In Capitol Hill Testimony, U.Va. Education Professor Dewey Cornell Urges Prevention to Avoid Violent Acts in Schools

May 15, 2007-- “School shootings can be prevented,” University of Virginia professor Dewey Cornell, a forensic clinical psychologist in the Curry School of Education, told the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor on May 15.

Cornell has researched and worked with K-12 schools all over the country in the successful use of threat assessment. But with thousands of schools, including colleges and universities, it will take more funding to continue research and training.

And because college students are treated as independent adults, it will take improved mental health services to make sure they get the help they need — before something tragic happens. The Virginia Tech shootings indicate more of a mental health problem than a school problem, he said.

One of four speakers testifying at a hearing on “Best Practices for Making College Campuses Safe,” Cornell assured committee that American schools are not just safe, they are one of the safest places for students to be.

He cautioned against responding with extreme measures that don’t really help. “After Columbine, many schools overreacted by expanding zero tolerance programs so that students were expelled for behaviors as trivial as bringing a plastic knife to school in their lunch box,” he said.

Founder and director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project, Cornell made a distinction between crisis response to a violent event and prevention. He has worked with adolescents who have committed violent acts for more than 20 years, and worked on a Federal Bureau of Investigation study that recommended threat assessment, a process originally developed by the Secret Service, to prevent violence in schools. Cornell and colleagues have tested their own model of assessing student threats in K-12 schools and found it has been more effective than other policies, such as zero tolerance and profiling, he told the committee.

In one of Cornell’s studies, threat assessment guidelines were tested in 35 schools where a team comprising a school administrator, a psychologist or counselor, and a law enforcement officer investigated 188 threats. About 70 percent of the cases involved misunderstandings that were easily resolved, he said. In the other 30 percent of cases, more serious action was needed, including psychological assessments and police investigations. The results: no violent acts, six students arrested and three expelled. Other school systems and schools using the threat assessment model have reported similar success, Cornell said.

Threat assessment could be adapted to the college level, as it has been used in other settings — for example, in security and industry, he added.

Cornell countered the reactions to extreme cases, such as the events at Virginia Tech and Columbine, tragic as they are, with facts and reasoning.

The latest U.S. Department of Education data shows 95 murders occurred on college campuses from 1999 to 2004. “Since there are approximately 4,200 colleges in the United States, this means the average college can expect to experience a murder on campus about once every 265 years,” he said.

“It was tragic to have 33 deaths in one day at Virginia Tech, but according to the Centers for Disease Control, every year more than 30,000 persons die by firearms through suicide or homicide. This is the equivalent of the Virginia Tech death toll occurring two to three times every day.”

Cornell, who has consulted on violence prevention efforts and testified in criminal proceedings and legislative hearings, said, “We must avoid overreacting to rare events and make better use of prevention methods that address the ordinary forms of violence, as well as the more extreme ones.”

Along with Cornell, three others testified before the committee: Stephen J. Healy, Director of Public Safety at Princeton University, and president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators; Louanne Kennedy, former Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at California State University at Northridge; and Janet E. Walbert, Vice President for Student Affairs at Arcadia University and president of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.