When children or adolescents threaten real harm to schoolmates or themselves, it is time for schools to act. Whether a school can effectively manage student threats, however, depends on whether it has adopted an appropriate threat assessment approach managed by trained staff using evidence-based practices.
Threat assessment is a systematic approach to violence prevention designed to distinguish serious threats — defined as behaviors or communications in which a person poses a threat of violence — from threats that are not serious.
Formal threat assessment programs are gaining traction in schools, but research on their impact has lagged. A recent study of student threat assessment efforts in Virginia’s K-12 public schools, sponsored by the National Institute of Justice, found progress in resolving threats without further incident or resorting to suspension or expulsion of students from school. At the same time, the research identified key threat assessment program areas in need of improvement.
Establishment of Threat Assessment Teams Is Mandatory in Virginia
Virginia law requires K-12 schools to conduct threat assessments. In the study, the researchers tested a threat assessment model developed by the University of Virginia. The team used a statewide survey of schools to assess threat assessment implementation. They employed other state-level school data to assess outcomes associated with threat assessment. The researchers also examined how training or technical assistance may aid threat assessment.
Nearly three of every five threats assessed were threats to self, rather than to others, the report said. The research team pointed out that self-threats rose from a mean of 2.5 cases per school in the 2014-2015 school year to a mean of 4.5 cases in 2017-18. Factors informing the increase could include both an increase in the number of students at risk of self-harm, the study team reported, and increased awareness among school authorities that self-harm threats should be referred to threat assessment teams.
Stakeholders reportedly expressed concerns to the research team, however, about including self-harm among the kinds of threats subject to threat assessments.
Critics of student threat assessment had voiced concerns that the process would result in excessive use of student suspension and expulsion from school and legal actions such as arrest. The research team reported, however, that 84% of students in the study were able to return to their main school and avoid expulsion or transfer. Although out-of-school suspensions were reported in 805 cases (43%), 520 of those (64.5%) were short term.
Although none of the assessed threats captured in the study reportedly resulted in serious physical harm, the study report noted that it had been many years since Virginia experienced a student fatality or serious violence in its K-12 public schools.
Study Goals and Design
The project was the first to examine statewide use of threat assessment and identify some challenges faced by Virginia schools, the researchers reported.
The three goals of the University of Virginia study were to examine implementation of threat assessments, to determine what school and student outcomes were associated with student threat assessment, and to assess how training and technical assistance can improve student threat assessment.
Under the first goal, researchers measured statewide implementation of threat assessment by analyzing school administrator responses to the state-mandated school safety audit survey.
For the second research goal, the researchers employed a quasi-experimental design using a matched comparison of 260 schools following the Comprehensive Student Threat Assessment Guidelines with 267 schools that used a more general threat assessment approach developed by the state.
For the third goal, regarding the development and value of training and technical assistance programming to improve student threat assessment, the University of Virginia team collaborated with 3C Institute. The team developed and tested three online programs with a quasi-experimental design using skits to educate students, parents, staff, and threat assessment teams on threat assessments. Embedded questions tested learning and obtained participants’ evaluation of the learning experience.
The University of Virginia research team reported key findings and training innovations under three separate study goals:
- Under Goal 1, an assessment of statewide implementation of threat assessment in schools, the researchers reported that, across four school years ending in 2017-18, the evidence suggested that:
- All threats were resolved without serious injury.
- In approximately 97% of cases, the threat was resolved without the student attempting to carry out the threatened action.
- Most students subject to a threat assessment received a combination of discipline and some form of counseling or support services. A significant majority (84%) of students subject to threat assessments were able to continue at their school.
- Under Goal 2, a determination of student and school outcomes associated with student threat assessment, the researchers found that, in schools that followed Comprehensive School Threat Assessment Guidelines developed by the University of Virginia team:
- Decisions by threat assessment teams were generally consistent with practice guidelines and yielded positive results: Only 5% of threats resulted in criminal charges, and 1% in arrest, with less than 1% of students who made the threats placed in juvenile detention.
- Disciplinary and law enforcement responses to threats were observed to be equitable across racial and ethnic lines.
- Under Goal 3, which focused on how training and technical assistance can improve student threat assessment, the researchers found that through participation in online programs developed by the research team:
- Students, parents, staff, and threat assessment teams all demonstrated better knowledge of threat assessments.
- Students in particular voiced greater willingness to report threats.
At the same time, the research identified key areas for improvement:
- Implementation was found to be uneven across schools, with nearly a quarter of all schools (24%) reporting they conducted no formal threat assessments in the 2017-18 school year.
- In many schools, threat assessment teams rarely met, with 13.4% reporting no meetings during the year and 10.3% reporting only one meeting.
- School authorities called for more threat assessment training; only 77% of threat assessment team members reported having received training in the preceding three years.
- Many school staff lacked awareness of the availability of threat assessments: 61% of middle school and 53% of high school staff knew that their school had a threat assessment process.
The researchers noted that a change in the state school safety audit survey after the first study year resulted in their not having expected access to case-level threat assessment data for the study’s three succeeding years.
The research team was able to merge 2014-15 case data with publicly available student discipline and demographic data, however, in order to identify threat assessment trends, the report said.
The first part of the study, relying on state school safety audit data, revealed that the number of schools engaged in student threat assessment rose rapidly between the 2014-15 school year and the 2017-18 school year, from 57% of Virginia public schools to 76%, the study report said. Over that period, the mean number of threat assessments conducted in each school increased from 2.9 to 7.3. The safety audit data reflected that elementary schools were less likely to report a threat assessment than middle or high schools, the research team reported.
With respect to the second part of the study, the researchers compared schools using the Comprehensive Student Threat Assessment Guidelines with schools using general guidelines developed by Virginia’s Department of Criminal Justice Services. Controlling for various student and school characteristics, the analysis found that the odds of a student in the first group experiencing a suspension or law enforcement action were much lower than comparable odds for students in schools with a more general approach to threat assessment.
The third dimension of the research efforts was development and deployment of online technical training assistance programming targeting four groups: students, parents, school staff, and threat assessment teams. The study team reported that all four groups that received the training reported greater knowledge of threat assessment and that students, in particular, reported greater willingness to report threats. Schools in Virginia, 28 other states, and Canada had adopted the online threat assessment training, the study report said.
With respect to the online programs designed for students, post-program questions established an increased knowledge of student threats and willingness to report them, across all student groups. For the staff program component, questions following the online staff training program established that a large majority of staff (96%) agreed that the program increased their knowledge of the role of threat assessment. Staff expressed greater willingness, after the program, to talk with students about threats of violence. At the same time, staff concern that a shooting would occur at their school decreased significantly, the report noted.
Summary of Recommendations
In view of the study findings, the researchers recommended:
- There should be a state training requirement for members of a school threat assessment team.
- The state should improve its training model, placing greater emphasis on negative consequences of exclusionary discipline and recognizing that threat assessment is an alternative to zero-tolerance practices.
- Schools should provide students, parents and staff an orientation to threat assessment practice and the needs for threat reporting.
- Schools should provide evidence that they have an active threat assessment team.
- School divisions should conduct an annual evaluation of the quality of each school’s threat assessment practices.
- Virginia law should provide that threat assessments be conducted for threats against others, and that suicide or self-harm assessments should be conducted for threats against self.
- The Virginia state school safety audit should restore the practice of collecting sufficient state-level data on all threat assessment cases so that the quality of implementation and equity of impact on student demographic groups can be examined.
About This Article
The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award 2014-CK-BX-0004, awarded to the University of Virginia. This article is based on the grantee report Student Threat Assessment as a Safe and Supportive Prevention Strategy (2020), by Dewey Cornell and Jennifer Maeng.
[note 1] The principal investigator for the research described in this article was the primary developer of the student threat assessment guidelines model used by 339 Virginia schools examined in the research. That model is the Comprehensive Student Threat Assessment Guidelines, formerly the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines. See Acknowledgements, page 3, in the research report cited in the “About This Article” section above.
[note 2] The state school safety audit survey dropped collection of case-level threat assessment data after the first of the four study years. Without access to case-level threat assessment data for three years, the researchers were unable to evaluate threat assessment functioning and outcomes in those years, the report said.