Reducing School Suspensions Through Student Threat Assessment

Virginia Model For Student Threat Assessment

Many states have adopted laws requiring schools to develop systems for responding to student threats of violence. These systems often include threat assessment teams.

The University of Virginia team tested a model for student threat assessment that has been shown to reduce suspension rates. They measured statewide implementation of the model and examined school and student outcomes.

Identifying Students and Situations That Raise Concern

The University of Virginia has worked with schools and service providers to develop a practical model for student threat assessment. This 154-page manual, the Comprehensive Student Threat Assessment Guidelines (CSTAG), is being used in many schools across the country.

Identifying students who are in need of assistance requires careful consideration of their situation and the context of their comments. The adult conducting the threat assessment should convey a calm and professional tone, listen carefully, and allow the individual to express their feelings.

The first goal of this NIJ-funded project is to evaluate implementation and school-level outcomes associated with threat assessment. The researchers will use data from a state-mandated school safety audit to measure the number of schools that use threat assessments and other state-level school data to assess outcomes associated with these procedures, including how they differ by student demographics. The research will also test whether training or technical assistance can improve threat assessment. In addition, the state should restore the practice of collecting case-level threat assessment data to enable a more complete and accurate evaluation of the effectiveness and impact of these programs.

Developing Intervention and Management Strategies

When a student makes an explicit or implicit threat, demonstrates concerning behaviors, or is considered a danger to self or others, the school should develop a plan for intervention and management. The goal is to keep students safe while ensuring that the educational process takes place as normally as possible. This requires cooperation and coordination between schools, school administrators, law enforcement agencies, local government, social services, mental health providers, parents, work sites, churches, and community organizations.

Developing effective formal threat assessment programs is challenging because schools have limited time and resources and many other mandates that demand their attention. One study found that schools using the University of Virginia’s threat assessment model—formally called the “Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines,” but now more appropriately called Comprehensive School Threat Assessment Guidelines—were less likely to refer students for discipline to law enforcement or the criminal justice system. It also found that the odds of a student with potential threats being suspended or expelled were much lower in these schools than in schools using general guidelines.

Developing a Safety Plan

Following the Virginia Tech shooting, the General Assembly mandated that schools establish threat assessment teams involving law enforcement and mental health personnel. This year’s bill would require team members to undergo eight hours of training from the state Department of Criminal Justice Services or another group that it approves within 12 months of being appointed and at least two hours of additional training each year thereafter.

The model developed by University of Virginia researchers is based on evidence and has been endorsed as an effective program by the National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices. Its main goal is to help schools recognize and respond to the developmental complexities of students without resorting to zero tolerance discipline.

A comprehensive school threat assessment manual was published in 2018. An online student and staff program has been available since 2001. Surveys conducted after the programs established that most staff reported that they were less anxious about a possible school shooting and more willing to use threat assessment methods to address concerns.

Implementing the Safety Plan

Following school shootings, the Virginia General Assembly began requiring institutions of higher education and pre K-12 public schools to establish threat assessment teams. These multidisciplinary teams consist of school administrators, teachers, school counselors, psychologists, social workers, and law enforcement officers.

When a student communicates a threat or displays concerning behavior, the team interviews the student and any intended targets. They also review the student’s academic records and other background information to assess the level of risk.

The team focuses on addressing the threat or behavior through non-punitive interventions such as counseling, group therapy, restorative justice, or mediation. If the threat or behavior poses a significant risk, the team may refer the case to local law enforcement or mental health services.

Critics had feared that threat assessments would lead to excessive use of suspensions and other legal actions, but this study’s secondary analyses from a randomized controlled trial found that students in schools using the comprehensive school threat assessment guidelines were less likely to receive long term suspensions than those in control schools that followed general guidelines (Allen, Cornell, Lorek & Sheras, 2008). The team is now working to determine how to improve the use of these guidelines.

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