The Comprehensive School Threat Assessment Guidelines

  • Research Project

What We Do

The Comprehensive School Threat Assessment Guidelines (CSTAG), developed in 2001 and known as the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines until 2018, is an evidence-based model for schools to use in conducting threat assessments of students.

Project Info

For information about workshops on threat assessment with Dr. Cornell, go to this website.

Can schools prevent mass shootings? Sandy Hook parents train teachers to help at-risk students

Our threat assessment model and work with Sandy Hook Promise featured on PBS NewsHour.

The Model

The Comprehensive School Threat Assessment Guidelines (CSTAG), originally known as the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines, is an evidence-based model for schools to use in conducting threat assessments in K-12 schools. This model was developed by Dr. Dewey Cornell and colleagues at the University of Virginia in 2001 and has been extensively examined through field tests and controlled studies that demonstrate its utility and effectiveness. CSTAG has been widely adopted by schools in Virginia and nationwide, and was recognized as an evidence-based program by the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices in 2013.  This model is accepted by the Commonwealth of Virginia for use in Virginia schools, but is not equivalent to the general guidelines presented by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.

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 the new 154-page threat assessment manual (Cornell, 2018).

The CSTAG model of threat assessment (pdf) 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 guidelines follow a five-step decision-tree. In brief, the first two steps are a triage process in which team members investigate a reported threat and determine 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 three 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 Us

Mailing Address

  • P.O. Box 400270, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4270