Investigations of School Safety and the Perceived Risk of Violence in Schools

Nekvasil, Erin, Clinical Psychology - Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Cornell, Dewey, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

There is persistent, nationwide concern about the risk of violence in schools. More than a decade ago, authorities in law enforcement and education recommended the use of threat assessment as a violence prevention strategy, yet many schools have not adopted this approach and there is relatively little research to support school-based threat assessment. The three studies in this dissertation contribute to this knowledge gap by investigating how often students experience threats of violence at school, how frequently multiple casualty homicides occur at schools versus other locations, and, finally, how threat assessment practices are associated with school safety conditions and climate.

The first paper surveyed 3,756 high school students about their experiences of being threatened at school in the past 30 days. Approximately 12% of students reported being threatened, but only 9% of students who received a threat reported that it was carried out. Logistic regressions identified student and threat characteristics associated with threat reporting, seriousness, and outcome. These findings provide useful base rate information for threat assessment teams in suggesting that threats are relatively common but usually not reported and rarely carried out.

The second paper examined the prevalence and offense characteristics of multiple casualty homicides in schools as opposed to other locations using the FBI’s National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS). NIBRS reported 18,873 homicide incidents from 2005 through 2010. Approximately 22% of homicide incidents in the NIBRS database involved two or more victims and were much more common in residences (47%) versus schools (0.8%). These findings suggest that the public perception that schools are a high-risk location for homicides is inaccurate. For example, homicides are 10 times more common in restaurants and 200 times more common in residences than in schools. These findings have policy implications for the allocation of resources for public safety and security measures.

The purpose of the final paper of this dissertation was to investigate safety conditions and climate in schools using the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines. Previous studies on the Virginia Guidelines have not specifically investigated middle school grades, where rates of disciplinary infractions and school suspensions are highest. The study compared middle schools that use the Virginia Guidelines (Cornell & Sheras, 2006; N = 170) to schools that either do not use threat assessment (N = 120) or use an alternate model of threat assessment (i.e., school or district-developed; N = 48). School climate data was obtained from a statewide survey of students and teachers. Schools using the Virginia Guidelines reported lower short-term suspension rates than both groups of schools, and students perceived that there was fairer discipline and less peer aggression and bullying. . Teachers reported feeling safer at school. Additional analyses found that the number of years a school used the Virginia Guidelines was associated with lower long-term suspension rates, student reports of fairer discipline, and lower levels of student aggression.

Taken together, this three-paper dissertation found that although student threats are relatively common, schools are generally safe places for students, and the risk of homicidal violence is low. Although these results are correlational and cannot establish a causal effect, they suggest that the use of threat assessment in middle schools may help to promote school safety and positive climate.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: