Virginia Schools Using Threat Assessment For Fairer Discipline

A new report shows that black male students in Virginia schools are suspended at twice the rate of white male students. The report also finds that schools suspend most black students for relatively minor misbehavior, such as being loud or disruptive in class, leading to fresh questions about how to create safe, disciplined schools while ensuring fairness.

The report was jointly released by the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Charlottesville’s Legal Aid Justice Center. The report also demonstrates the results of a new study showing that use of the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines is associated with lower rates of school suspensions, including a smaller racial discipline gap.

University of Virginia education professor Dewey Cornell developed the assessment guidelines used in several thousand schools around the country focusing on ‘threat assessment,’ a violence prevention strategy that starts with an evaluation of persons who threaten to harm others and is followed by interventions designed to reduce the risk of violence. According to the report, schools using the threat assessment guidelines have substantially lower rates of school suspensions, especially among black males, the University of Virginia said in a statement.

The report said 15% fewer students received short-term suspensions, while 25% fewer students received long-term suspensions in schools using threat assessment.

“In previous longitudinal studies, we found that suspension rates were markedly reduced when schools adopted the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines,” said Cornell, who led a Curry School team in conducting the study. “Our new cross-sectional study suggests a statewide impact involving more than 600 secondary schools with fewer suspensions for thousands of students.”

Cornell said that several thousand schools in more than a dozen states are using the threat assessment guidelines. The guidelines also have been used in Canadian schools and as a model for programs in several European countries.

Currently, more than 1,000 schools in Virginia are using the threat assessment guidelines.

“Studies have found no support for the hypothesis that black students misbehave more often,” said Angela Ciolfi, the legal director of JustChildren, a child advocacy program of the Legal Aid Justice Center that provides free legal representation to low-income children families in Central Virginia. “In fact, racial disparities in suspension rates have raised increasing concern nationally because the data shows just the opposite – that black students are more likely to be suspended for more subjective and less serious reasons.”

The report offers practical tips for educators and law enforcement professionals implementing threat assessment. It also makes several policy recommendations, including requiring that schools to make sure suspended and expelled students continue to make academic progress during periods of disciplinary removal.

Virginia was the first state in the country to mandate the creation of threat assessment teams in all its schools in response to the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.