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Dewey Cornell, PhD
Professor, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
"Student Threats of Violence"
November 3, 2006

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.

I 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.

The 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.

And 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.

We 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.

During 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.

Now 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 our schools.

All 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. 

What 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.

During 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 to happen.

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.

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 school.

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 much frequency.

So 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.

I 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.

Despite 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.

Now 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 with it.

So 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?

Transient 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?

So 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.

We 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.

We’ve 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.

We 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.
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