Dewey Cornell, a forensic clincal psychologist at UVa's Curry School of Education, spoke at a Charlottesville City Schools forum on school safety. Credit: Credit: Josh Mandell, Collectbritain

A local expert on youth violence believes mental health supports and relationships can do more to make schools safe than police officers or bulletproof windows.

Charlottesville City Schools hosted a community forum on school safety Thursday featuring guest speaker Dewey Cornell, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education who directs the Virginia Youth Violence Project. The event took place a day after hundreds of Charlottesville students walked out of class to join a nationwide protest over gun violence and school safety.

Interest in Cornell’s research has surged since 17 people were killed in a Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. In interviews with national media, Cornell has emphasized that school shootings are just a small part of a much larger problem of gun violence in the United States.

The nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund has recorded 305 incidents of gunfire in American schools since 2013. Cornell said more than 580,000 shootings occurred outside of schools between 2013 and 2018.

“Children are 70 times more likely to be murdered outside a school than in a school,” he said.

Cornell said American school districts act irrationally when they collectively spend billions of dollars on new security infrastructure after a major school shooting.

“When people talk about ‘target-hardening’ and investing in security to make our schools impervious, we really are missing the point,” Cornell said. “Gun violence is pervasive in this country and some of it, a tiny fraction of it, inevitably will come into a school.”

A 2004 report by the Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education recommended a threat assessment approach to preventing school shootings.

“The shootings that have been prevented were not prevented with metal detectors,” Cornell said. “They were prevented because a student went to a trusted adult and said, ‘I am concerned.’”

Cornell designed the Virginia Threat Assessment Guidelines to help school administrators, psychologists, counselors, teachers and law enforcement work in teams to address small threats emerging from student conflict before they escalate into violence. Virginia has required public schools to maintain threat assessment teams since 2013.

“Kids make threats all the time,” Cornell said. “The question is, do they pose a threat? Do they have the intention and the means to carry it out?”

In the 2014-2015 school year, 785 Virginia public schools reported 1,865 threat assessment cases. The late elementary and middle grades were the greatest sources of threats. “That is the age when students band together in social cliques, and ostracize and bully one another,” Cornell said.

Cornell said that 97.7 percent of threats assessed in 2014-2015 ultimately were not attempted. Less than three percent of threats were attempted and just 0.7 percent were carried out.

Cornell said black, white and Hispanic students were equally likely to be suspended after undergoing a threat assessment. Only two percent of all threats in 2014-2015 resulted in an expulsion or an arrest.

Cornell said it was important for adults to remember why youth— and people of all ages— resort to making threats.

“When we are frustrated, and we have run out of problem solving strategies, we move to the ultimate problem-solving strategy: to threaten someone, so we can manipulate them,” Cornell said. “When a kid makes a threat, it’s a red flag that they’ve encountered a problem they can’t handle.”

“The most effective way to prevent violence is helping all of our students to be successful, to help them be included, supported, and accepted,” Cornell said. We don’t have to know who the shooter is to help kids who are being bullied, alienated, agitated, or troubled in some way.”

After Cornell’s presentation, Charlottesville superintendent Rosa Atkins and assistant superintendent Kim Powell spoke about instructional programs designed to improve student behavior and reduce the risk of violence in city schools.

Charlottesville City Schools recently began implementing Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), a framework for curriculum and instruction on social behavior. The division also is piloting a curriculum for students with emotional difficulties at Greenbrier Elementary School.

“We see violence starting to escalate when it gets to middle school, but those tendencies do not start at that grade level,” Atkins said.

Atkins said serious anger issues in children often are rooted in trauma they have experienced outside of school.

“We are helping students be able to identify those emotions when they are starting to rise, and training teachers to recognize triggers for those emotions,” she said.

Powell said local partnerships with Region 10 mental health services and the Gang Reduction through Active Community Engagement (GRACE) task force also help Charlottesville create safe school environments.

Charlottesville has received $258,567 in state grants for school security equipment since 2013. The division recently installed “buzz-in” systems at elementary school entrances. Powell said multiple schools will have new locks installed on classroom doors during their upcoming spring break.

The school shooter in Parkland, Florida last month pulled a fire alarm to target students as they evacuated the school building. One audience member at Thursday’s forum asked Atkins if Charlottesville’s schools would respond differently to fire alarms after this incident.

“We are training teachers to be more situational; to determine what the threat might actually be and make decisions based on that,” Atkins said.

Charlottesville interim police chief Thierry Dupuis and several other police officers also were present to answer questions from the audience.

“Gun violence not going to be solved at the local level,” said Dupuis. “There is going to have to be a significant national movement to deal with gun violence.”

Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.