Dewey Cornell: Will the next shooting be in Virginia?

In the wake of the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Dewey Cornell, a forensic clinical psychologist, Bunker Professor of Education and director of the UVA Youth Violence Project, shares how Virginia is working to prevent school violence. This column was originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on February 17, 2018.

After the shooting at Douglas High School in Parkland Florida that killed 17 people, many Virginians may wonder: When will the next school shooting occur in Virginia? They may ask what their schools are doing to prevent violence. Although there is much to learn about the latest shooting, a key fact has emerged: The perpetrator was a former student at the school with a long history of threatening statements and behavior, some of which were openly posted in social media. Understandably, law enforcement authorities asked why these threats had not been brought to their attention.

We have long known that threatening behavior is a key warning sign that must be recognized to prevent mass shootings. It has been more than a decade since a student at Virginia Tech opened fire on campus and killed 32 students and staff in 2007. Extensive investigations into this tragedy by state and national authorities found that many threatening behaviors exhibited by the student could have prompted proactive interventions. In response to this tragedy, the Virginia General Assembly mandated that all Virginia colleges and universities implement threat assessment teams to prevent violence.

After the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Virginia General Assembly extended the threat assessment requirement to all K-12 public schools. Every public school in Virginia is now mandated by law to have a multidisciplinary threat assessment team to help prevent violence. Although many states encourage the use of threat assessment, Virginia is the first state to require threat assessment and provide free training to all schools.

What is threat assessment, exactly? It is a systematic approach to investigating threatening actions or statements to prevent violence. Anyone with concerns about a threat of violence can report it to the school’s threat assessment team, who then will evaluate the seriousness of the threat and take appropriate action. Responses to threats often involve counseling to defuse a conflict or mental health services when there is acute distress, but in imminent cases may involve police intervention.

There is evidence from statewide studies that K-12 schools using threat assessment have been able to resolve thousands of threats without violence. Last year, Virginia K-12 schools reported conducting 9,238 threat assessments, with none of the threats resulting in death or serious injury. Moreover, these assessments have brought counseling services to troubled students and reduced the use of school suspensions.

Nevertheless, the Florida shooting should be a wake-up call for threat assessment teams in Virginia schools. Statewide surveys have found that only 50 percent of Virginia K-12 teachers know that their school has a threat assessment team. Also troubling is that state funding to train school teams has fallen off the state’s priority list — and despite the state mandate, 34 percent of Virginia schools reported that they did not conduct any threat assessments last year. Likewise, many professors in Virginia colleges have no knowledge of their school’s threat assessment team.

Our institutions of higher education have no ongoing training program and no protocol to collect data to confirm that institutions are making good use of their threat assessment teams.

The General Assembly should take action now and not wait until the next school shooting in Virginia to make sure that our prevention efforts are vigilant and effective.