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UVA experts offer free threat assessment program for schools

Experts say reports of threats at school are often just rumors, jokes or pranks.
National Center for School Safety
Experts say reports of threats at school are often just rumors, jokes or pranks.

UVA Professor Dewey Cornell has been studying school violence and risk assessment for decades.

"I worked with the FBI in their study of school shootings in the 1990’s, and they said schools should be using something called ‘threat assessment,’" he recalls. "I didn’t know what that was, but I looked into it and thought it was promising, but it needed to be adapted for schools."

So, with funding from the U.S. Department of Justice, he and Research Professor Jenn Maeng set out to do just that.

"We don’t want schools to over-react to a threat that isn’t serious, and we don’t want them to under-react to a threat that is serious," Maeng says.

Partnering with the University of Michigan, they talked with more than 200 others who had studied this problem, then developed a step-by-step guide for school districts.

"We have a five-step decision tree where schools interview students and witnesses, gather information to make sure they understand what the threat behavior or concern is," Cornell explains. "Sometimes threats are nothing but rumors."

They could also be jokes, pranks or exaggerations.

"Sometimes a threat like, ‘I’m going to kill you,’ is nothing more than an expression of anger and frustration," says Cornell.

Eighty percent of the time he estimates school districts can resolve threats, and if they determine there’s a real risk, parents, mental health professionals and police can be called in to help.

"Rather than fortifying the schools and putting security measures into the front door I think far more important is to identify young people who are troubled, distressed, alienated and to work with them," Cornell argues. "Ultimately that will not only keep schools safe but I think it will keep our communities safer as well."

Jen Maeng says the materials she and Cornell developed are available at no charge to all schools through the National Center for School Safety.

"We are doing a series of webinars, it’s been posted on our website and social media, and it’s freely available to schools nationwide."

Dewey Cornell adds that the public should keep the threat of violence in schools in perspective.

"We need to do a better job of explaining to parents and teachers and everyone in the school not to get overly alarmed when a threat is reported or when there are rumors of a threat, because we know that we can resolve these threats peacefully, efficiently and keeping our students in schools."

Statistically he notes that attacks are far more likely outside of schools.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief