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Virginia Journal of Education

Heading Off School Violence

by Dewey Cornell

The tragic shootings in the last year that killed five young girls at an Amish school in Pennsylvania and 33 students and faculty members at Virginia Tech reinforced, for many, the perception that schools are dangerous places. Those incidents also, understandably, left teachers and other school employees looking for information about how to recognize a potentially violent student and how to help prevent similar tragedies. To help educators do that, we need to make an objective assessment of the risks and examine some of the most effective school violence prevention strategies that researchers have identified. Since 1993, the Virginia Youth Violence Project, at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia ( ), has been studying school safety and helping schools develop prevention strategies. Here are some of our findings and recommendations:

How safe are our schools?
School shootings get massive media attention, leading many to believe that such events happen often and in lots of places. In addition, this kind of publicity can also stimulate copycat threats, stirring up further anxiety. Taken together, the combination of shocking events and further threats can create a heightened perception of danger and risk.

You can't, however, judge the scope of violence in schools based on the frequency of media reports; in any large population, even unlikely events happen often enough to be reported regularly. For example, in a nation with more than 200 million licensed drivers, there are more than 100 motor vehicle fatalities every day, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But, despite the regular reports of accidents, drivers take to the roads every day, understanding that the risk for them is statistically remote, provided that they drive safely and avoid dangerous situations. A similar observation can be made for schools: Despite the disturbingly frequent reports of shootings, schools are safe, provided that educators take reasonable precautions to avert dangerous situations.

There are more than 123,000 elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 225 student homicides at school during the 10-year period from 1995 to 2005, or a rate of about 23 per year. Simple arithmetic (123,000 divided by 23) suggests that the average school can expect a student homicide once every 5,348 years. The precise risk varies from school to school, but this rough calculation for the average school makes it clear that the risk of violence is much lower than the impression one might get from news reports.

Another way to assess risk is to compare murder rates on and off school grounds. The National Center for Education Statistics calculates that students are over 50 times more likely to be murdered away from school than at school.

Terms such as "school violence" and "campus violence" are misleading, because they imply that the location is the defining feature of the problem. There have been mass shootings in restaurants and shopping malls, but no one speaks about "restaurant violence" or "mall violence." Violence in schools receives great attention because we expect our schools to be safe places for our children, but this inaccurately magnifies our perception of danger.

One final way to assess school safety is through victim reports. The National Crime Victimization Survey conducts semi-annual interviews with large representative samples of the U.S. population (age 12 and older) in order to identify victims of crimes that might not be reported through law enforcement records. Rates of serious violent crime (aggravated assault, rape, sexual assault and robbery) at school are consistently lower than rates away from school, and both rates have decreased markedly since 1994. Schools are demonstrably safer today than before the 1999 Columbine shooting.

How can we keep our schools safe?
In the aftermath of a shooting, schools are naturally focused on security measures and crisis response. Administrators and others consider ways to make the building more secure or what to do in the event of a shooting. Because of the Virginia Tech incident, colleges and universities across the country have investigated ways to improve their ability to notify students of an ongoing violent incident, which can mean investing millions of dollars in methods ranging from old-fashioned emergency sirens to mass text-messaging.

But prevention must start before the gunman is in the parking lot. A comprehensive approach to school safety must give at least as much attention, if not more, to true prevention efforts that begin well before danger is imminent.

After the Columbine shootings, both the FBI and the Secret Service, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Education, studied school shootings. Both agencies found that students who became shooters were often victims of bullying who had become angry, depressed and suicidal. Many had family relationship problems, were negatively influenced by peers, and displayed an intense interest in entertainment violence, such as violent video games. Unfortunately, both the FBI and Secret Service concluded that because these characteristics can be found in so many students, it's not possible to develop a profile or checklist that will pinpoint the small number of truly violent young people in schools. Any checklist of warning signs would falsely identify many students who are not dangerous. As a result, both organizations caution schools against a profiling approach.

However, the FBI and Secret Service emphasized that almost all students who made these rampage attacks signaled their intentions to attack through threats and warnings. In most cases, the threats were not made directly to the intended victims, but communicated to third parties. Had these threats been reported to authorities and investigated, the shootings might have been prevented. In fact, the FBI identified a series of potential school shootings that were prevented because students reported a threat to authorities that was investigated and determined to be serious. Based on this, the FBI and Secret Service both recommend that schools adopt a threat assessment approach to prevent targeted acts of violence.

What is threat assessment? It's an approach developed by the Secret Service to deal with persons who threaten public officials, and it's evolved into a standard law enforcement procedure to analyze dangerous situations, such as threats of workplace violence. Threat assessment is a process of evaluating a threat-and the circumstances surrounding it-to uncover any evidence that the threat is likely to be carried out. Student threat assessment can be distinguished from profiling, in part, because the investigation is triggered by the student's own threatening behavior, rather than some broader combination of student characteristics.

Threat assessment is ultimately concerned with whether a student poses a threat, not whether he or she has made a threat. Any student can make a threat, but relatively few will follow through with the planning and preparation necessary to carry it out. Threat assessment is concerned with determining whether a student has the intent and means to carry out the threat. It also includes prevention efforts.

Threat assessment in Virginia schools
Threats of violence are a common problem in Virginia schools. The Virginia Department of Education says that there were 4,803 student threats against other students and 2,599 threats against staff reported in Virginia's 1,954 public schools during the 2005-06 school year. Threats factor into other reported disciplinary violations as well, including 10,453 incidents of bullying, 11,628 fights, 6,734 incidents of battery against a student, and 1,463 incidents of battery against a staff member. When a student makes a threatening statement, it must be taken seriously and investigated. However, all threats are not equivalent. Students, like adults, may make threatening statements in jest, to emphasize a point, or to express strong feelings. Some threats may be meant only to bluff or intimidate, while others could be warnings of serious intent.

In 2001, the Virginia Youth Violence Project began developing a comprehensive set of threat assessment guidelines for schools. Under these guidelines, each school has a multidisciplinary threat assessment team, which is led by the principal or assistant principal and typically includes a school counselor, school psychologist and school resource officer. The teams follow a seven-step decision tree to determine whether a threat is serious (substantive) or not serious (transient). The guidelines are designed so that cases that are clearly not serious (transient) can be quickly resolved. In the most serious cases, however, the team conducts a safety evaluation that includes a law enforcement investigation and a mental health assessment of the student or students involved.

The threat assessment guidelines were field-tested in 35 public K-12 schools with a total enrollment of more than 16,000 students. School-based teams evaluated 188 student threats that involved threats to hit, stab, shoot or harm someone in some other way. Most of the threats (70 percent) were resolved as transient threats, such as comments made in jest or in a moment of anger. The remaining 30 percent were substantive threats that required more extensive assessment and protective action. The threat assessment teams placed special emphasis on understanding the context and meaning of the threat, and developing a plan to address the underlying conflict or problem that caused the student to resort to threatening behavior. Use of this problem-solving approach meant that relatively few students received long-term suspensions or expulsions from school: Only three students were expelled from school, although half of the students (94) received short-term suspensions (typically 1-3 days). Notably, follow-up interviews with the school principals found no cases in which the threats were carried out. Further research on threat assessment is in progress.

Based on the field-test findings and observations, the Virginia Youth Violence Project has developed a one-day training workshop and published a 145-page manual, Guidelines for Responding to Student Threats of Violence. The workshop covers the rationale and basic principles of threat assessment, which are then presented in more detail in the manual. To date, 30 Virginia school divisions, as well as schools in 11 other states, have trained staff members in the Virginia threat assessment model.

If there is one lesson to be learned from school shootings, it is that students must be encouraged to report threats, and those threats must be taken seriously and investigated. Students may be reluctant to report threats because they do not want to be labeled "snitches" by their peers, but this is based on a misunderstanding. Educators should explain to their students the difference between snitching for personal gain and seeking help to prevent someone from being hurt.

Cornell ( ) is a professor of education and director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. He has worked with violent offenders, both juveniles and adults, testified in court proceedings and before Congress, and consulted on violence prevention efforts.


Here are six myths about violence among young people, and in schools, that have the potential to distort school safety policies and practices, provided by the Virginia Youth Violence Project:

Myth: Juvenile violence is increasing.
Fact: According to the FBI, the juvenile arrest rate for violent crimes has decreased every year since 1994. It's now lower than any year since 1980.

Myth: Juveniles are more violent than adults.
Fact: Juveniles account for only 12 percent of those arrested for violent crimes.

Myth: School violence is increasing.
Fact: The serious violent crime rate in schools in 2004 was less than one-third what it was in 1994.

Myth: School homicides are increasing.
Fact: The media attention caused by several incidents in the late 1990s generated some copycat crimes that interrupted an otherwise downward trend, which has now re-established itself.

Myth: There is a realistic possibility of a student-generated homicide at your school.
Fact: In our nation of 123,000 schools, the average school can expect a student homicide once every 5,348 years.

Myth: School shootings cannot be prevented.
Fact: School shootings have been prevented when students reported threats that were investigated by authorities and found to be genuine. Threat assessment can prevent violence.


Stop the Bullies
Because bullying is at the heart of much of school violence, the VEA offers training to help educators promote a kinder, gentler-and safer-atmosphere in school. The "Bully Proof" and "Quit It!" workshops take on the problems of teasing and bullying in elementary schools, and "Improving School Climate" helps facilitate better intergroup and interpersonal relations.

To schedule one of these training opportunities, contact Beblon Parks, the VEA's director of leadership development and human relations, at or (800) 552-9554.


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