How a proactive, preventive approach can stem the tide of school shootings

How a proactive, preventive approach can stem the tide of school shootings
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In just the first half of the year, there has been more than one shooting a week, on average, in schools across the country. And our nation is finally beginning to take the evidence-based steps to prevent future shootings.

Consider the STOP School Violence Act, which authorized 100 million dollars for widespread school safety training, funds that schools across the country applied for earlier this week. Or note the Secret Service’s new report, which earlier this month, advocated for school threat assessment as a critical violence prevention strategy.


These are welcome, if belated, developments that experts in law enforcement and education have been advocating since the Columbine High School shooting nearly 20 years ago. As researchers in school safety, we are eager to see a shift from reactive measures, which have failed to work, to proactive, preventive measures that have scientific support.  


Training in threat assessment enables multidisciplinary teams of school staff to identify and help troubled students long before they show up at school with a gun. And it ensures they can direct resources toward improving school climate and tackling problems like bullying and depression before they escalate.

Virginia recognized the value of this approach in 2013 when it became the first state to require threat assessment teams in all of its K-12 public schoolsResearch at the University of Virginia found, that over thousands of cases, 99 percent of threats are not carried out. And threat assessment provides school authorities with a viable alternative to punitive, zero-tolerance discipline that has not only repeatedly been shown to be ineffective, but also associated with racial disparities in school suspension rates.

The Secret Service report brings much-needed attention both to the practice of threat assessment and to the underlying, positive school climate that makes it effective. Schools must build an environment of fairness and concern for others that encourages students to seek help from trusted adults at school—and offer mental health resources to youths at risk for violence.

Schools also must adopt evidence-based approaches, such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), that enable a positive school climate. PBIS offers a framework that can set expectations around positive behavior for our youth. Rather than respond to a student outburst or an incidence of bullying with a suspension or one-way ticket to the principal’s office, PBIS provides school staff with a data-informed structure to assure they develop strategies that prevent problems before they occur or escalate.

Creating this positive school climate, of course, requires consistent and sustained investment in effective and equitable disciplinary policies—especially as students of color are more than twice as likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers. Therefore, it is imperative that educators receive coaching in culturally responsive practices and student engagement strategies, such as effective classroom management and restorative practices, to assure they educate our youth rather than exclude them. School counselors, psychologists, and social workers face the daunting task of serving millions of students whose learning is affected by trauma and mental disorders. Use of evidence-based practices can help these students succeed, too. After all, schools have a mission to prepare youth to become the citizens of tomorrow and provide safe and supportive conditions so all students can learn. 

A proactive approach to violence prevention can do much more than keep our students safe at school.

Violence statistics show that far more shootings occur outside of schools than in them—and that students are safer at school than at home. And so, the best way to reduce violence is to help all students be successful in school, diverting them from a path of failure that may lead to crime and tragedy.

If we want to finally stem the tide of school shootings, we cannot let the Secret Service effort become just a report on the shelf—or Parkland become another footnote in the history of school shootings. A more proactive, comprehensive approach of identifying and supporting our troubled students can serve as a roadmap to prevent violence both in schools and in society.

Dewey Cornell and Catherine Bradshaw are both professors at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education.

Dr. Cornell is a forensic and clinical psychologist, director of the U.Va. Virginia Youth Violence Projectand the principal developer of the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines; his research interests concern school climate assessment and the prevention of youth violence.

Dr. Bradshaw is the Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development; her primary research interests focus on the development of aggressive behavior and school-based prevention. She has led a number of federally-funded randomized trials of school-based prevention programs, including Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS).