By NEESEY PAYNE
“There is no formula or crystal ball that will predict or prevent all violent acts,” said Dr. Dewey Cornell, forensic clinical psychologist and professor of education in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.
Cornell spoke before principals, assistants, counselors, school psychologists and Central Office staff at a threat assessment training held recently at the Pulaski County School Board Office.
Cornell has studied youth violence for 25 years – helping schools develop violence prevention programs. He said the best thing school systems, parents and communities can do is make sure “our schools are healthy environments for kids.” So that’s what Pulaski County Public Schools is doing – taking the necessary preventative measures to ensure schools are safe.
“After a school shooting there is a lot of fear in the community – fear in schools, fear among parents, and you can have overreactions,” said Cornell. He said school systems must “chart the middle ground” and not let “emotions” be the driving force behind decisions.
“We’ve got to be careful not to punish kids for behavior that is not seriously threatening,” he said.
Cornell explained there is no reason parents should think schools aren’t safe. According to information presented in the training, school violence is not increasing. Information by the National Center for Education Statistics shows that serious violent crimes in schools went from 13 per 1,000 students in 1994 to 4 per 1,000 students in 2010. Students are more likely to die of an accident-related death than a school homicide.
Cornell, who is on the American Education Research Association Taskforce on Bullying and Harassment in Schools, Colleges and Universities asked, “When was the last time a child was murdered in an elementary school in Virginia?”
“I can’t think of any,” he said. Cornell explained he knows there are records dating back to 1992 that show nothing. “Most of the violence is not going to occur in schools, it’s going to occur somewhere else. Before I take police officers off the street and put them in our schools, I want to know if that’s a good use of their resources,” he said. “
Cornell explained the primary goals of threat assessment are to prevent violence, reduce suspensions, address bullying and peer conflicts before they escalate, and improve student trust in staff.
“Threat assessment isn’t designed to determine whether a student has made a threat, but whether a student poses a threat,” he said.
Cornell explained educating staff, training, updating student code of conduct regulations and keeping students and parents informed are the keys to implementing a threat assessment approach.
“School authorities must make reasoned judgements based on the facts of each individual situation and monitor situations over time,” he said.
Information presented during the training stated every student should:
• Know what bullying is and why it is wrong.
• Know social bullying is not acceptable.
• Understand snitching and seeking help aren’t the same thing.
• Feel secure in knowing threats are taken seriously.
• Know there is at least one teacher who cares and is willing to listen.
The best thing parents can do is “be aware, alert and talk to kids about what is going on,” said Dr. Farah Williams, clinical psychologist, Scott County Behavioral Health, who accompanied Cornell in his presentation.
More importantly, Williams said parents should talk to their children about seeking help if something happening at school makes them scared or uneasy. “It’s never wrong to go to somebody and say I have this concern,” she said. Williams explained students should feel comfortable knowing they can do something about the situation. At the same time, parents should also explain that “sometimes bad things happen,” she said.
The bottom line, “Schools are safe,” said Cornell.
He said he is glad to see “attention” being placed on school safety. Cornell also mentioned people should recognize that “violence is not a school problem, but a community problem.”
He thinks too much emphasis is being put on shootings – “Are we going to shoot the shooter? Are we going to arm our teachers?” Cornell believes this type of thinking to remedy the problem is “misguided.”
He said school shootings and other shootings have been prevented in the past because someone spoke up and voiced a concern.
Overall Cornell believes the best prevention method is to “think long-term at what we can do to make our schools places where kids are in a safe and healthy environment.” This starts with being proactive instead of reactive.