VA Student Threat Assessment Guidelines Research

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Below is a summary of studies on the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines. 

First study. The Virginia threat assessment guidelines were field-tested in 35 public schools encompassing an enrollment of more than 16,000 students in grades K-12 (Cornell et al., 2004). School-based teams evaluated 188 student threats that involved threats to hit, stab, shoot, or harm someone in some other way. Most of the threats (70%) were resolved as transient threats and the remaining 30% were substantive threats that required more extensive assessment and protective action. The threat assessment teams placed special emphasis on understanding the context and meaning of the threat, and developing a plan to address the underlying conflict or problem that stimulated the student to resort to threatening behavior. Use of this problem-solving approach meant that relatively few students received long-term suspensions or expulsions from school. Only three students were expelled from school, although half of the students (94) received short-term suspensions (typically 1-3 days). Notably, follow-up interviews with the school principals found no cases in which the threats were carried out. This study was published in School Psychology Review.

Second study. A second study enlarged the sample from the first study in order to identify more cases of students receiving special education services (Kaplan & Cornell, 2005). This study found that students in special education (120 cases) made disproportionately more threats, as well as more severe threats, than peers in general education (136 cases). Nevertheless, use of school suspension was consistent for students in special and general education, suggesting that the use of threat assessment did not lead to increased suspension rates among students in special education. This study was published in Behavioral Disorders.

Third study. A third study examined the Virginia threat assessment model in Memphis City Schools, one of the nation’s largest school districts, serving a largely disadvantaged urban population in which 75% of students are eligible for a free or reduced price meal (Strong & Cornell, 2008). This study examined outcomes for 209 cases referred to a centralized threat assessment team because the principal deemed them to merit long term suspension. At least 110 of the cases involved explicit threats to shoot, stab, or kill someone, as well as 99 other threats to attack someone, commit a sexual assault, burn down or blow up the school, etc. Approximately 38% of the students were receiving special education services (compared to a 12% baseline) and 71% had been academically retained at least one year. This study found that all of the student threats were resolved without any detected act of violence. Almost all students were able to return to their school or an alternative school placement, with only five students receiving long-term suspensions without school services. Plans to assist each student included modifications to special education plans, the provision of academic and behavioral support services, and referrals to community-based mental health services. After the threat assessment, the number of disciplinary office referrals for these students declined by approximately 55% through the remainder of the school year. This study was published in Behavioral Disorders.

Fourth study. A major limitation to the previous studies was the absence of a comparison group of schools. Our fourth study examined the use of the Virginia model in the statewide population of Virginia high schools (Cornell, Sheras, Gregory, & Fan, in press). The 95 high schools using the Virginia model (according to principal report on a state-mandated audit of school safety conditions) were compared to 131 schools using a locally developed threat assessment model and 54 schools not using a threat assessment approach. This was a retrospective comparison using data on student victimization and perceptions of school climate that were available from the Virginia High School Safety Study, a separate study of high school safety conditions funded by the U.S. Department of Justice (Cornell & Gregory, 2008). This study did not collect case data on student threats, so schools were compared on the basis of more general outcomes that could be expected from the adoption of a threat assessment approach, based on an anonymous survey of randomly selected students from each high school. This threat assessment study found that students in schools using the Virginia model reported less bullying, greater willingness to seek help for bullying and threats of violence, and more positive perceptions of the school climate than students in either of the other two groups of schools, with an overall multivariate effect size of h2 = 0.15, which is a medium sized effect (Cornell, Sheras, Gregory, & Fan). In addition, schools using the Virginia guidelines had an average of 10 long-term suspensions compared to 15 for the other two groups (p < .05, d = .30). Group differences could not be attributed to school size, minority composition or socio-economic status of the student body, neighborhood violent crime, or the extent of security measures in the schools, which were statistically controlled.

Fifth study. This randomized controlled trial of threat assessment demonstrated that students in the control group were almost three times more likely to receive a long-term suspension ( > 10 days) from school and seven times more likely to be removed from school and placed in an alternative school setting than students attending schools that used the Virginia Guidelines. Students in schools using the Guidelines were four times more likely to receive counseling services and 2.5 times more likely to have parent consultation than schools in the control group.

Sixth study. We compared 166 middle schools using the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines with 119 schools not using threat assessment and 47 schools using an alternative model of threat assessment. According to a statewide school climate survey, schools using the Virginia Guidelines also had fairer discipline and lower levels of student aggressive behaviors, as reported by students. Finally, teachers reported feeling safer in schools using the Virginia Guidelines, as opposed to both groups of schools. Additional analyses of school records found that the number of years a school used the Virginia Guidelines was associated with lower long-term suspension rates, student reports of fairer discipline, and lower levels of student aggressive behaviors. All analyses controlled for school size, minority composition, and socioeconomic status of the student body. These findings suggest that use of a threat assessment approach to violence prevention is associated with lower levels of student aggression and a more positive school climate.

Seventh study. This retrospective study of threat assessment team records examined the reliability and validity of the distinction between substantive threats that are serious and transient threats that are not serious. The sample consisted of 844 student threat cases from 339 Virginia public schools. Inter-reliability for the transient versus substantive distinction for a subsample of 148 case narratives was 70% agreement (Kappa = .53). Logistic regression analyses examined transient and substantive threat differences in threat characteristics and outcomes. Threats were more likely to be classified as substantive when they included warning behaviors (e.g., history of violence, weapon use, leakage, etc.), were made by older students, mentioned use of a bomb or a knife, and involved threats to harm self as well as others. Although only 2.5% of threats were attempted, substantive threats were 36 times more likely to be attempted than transient threats. Substantive threats were more likely to result in out-of-school suspension, change in school placement, and/or legal action.

Research on the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines

(Copies available upon request)

Cornell, D., Sheras, P. Kaplan, S., McConville, D., Douglass, J., Elkon, A., McKnight, L., Branson, C., & Cole, J.  (2004). Guidelines for student threat assessment: Field-test findings. School Psychology Review, 33, 527-546.

Kaplan, S., & Cornell, D. (2005). Threats of violence by students in special education. Behavioral Disorders, 31, 107-119.

Allen, K., Cornell, D., Lorek, E., & Sheras, P. (2008). Response of school personnel to student threat assessment training. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 19, 319-332.

Strong, K., & Cornell, D. (2008). Student threat assessment in Memphis City Schools: A descriptive report. Behavioral Disorders, 34, 42-54.

Cornell, D., Sheras, P., Gregory, A., & Fan, X. (2009). A retrospective study of school safety conditions in high schools using the Virginia Threat Assessment Guidelines versus alternative approaches. School Psychology Quarterly, 24, 119-129.

Cornell, D., & Allen, K. (2011). Development, evaluation, and future directions of the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines. Journal of School Violence, 10, 88-106. doi: 10.1080/15388220.2010.519432

Cornell, D. (2011). A developmental perspective on the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines. New Directions for Youth Development, 129, 43-60.

Cornell, D., Gregory, A., & Fan, X. (2011). Reductions in long-term suspensions following adoption of the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines. Bulletin of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, 95, 175-194.

Cornell, D., Allen, K., & Fan, X. (2012). A randomized controlled study of the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines in grades K-12. School Psychology Review, 41, 100-115.

Nekvasil, E., Cornell, D. (2015). Student threat assessment associated with positive school climate in middle schools. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management 2, 98-113.

JustChildren and Cornell, D. (2013). Prevention v. punishment: Threat assessment, school suspensions, and racial disparities. Available from UVA and JustChildren Report-Prevention v. Punishment

Cornell, D. & Lovegrove, P. (2015). Student threat assessment as a method for reducing student suspensions. In D. Losen (Ed.), Closing the School Discipline Gap: Research for Policymakers (pp. 180-191). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.   

Burnette, A. G., Datta, P. & Cornell, D. G. (December 2017 advance online publication). The distinction between transient and substantive student threats. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management.


Related Lab

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  • Research Lab

Youth Violence Project

The Virginia Youth Violence Project is a research group composed of faculty and graduate students in the UVA School of Education and Human Development. We conduct research on youth violence prevention and school safety and provide training and consultation on topics such as threat assessment, bullying prevention, and forensic psychology. Through our work, we have developed strong evidence in support of school threat assessment as a school violence prevention strategy and alternative to zero tolerance discipline.