Threat Assessment

The Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines

Dr. Cornell explains what threat assessment is and how it works
(Taken from an interview with 1070 WINA's Morning News with Rick and Jane.)

Although both the FBI and Secret Service reports made a compelling case for student threat assessment, schools had no experience with this approach and there were many questions concerning the practical procedures that should be followed. In response, researchers at the University of Virginia developed a set of guidelines for school administrators to use in responding to a reported student threat of violence. Threat assessment teams are trained in a six-hour workshop that prepares them to use a 145-page threat assessment manual (Cornell & Sheras, 2006).

The Virginia model of threat assessment is an approach to violence prevention that emphasizes early attention to problems such as bullying, teasing, and other forms of student conflict before they escalate into violent behavior. School staff members are encouraged to adopt a flexible, problem-solving approach, as distinguished from a more punitive, zero tolerance approach to student misbehavior. As a result of this training, the model is intended to generate broader changes in the nature of staff-student interactions around disciplinary matters and to encourage a more positive school climate in which students feel treated with fairness and respect. Consistent with this goal, a pre-post survey study of 351 school staff members who completed the Virginia workshop found that participants became less anxious about the possibility of a school homicide, more willing to use threat assessment methods to help students resolve conflicts, and less inclined to use a zero tolerance approach (Allen, Cornell, Lorek, & Sheras, 2008). Similar effects were found for principals, psychologists, counselors, social workers, and law enforcement officers.

The Virginia guidelines follow a seven-step decision-tree. In brief, the first three steps constitute a triage process in which the team leader (a school administrator such as the principal or assistant principal) investigates a reported threat and determines whether the threat can be readily resolved as a transient threat that is not a serious threat. Examples of transient threats are jokes or statements made in anger that are expressions of feeling or figures of speech rather than expressions of a genuine intent to harm someone.

Any threat that cannot be clearly identified and resolved as transient is treated as a substantive threat. Substantive threats always require protective action to prevent the threat from being carried out. The remaining four steps guide the team through more extensive assessment and response based on the seriousness of the threat. In the most serious cases, the team conducts a safety evaluation that includes both a law enforcement investigation and a mental health assessment of the student. The culmination of the threat assessment is the development of a safety plan that is designed to address the problem or conflict underlying the threat and prevent the act of violence from taking place. For both transient and substantive threats, there is an emphasis on helping students to resolve conflicts and minimizing the use of zero-tolerance suspensions as a disciplinary response.

Contact

Virginia Youth Violence Project, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Postal Address: P.O. Box 400270, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4270
Delivery Address: 405 Emmet Street, Charlottesville, VA 22903
Telephone: 434-924-8929
Email: youthvio@virginia.edu

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