Proactive threat assessment, not surveillance, will make schools safer

Proactive threat assessment, not surveillance, will make schools safer
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School shootings like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary five years ago this month are so traumatic that they skew our perceptions of school safety, generating fear-driven reactions that we should arm our teachers and spend millions to fortify school entrances.

On the contrary, gun violence is statistically far more likely to occur in homes, parking lots, and shopping centers than in schools. Restaurants have 10 times more fatal shootings than schools, yet there has been no movement to arm servers and cooks. 

Of course, even one school shooting is too many, but it is important to recognize that school shootings are part of the larger problem of gun violence in the U.S. Averaging more than 300 shootings and 80 deaths every day, our rates are far higher than other modern nations. Ironically, the tiny percentage of shootings that occur in schools means that American students are safer in schools than almost anywhere else, including their own homes.


The fear of school violence has generated massive use of ineffective safety practices. Zero tolerance discipline, originally intended to keep schools safe from guns and drugs, has resulted in the widespread use of school suspension, often for seemingly trivial misbehavior such as pointing a finger like a gun or bringing a plastic knife to school. Research has found that school suspension rates have soared, driving up rates of school failure and dropout, especially for minority students, who are most often suspended for minor misbehaviors. 


Anxious school boards have also spent millions of dollars for building safety measures such as electronic door locks and surveillance systems. While this is a boon for the security business, studies indicate that it has had no substantial impact on school safety and reduces funds for essential services such as teaching and counseling troubled students.

Schools have over-emphasized reactive strategies — discipline and security — with little attention to proactive, preventive strategies. School authorities sometimes think that, because shootings seem unpredictable, they cannot be prevented, but this is a misunderstanding. Prevention does not require prediction; consider public health initiatives that have been effective in preventing unpredictable dangers. The rate of motor vehicle accidents has fallen due to driver safety training and traffic law enforcement, while lung cancer rates have dropped due to efforts to discourage smoking. 

One example of a proactive approach to violence prevention is the use of threat assessment, a widely used practice in government and industry that is also becoming more prevalent in schools. Threat assessment enables individuals to determine whether a threat is serious and then take appropriate action, which can range from counseling a distressed individual to law enforcement intervention that stops an imminent attack.

Studies of school shootings by the FBI and U.S. Secret Service concluded that in many cases there were reports of threats that were ignored — but in other cases, by investigating reported threats, they averted potential shootings.

Properly implemented threat assessment allows schools to recognize a serious threat as well as avoid over-reacting to threats that are not serious. School authorities can intervene early in potentially serious conflicts before they reach a crisis point, but also do not have to use zero tolerance to suspend large numbers of students for minor misbehavior.    

Following the 1999 Columbine shooting, our research group at the University of Virginia developed, tested, and disseminated threat assessment procedures for schools. Over 15 years, we have conducted studies showing that threat assessment is a viable and effective tool for schools. After the Sandy Hook shooting, Virginia became the first state to mandate the use of threat assessment in its public schools. Each public school in Virginia now has a threat assessment team comprised of educators, mental health professionals and law enforcement officers who have been trained to assess threats and take appropriate preventive actions. 

Recently published research on Virginia schools has shown positive results for a threat assessment approach.

In a sample of 1,865 cases drawn from 785 schools, only 30 percent of threat cases were found to be serious, and with ensuing intervention, fewer than 1 percent were carried out. None of the threatened homicides, shootings, or stabbings occurred. Also important was that almost all of the students were able to continue in their education, with only 1 percent of students expelled. And, a comparison of black, Hispanic, and white students receiving a threat assessment found no racial/ethnic disparities in the use of school suspension or other disciplinary consequences. 

To keep our schools safe, we need a balanced approach that includes proactive as well as reactive strategies. We can prevent seemingly unpredictable events like gun violence by proactively helping troubled students and putting a stop to bullying and harassment. Healthy, successful students are less likely to become individuals who commit homicidal attacks in schools or other settings.

We can prevent gun violence, but to do so, our efforts must begin long before there is a gunman at the door.

Dr. Dewey Cornell is a forensic clinical psychologist, Bunker Professor of Education in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, and Director of the University of Virginia Youth Violence Project.