U.Va. Study: Students Fare Better in Schools that Don't Apply Automatic Expulsion

A new University of Virginia study has found that careful assessment and measured action is a more effective response to school violence than a one-size-fits-all, zero-tolerance approach.

The study, led by Dewey Cornell, a professor in U.Va.'s Curry School of Education and program director of Youth-Nex, a center to promote effective youth development, found that students in schools that used a strategy to evaluate the seriousness of school violence, instead of automatic expulsion, are more likely to receive more appropriate responses for their actions, such as mental health counseling or parent conferences, and less likely to receive long-term suspensions or transfers to other schools.

The study is a first, according to Cornell, who said that although threat assessment is a widely recommended practice to prevent school violence – as well as workplace violence – "to my knowledge, it is the first randomized, controlled trial of threat assessment of any kind," he said.

Cornell's research, published in the March issue of School Psychology Review, tested his Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines, which offer a roadmap for school professionals to evaluate the seriousness of threats of violence made in schools.

"Threat assessment allows school administrators to return to the philosophy that the punishment should fit the crime, and that the school's response to a student should be based on the seriousness of the threat, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach that you see with 'zero tolerance,'" Cornell said.

According to Cornell, severe acts of violence in school are relatively rare, but threats of violence are much more common and pose a serious problem for the nation's schools.

The widely used practice of automatic suspension increases the risk for academic failure and does not seem to improve student behavior, Cornell said.

"Our research has shown that schools which rely the most on suspension have the highest dropout rates," he said. "We know that suspension has deleterious effects on students and is counterproductive to our goal of helping them complete their education."

Threat assessment can actually help identify underlying problems, such as bullying or conflicts in friendships and romantic relationships, Cornell said. In other cases, there are disputes with teachers, learning problems or other difficulties that need attention.

"Schools using threat assessment showed a 79 percent reduction in bullying infractions and a 52 percent reduction in long-term suspensions," Cornell said.

"Sometimes this kind of student behavior may point to stressful circumstances leading to emotional distress, anger and depression. As a result, one goal of threat assessment is to initiate appropriate mental health counseling services for the student."

The study was conducted in 40 elementary, middle and high schools in Newport News. Schools that received staff training in threat assessment showed large changes in staff understanding of the risk of student violence as well as changes in their attitudes toward zero tolerance and the use of suspension.

The schools were then followed for one school year. During this time, 201 students were identified by school authorities as making a threat of violence. Those students who were in schools using the Virginia Guidelines were four times more likely to receive counseling services and 2.5 times more likely to have a parent conference to resolve the problem or conflict associated with the student's threat.

Students in the control group – in schools that had only a zero-tolerance policy, with automatic suspensions – were almost three times more likely to receive a long-term suspension and seven times more likely to be placed in an alternative school than students in schools using the Virginia Guidelines.

But does keeping a troublesome student in school jeopardize others' safety?

"Certainly there are a small number of students who are more safely educated in an alternative setting," Cornell said, "but there is no evidence to indicate that a policy of keeping most students in school impairs the safety of others. Schools that use zero tolerance are not safer schools. The guidelines permit short-term suspensions for safety purposes in clearly specified cases, but almost all students are able to return to school."

Cornell said these guidelines are now being used in more than 1,000 Virginia schools as well as schools across the U.S. and in several other countries.

– by Ellen Daniels