Academic journal article School Psychology Review

Racial/Ethnic Parity in Disciplinary Consequences Using Student Threat Assessment

Academic journal article School Psychology Review

Racial/Ethnic Parity in Disciplinary Consequences Using Student Threat Assessment

Article excerpt

School psychologists are frequently called upon to assess the risk of violence in students who have made verbal or behavioral threats against others, a practice that has become commonly known as threat assessment (National Association of School Psychologists School Safety and Crisis Response Committee, 2014). Threat assessment is a systematic process of evaluation and intervention for those students who have threatened others with violence. School psychologists may be asked to assess whether a student poses a serious risk of violence and to recommend appropriate safety precautions or protective actions.

A series of school shootings in the 1990s brought great public attention to the issue of school violence and stimulated the widespread use of zero tolerance policies that used exclusionary discipline for a wide variety of infractions (American Psychological Association [APA] Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008; Borum, Cornell, Modzeleski, & Jimerson, 2010). The zero tolerance philosophy mandates strict enforcement and harsh consequences for even minor violations of school rules as a way to send a compelling message to students with the intention of deterring dangerous behavior. Under zero tolerance, students have been suspended for minor behaviors posing little threat of violence, such as bringing a plastic knife to school, threatening to shoot someone with a pencil, or even pointing a finger like a gun (Cornell, 2006; Gora, 2015). However, there is little or no evidence that zero tolerance is effective (APA Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008); on the contrary, education authorities have criticized zero tolerance practices as fueling a nationwide increase in school suspensions (Losen & Martinez, 2013; Morgan, Salomen, Plotkin, & Cohen, 2014).

Racial and ethnic disparity in school discipline is a widely recognized national problem (Losen, 2015; Morgan et al., 2014; U.S. Department of Education [DOE], 2016). Racial/ethnic minority students, especially Black students, are disproportionately more likely than White students to receive out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and other forms of exclusionary discipline (Losen & Martinez, 2013; Skiba et al., 2011; U.S. DOE, Office for Civil Rights, 2016). There is mixed evidence regarding the disproportionate punishment of Hispanic students, although it remains a serious concern (Losen, Hodson, Keith, Morrison, & Belway, 2015). However, exclusionary practices do not achieve their intended effects of improving student behavior or creating a more positive school climate (APA Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008; Morgan et al., 2014). On the contrary, the use of exclusionary discipline is associated with a progressive series of negative outcomes, from disengagement in school to lower academic performance, further disciplinary infractions, increased risk of dropout, and juvenile court involvement (Fabelo et al., 2011; Lee, Cornell, Gregory, & Fan, 2011; Noltemeyer, Ward, & Mcloughlin, 2015). In a Dear Colleague letter on school discipline, the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice (2014) raised concern about racial/ethnic disparities in school discipline and recommended that schools take active steps to assess whether their disciplinary policies have a disproportionate impact on racial or ethnic minority students.

Threat Assessment as an Alternative to Zero Tolerance

In cases involving a threat of violence, one alternative to zero tolerance discipline is the use of student threat assessment to distinguish minor misbehavior from behavior that poses a serious or substantive threat of violence (Borum, Bartel, & Forth, 2002). Strictly speaking, threat assessment is not a disciplinary procedure, but a safety program that may inform disciplinary decisions. Threat assessment is a problem-solving approach to violence prevention that gives schools a flexible and practical alternative to zero tolerance discipline. …

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