Academic journal article School Psychology Review

A Randomized Controlled Study of the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines in Kindergarten through Grade 12

Academic journal article School Psychology Review

A Randomized Controlled Study of the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines in Kindergarten through Grade 12

Article excerpt

Although severe acts of violence in school are relatively rare events, threats of violence are much more common and pose a serious problem for our nation's schools (Borum, Cornell, Modzeleski, & Jimerson, 2010). A report by the National Center for Education Statistics (Nieman & Devoe, 2009) indicated that there were 20,260 student threats of physical attack involving a weapon and 461,910 threats of physical attack without a weapon in U.S. public schools during the 2007-2008 academic year. These threats occurred in more than two-thirds of the nation's middle and high schools, and more than one-third of the elementary schools. Moreover, approximately 7% of teachers reported being threatened with injury by a student and 4% reported being physically attacked by a student in 2007-2008 (Robers, Zhang, & Truman, 2010).

Threats of violence can be frightening and disruptive events for victims, witnesses, and others who learn about them. When school authorities learn of a threat, they may turn to school psychologists to evaluate the situation and make recommendations, but many schools use a zero tolerance model of discipline (American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008), which would require immediate removal of the offending student from school. Although suspension is intended as a corrective consequence to improve student behavior, students who are suspended from school tend to engage in higher rates of subsequent misbehavior and are more likely to be suspended again (Hemphill, Toubmourou, Herrenkohl, McMorris, & Catalano, 2006). High school-wide suspension rates are related to increased student dropout rates (Lee, Cornell, Gregory, & Fan, 2011). Moreover, suspension also may convey unintended messages that have a negative effect on students, such as the implication that the student is not wanted at school (Bowditch, 1993), and may generate feelings of disengagement from school as well as deprive the student of instructional time (Arcia, 2006).

Alternatively, school authorities could attempt to determine the seriousness of the threat and resolve the problem that generated the threat. An underlying dilemma for school authorities is that they dare not underreact to a serious threat, yet overreaction to a threat that is not serious also can lead to unnecessary work by staff and excessive disciplinary consequences for students. For example, in a nationally publicized case, a 6-year-old first grader in Delaware named Zacharie was found with a knife at school (Urbina, 2009). Under the school's zero tolerance policy, school authorities had no choice but to suspend Zacharie from school and order him to attend an alternative placement school for 45 days. However, investigation revealed that the boy had simply brought his camping utensil to eat lunch, and the utensil happened to include a knife along with a fork, spoon, and bottle opener. In the face of considerable public pressure and nationwide expressions of concern, the school board modified the suspension and allowed Zacharie to return to school (Urbina). A threat assessment approach would permit school authorities to make reasonable judgments when it is evident that a student's behavior does not constitute a serious threat of violence.

Threat Assessment

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI; O'Toole, 2000) and the U.S. Secret Service (Vossekuil, Fein, Reddy, Borum, & Modzeleski, 2002) conducted studies of school shootings in response to the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School. Both studies concluded that schools should not rely on student profiling or a checklist of warning signs to identify potentially violent students. As the FBI report noted, "Trying to draw up a catalogue or 'checklist' of warning signs to detect a potential school shooter can be shortsighted, even dangerous. Such lists, publicized by the media, can end up unfairly labeling many nonviolent students as potentially dangerous" (O'Toole, 2000, p. …

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