All Threats Are Not Equal: Distinguishing Students Threats by Severity, Target, and Grade Level

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Burnette, Anna Grace, Clinical Psychology - Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Cornell, Dewey, Clinical Psychology - Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

In 2013, Virginia became the first state to mandate public schools establish threat assessment teams to assess and manage threats of violence. This three-paper dissertation examined three key issues in student threat assessment: how student threats of violence differ in 1) seriousness, 2) target, and 3) grade level. Principals reported information regarding threat assessment cases through the annual School Safety Audit Survey, which provided data for all three studies.

The first paper examined the reliability and validity of the substantive/transient classification of student threats as a means to distinguish serious from non-serious threats. The sample consisted of 844 cases obtained from 339 schools that used the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines (VSTAG). The inter-rater reliability of the substantive/transient distinction was adequate at 70% (Kappa = .53). Although schools classified some cases as substantive that were likely transient, these results indicate that school-based teams made reliable distinctions between substantive and transient threats. Six logistic regression models were used to investigate the validity of the substantive/transient classification with threat characteristics and outcomes. As hypothesized, threats were more likely to be classified as substantive when they involved a higher number of risk factors. Moreover, substantive threats were 36 times more likely to be attempted than transient threats. Substantive threats were also more likely to result in suspensions, school placement change, and legal action, whereas transient threats were less likely to result in punitive or protective action. Overall, these results support use of the substantive/transient classification to distinguish serious threats with a higher risk of aggression from less serious threats that are more easily resolved.

The second paper examined the controversial issue of using threat assessment teams for student threats to harm oneself. The study identified distinctions between threats to harm oneself and threats to harm others in a sample of 2,861 cases from 926 schools. The majority of the student threats were to harm others (60%) rather than self (35%). Only a fraction of the student threats (5%) involved threats to both self and others. Logistic regression analyses indicated that girls were more likely than boys to make a threat to self. Although threats to self were more likely to be attempted compared to threats to others, they were less likely to result in disciplinary action and more likely to result in mental health services. Suicidal threats require a much different response from school-based teams than homicidal threats. School-based teams should refer a suicidal student for a threat assessment in the relatively infrequent case when the student also makes a threat to others.

The third paper investigated how threats differed across k-12 grades in a sample of 3,282 cases from 1,021 schools. The frequency of student threats peaked in the 4th and 5th grades, but decreased following the 9th grade. Logistic regression analyses indicated, as grade level increased, girls were more likely than boys to threaten to physically assault someone, but less likely to make a threat involving weapons. Compared to White students, Black and Hispanic students were less likely to make a bomb threat, as grade level increased. Special education status was not distinguishable by threat characteristics or outcome. As grade increased, older students were more likely than younger students to threaten to physically assault someone, but less likely to make a threat involving weapons or threaten to kill. Bomb threats were not distinguishable by grade level. Notably, 9th grade students were two times more likely to threaten physical assault and to attempt to carry out their threat compared to younger students. These findings support the general assumption that school-based teams should take threats by students in higher grades more seriously than threats by students in lower grades.

Although these studies were correlational and cannot establish a causal effect, the results suggest that school-based teams differentiate threats and respond differently based on the judged seriousness of the threat, whether it involves a threat to self or other, and student grade level. Threat assessment is not a disciplinary consequence that follows a zero-tolerance approach in treating all threats the same. In contrast, student threat assessment is a violence prevention strategy that takes a differentiated and individualized approach to assessment and management of student threats of violence.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Student Threat Assessment
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