My study of school shootings began in 1998 when I evaluated a 14-year-old boy who carried out a shooting in Paducah, Kentucky. He had been bullied for years at school and he struggled with schizophrenia. I also interviewed many of the students who knew that he planned to exact his revenge by opening fire in the school lobby one Monday morning.
It was horrifying to realize that this shooting could have been prevented if any one of these students had reported their classmate’s plans to an adult.
The next year, a few weeks after the Columbine shooting, I assisted the FBI in its study of school shootings. The FBI study found that students almost always communicated their intentions to commit a shooting—and that schools averted a surprising number of potential shootings when staff reported and investigated threats. The study recommended that schools adopt a little-known procedure known as threat assessment.
How to Assess a Threat
Inspired by these findings, my University of Virginia colleagues and I began to develop, test and disseminate a threat assessment program for schools which came to be known as the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines.
The Virginia threat assessment model proved to be highly successful in allowing school authorities to resolve numerous student threats without violent results. Threat assessment is a systematic process for multidisciplinary school teams to evaluate threats and take appropriate action, which can range from short-term counseling and conflict resolution to long-term mental health services, and in rare cases, law enforcement intervention.
Our controlled studies found that schools using proactive prevention measures such as threat assessment not only resolved student threats, they saw an increase in counseling and a decline in bullying and school suspensions. Following the Sandy Hook shooting, Virginia mandated the use of threat assessment in all K-12 public schools in 2013.
Each school has a threat assessment team comprised of staff with expertise in counseling, instruction, school administration and law enforcement. Schools have flexibility in how they conduct threat assessments within some general state guidelines.
Research in Virginia has found that schools have been able to resolve thousands of threats statewide each year. Almost all students receiving a threat assessment are able to return to school and continue their education—and fewer than 1 percent are arrested and fewer than 1 percent are expelled.
Students who make a threat of violence are often subject to stigma and labeling as dangerous by students and parents. Without a threat assessment process, school authorities often experience pressure to expel students, even in cases that do not pose a serious threat of harm. By conducting a threat assessment, school authorities can identify the small number of serious cases for appropriate action and avoid overreacting to cases.
Instead of Reacting, We Can Prevent
School shootings routinely trigger a surge of funding for reactive measures, such as building security and SWAT training, but too little interest in these prevention measures.
We could spend millions of dollars fortifying our schools, but how effective would that be? There are far more mass shootings in stores, restaurants and other public places than in schools. Do we arm store clerks and waitpersons as well?
A fundamental misconception is that school shootings cannot be prevented because they seem to be unpredictable. On the contrary, public health has shown us that we can prevent many unpredictable events, from vehicle accidents to cancer, by public education and early intervention for persons at-risk.
Even though it seems unpredictable, violence can be prevented if we help distressed, angry, troubled people, rather than ignoring them or punishing them.
In recent years, we have trained teams in thousands of schools across the country, and last month, finished training nearly 300 schools here in Miami-Dade County, just miles south of Broward County. We need this type of coordinated response to threats, and in the serious cases like the one in Broward County, ongoing efforts to mitigate the risk of violence.
And so, all schools need threat assessment teams to identify and assist troubled students rather than expel them. Instead of spending millions to fortify our schools for the next shooting, let’s take a more proactive approach and move forward with prevention.
Prevention must start long before a gunman shows up at school.