TIP SHEET: University of Virginia Experts on School Violence

Oct. 3, 2006 — University of Virginia professors Dewey Cornell and Peter Sheras, both clinical psychologists in the Curry School of Education and experts on violence and school safety, can help to put into perspective recent violent events in schools across the country and reactions to them.

Cornell and Sheras have devoted years of research to studying problems in adolescence. They literally wrote the book on threat assessment for schools: “Guidelines for Responding to Student Threats of Violence,” published last year, is the first comprehensive manual of its kind. (See below for more information.)

Cornell cautions that two or three incidents, as horrific as they may be, do not constitute a trend that schools are becoming more dangerous.
“Violence in schools has been declining for over 10 years and schools are still the safest place for a child to be. More children are murdered at home than at school,” Cornell points out.

“Instead of hiring more armed guards, we need to pay more attention to persons who make threats of violence. In most school shootings, the perpetrator made repeated threats or statements of intention to carry out a violent act. We cannot assume that someone who makes a threat will carry it out, but we can investigate threats and determine how serious they are,” he continues.

Cornell and Sheras both caution the media about how they report on these kinds of crimes. “We must also examine the copy-cat nature of some of these crimes,” Sheras says. “In a sincere effort to report the news accurately, media outlets may provide details that would be used by disturbed individuals in the commission of their own acts or violence.

“People will need to address this tragedy at school and in the home, taking into account the emotional development stage of the children,” says Sheras.
Cornell just published a new book in September, “School Violence: Fears Versus Facts” (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates). It identifies and refutes 19 misconceptions about trends in youth violence and school safety, and shows how the fear of school violence has been exaggerated through inaccurate statistics, erroneous conclusions about youth violence, and over-emphasis on atypical, sensational cases. Cornell demonstrates how fear of school violence has resulted in misguided, counterproductive educational policies and practices.

Sheras has been a consultant to schools all over the United States in the aftermath of different kinds of school crises and is the regional coordinator of the joint American Psychological Association-Red Cross Disaster Relief Response Team. He has researched, written and lectured on crisis management in schools, adolescent depression and bullying.

Cornell and Sheras’ book, “Guidelines for Responding to Student Threats of Violence,” presents a field-tested model approach that gives school officials a step-by-step decision-tree for assessing and resolving student threats. According to Cornell and Sheras, one of the defining features of the threat-assessment approach is that school administrators do not have to take a zero-tolerance approach that results in severe punishment for any kind of threat.

“We are seeing a lot of interest in our model because threat assessment has been recommended by the U.S. Department of Education for all schools,” said Cornell, who interviewed Lee Boyd Malvo, the teenager involved in the D.C. sniper shootings several years ago.

Contact: Dewey Cornell, professor of education and director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project, at (434) 924-0793 or dgc2f@virginia.edu.
Contact: Peter Sheras, professor of education and associate director for instruction, Virginia Youth Violence Project, at (434) 924-0795, or (434) 531-1281; pls@virginia.edu.