Aspirations for a Virginia Policy Study: Analyzing School Safety and Threat Assessment
Jessica C. Smith, MS, Public Policy Doctoral Student, Virginia Commonwealth University
As society is muddling through the new normal the Covid-19 pandemic has unleashed, parents, policymakers, and public safety personnel are adjusting to unprecedented challenges. From navigating childcare, retooling job requirements, learning to home-school, and staying healthy, the last thing on many minds is school safety. While the absence of fear related to a potential school shooting is a relief for many, school safety policies should not fall by the wayside as schools (hopefully) begin again in the fall. Policymakers, public safety professionals, and parents are all juggling new priorities and managing extraordinary concerns, yet threats still exist and concerning behaviors are still manifesting. Although many health and financial strains are visible presently, these stress-inducing and uncertain times may exacerbate trauma and aberrant behavior—effects that might not be fully exhibited for some time. As such, it is incumbent upon researchers and policymakers to continue to evaluate practices and ensure a safe environment for students and staff upon returning to an in-person learning environment.
With that goal in mind, we proposed and were grateful to receive a SPSSI State and Local Policy Grant for our project entitled Assessing School Safety in the Age of Threat Assessment: A Virginia Policy Study. One of the primary goals of this project, in line with SPSSI’s overall mission, is to influence state and local educational policy through applied research. Our project explores Virginia’s school threat assessment policy and its effects on overall school safety. For years now, numerous stakeholders—including local, state, and federal school personnel; law enforcement officers; and families—have worried over instances of targeted violence in schools and grappled with the various ‘solutions’ to the problem. Many schools have incorporated threat assessment as a tool to investigate and intervene with those displaying concerning behaviors. Our research team proposed a mixed-methods study to examine how threat assessment is being implemented in Virginia schools as well as how the policy has affected school safety outcomes and other school practices.
Virginia was the first state to mandate the use of threat assessment teams in K-12 public schools in 2013. Since that time, a handful of other states have passed similar legislative mandates. As the implementation of this policy continues to expand, a few studies have examined threat assessment teams in the K-12 environment (for most, see Dr. Dewey Cornell’s work out of the University of Virginia) yet none have explored the implementation or functionality of teams within schools, nor the effect of teams on school safety as a whole. It is our goal to address these gaps and inform existing policy and the future development of best practices. Not only are we analyzing existing quantitative data from local schools, we are also collecting new qualitative data from school personnel to assess their perception of threat assessment as front-line policy practitioners. We hope our findings advance both educational and criminal justice research and policy; our products will include written and oral briefings with state and local policymakers.
While timelines may have slowed and priorities may have shifted amidst the pandemic, the passion and commitment to being socially conscious empiricists remains. We hope everyone stays safe and healthy as we navigate these uncharted waters.