While efforts to prevent student violence are most often promoted following high-profile school shootings, they can also be a critical tool for promoting safety in the larger community, school safety experts say.
That’s because schools are often uniquely positioned to recognize warning signs of violent behavior—or a need for emotional support and resources—in students before they are driven to act, inside or outside the school walls.
But, as Education Week reported this week, strategies like threat assessment and crisis response can pose major challenges for schools.
Those concerns are in sharp focus amid police revelations that an 18-year-old gunman who is suspected of killing 10 people in a Buffalo, N.Y., grocery store was previously referred to police when he made an unspecified threat, telling a teacher last year he was interested in committing a “murder-suicide.”
Police referred that student to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. But because he didn’t make a specific, targeted threat, he was released a day and a half later without being listed under the state’s red-flag law, which would have restricted his ability to buy firearms.
What, if anything, can schools do to intervene before violence occurs?
Here are some key takeaways from experts on school-based threat assessment:
Know the research on threat assessment
Educators and policymakers have applied the term “threat assessment” to widely varying policies and practices, some of which aren’t evidence-based, said Dewey Cornell, the director of the Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia.
Cornell’s work focuses on a model of threat assessment, through which teams of school personnel evaluate and respond to concerns that a student may be isolated, in need of help, or may pose a threat to themselves or others.
Beyond direct threats of harm, those teams can respond to concerns about bullying and other behaviors.
The most serious threats may require a safety plan to ensure a student doesn’t act, but more “transient threats” could call for counseling or other supportive services to help protect their mental health and emotional well-being, whether or not they have the resources or plan to carry out violent behavior.
Learn more about the specifics of Cornell’s model in this 2019 Education Week story.
Be mindful of student civil rights
After past high-profile school shootings, civil rights groups have sounded the alarm that efforts to prevent violence could lead to overly harsh school discipline practices.
If schools only focus their intervention efforts on the most direct, specific threats of violence, they may miss a chance to help a student who needs access to counseling or other support, whether or not they are capable of carrying out an attack, Cornell said.
But if educators cast too wide a net in identifying students who may harm themselves or others—or if they respond with an overly punitive approach—they risk further alienating students or violating their civil rights, advocates caution.
Two troubling examples:
- A 2018 investigation by the Portland Oregonian newspaper detailed a family’s frustrating experience after their son, who is on the autism spectrum, was flagged as a potential threat at school.
- A 2019 investigation by Education Week’s Benjamin Herold detailed how schools are using extensive digital surveillance systems to track students’ online behavior, often flagging innocent social media posts made on home computers, phones, and other devices as warning signs of potential harm.
Focus on support, not discipline
Assessing student behavior can be difficult, said Jillian Peterson, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University.
In her own work, Peterson and her fellow researchers have found variation in how trained law-enforcement officers even respond to hypothetical situations, like a student drawing of a violent act.
That’s why Peterson favors a “slight rebrand” of threat assessment, preferring to call it “crisis management” instead.
A student may be in an emotional or mental health crisis, or they may face difficult life circumstances, like the death of a parent or social rejection. Those crises warrant a response, even if they aren’t attached to an imminent threat, Peterson said.
But that response shouldn’t be disciplinary, she said. Rather, schools should focus on addressing students’ needs through counseling, interventions, and connection to community services.
This is a big challenge in many schools, however, where there are not enough counselors and psychologists.
“They’re barely keeping their head above water as it is,” Peterson said.