and only about fifteen of them required the entire
elaborate process that I briefly mentioned. But this is what
our students threatened to do. As you can see, the most common
thing that a student threatened to do was to hit somebody or
to beat somebody up. Okay? But we have two-dozen (twenty seven)
threats to kill in which the student said, “I am going to kill you.” We
had threats to shoot. “I am going to shoot you.” Or “I
am going to bust a cap” or whatever the common thing might
be. We had vague threats like, “I am going to get you.” “I
am going to hurt you.” We had all kinds of threats and we
had some bomb threats as well. So these are all the things that
the students threatened to do and then they were handled with our
threat assessment approach. And the result was six of these cases
resulted in a child who was arrested. Now the arrests involved
bomb threats that were illegal. A child who had a knife at school
and threatened to stab somebody was arrested for possession of
the knife. And we had two children who were arrested for assaulting
the school resource officer, which turns out to really be the quickest
way to get arrested in school. To assault the school resource officer – that
will work every time. Only three students were expelled. Out of
one hundred eight-eight cases, only three students were expelled.
So if we had zero tolerance we certainly would have had a lot more
expulsions than that. We had ninety-four students who received
some type of suspension from school, typically one to three days
suspensions. These weren’t long-term suspensions.
then interviewed the principals at the end of the school year.
We did a follow up and we asked them what about the students’ behavior
during the rest of the school year? What happened to them? We found
that one in five got worse in their behavior and continued to be
quite difficult. We found that about forty percent were the same
and about forty percent improved in their behavior. Now we don’t
suggest that threat assessment is sort of the cure for students
with disciplinary problems. Some of them can continue to have disciplinary
problems, but we did find that threat assessment didn’t really
seem to hurt. And of course the question you might be wondering
is well did they carry out any of these threats? We had twenty-seven
threats to kill. Obviously none of those children were killed.
We had threats to shoot. There weren’t any shootings. In
fact, we went back to the principals, we interviewed them and said
was the threat carried out, they said no so as far as we know,
none of these threats were carried out.
done this. Memphis Public Schools actually has done a threat
assessment. They just sent me their report they did a year of
threat assessment. None of those threats were carried out as
well. So we certainly need more than just our field study. It
was thirty-five schools. We looked at it over the course of a year,
but we controlled studies. We need comparison groups for schools
who are not using threat assessment so we can compare side by side.
But I have to tell you, we have an on-going study with the school
division that has twenty schools that we examined last spring before
they did threat assessment training. We looked at the suspension
and expulsion rates and they now have done threat assessment training.
We are now following these twenty schools over the course of this
school year to see how they are doing using threat assessment.
And we also have some comparison schools in an unnamed school district
who are going to have training in the future, but we are using
them as a comparison group right now. So we hope that this would
give us a control study, a quasi-experimental design study.
We have however done a lot of experience in training schools in
threat assessment reporting data. Very positive data to us about
their implementation of threat assessment. We have to date, trained
over two dozen school divisions in Virginia in threat assessment.
We have also trained school divisions in many other states. And
we are also trying to look at this on a statewide basis. We are
trying to look at school policies, like zero tolerance, like having
threat assessment as a number of our school divisions do to see
if that makes a different statewide. So recently we received a
federal grant to start a high school study, Anne Gregory and I
are investigators in this study. It is going to look at the high
school policies and practices in Virginia and their impact on suspensions,
expulsions, and incidents of violence.
are going to include in our study random samples of students
and teachers from each of Virginia’s three hundred high
schools. We have chosen ninth grade as our target group because
ninth graders have more discipline problems than any other grade
and also this gives us an opportunity to look at ninth grade
as they move through the years, but we are going to get a random
sample from each high school of ninth graders and their teachers
because we want both teacher and student perceptions of safety
in school and of the school climate in general. We are going
to have an online survey, which we are in the process of developing
and piloting that is going to look at the understanding of school
discipline rules that students have, their experiences of being
teased or bullied, and their overall perception of the school
climate as supportive or not. Okay? And basically then we expect
this will help us understand how engaged they are in school and
in the learning process. Okay?
What we hope to learn and I am summarizing a lot here is whether
zero tolerance will improve school safety. We are also going to
see whether there is sort of an optimal combination of structure
and support. You know we have the notion that is the school is
very highly structured, you might reach a point in which students
become resistant and become opposed to the structure. But perhaps
if you have an adequate level of support, the students will be
tired of the structure. So we think there is sort of a middle range
of structure and support that is tolerable to students and optimal
for a positive school climate.
We are also going to be comparing schools across populations,
that is we are going to be looking at neighborhood crime and neighborhood
poverty because certainly schools have different populations to
deal with and it may be that the level of structure and the support
you need for optimal safety is going to vary as a function of the
student population. Our goal of course is to see if we can reduce
suspensions and expulsions and along with that the incidences of
violence that lead to expulsions in our schools.
Thank you very much.