When an act of school violence makes headlines, reporters and policy makers alike look to Dewey Cornell for answers. As a forensic clinical psychologist and a professor at UVA’s Curry School of Education who studies youth violence prevention and school safety, Cornell has mixed feelings about the media attention and fear inspired by incidents such as the shootings at Virginia Tech.
“Some people leap to dubious ideas, like bulletproof backpacks and arming teachers, when in fact our energy and resources are better spent dealing with less sensational everyday problems like bullying, or mental health issues like depression,” Cornell says.
Contrary to popular belief, violence in schools has declined dramatically in the past two decades, he says. “Children and youth are safer in school than almost anywhere else, but you hear about ‘school violence’ rather than ‘restaurant violence’ or ‘mall violence.’”
Cornell advises against reactive responses and preoccupation with worst-case scenarios. “You don’t want to wait until there’s a gunman in the parking lot,” he says. “Most people who commit an act of violence make threats far in advance of any action.”
One of Cornell’s recent projects has been training threat-assessment teams that can identify and address conflicts before they lead to acts of aggression. “Kids make threats when they can’t figure out how to resolve problems any other way,” says Cornell.
High-profile acts of violence often spur people to blame administrators or school security procedures, but Cornell says shootings are almost impossible to predict because they are statistically rare. In studies of school shootings, FBI and Secret Service officials rejected the possibility of profiling students and recommended a threat-assessment approach.
When a student makes a threat, a team investigates whether the student is engaging in behavior that indicates the threat is genuine, such as acquiring weapons, making plans and attempting to recruit accomplices. Cornell believes that any attempt to profile potentially violent youth would fail because it would produce so many false positives. Many young people who commit violent acts have been victims of bullying who became depressed, but few victims of bullying or depression would commit a serious act of violence.
Cornell’s research suggests that the most effective violence-prevention programs provide both discipline and support to students. “Like good parents, schools need to be both strict and compassionate,” he says. “They need to address threats and bullying, but they also need to provide help to kids who are struggling.”
It takes years for a youth at risk to develop into a violent offender. “People don’t snap; the brain is not a rubber band.”
Cornell’s interest in studying school violence began while he was working at a state hospital in 1983. There, he evaluated a 16-year-old boy who had no history of violence or misbehavior until he murdered a 14-year-old girl.
“He was depressed over the breakup of his parents’ marriage and angry at the girl for teasing him and calling him ‘pizza face’ because of his acne,” Cornell says. “I thought about this case and how little we understood the causes and determinants of violent behavior.”
Now, after decades of working with the criminal justice system and studying school violence, Cornell is upbeat about the safety of schools in the future.
“Psychological and educational research has shown that we know how to prevent violence in our schools. We are held back by limited resources and the difficulties of providing mental-health services to students, but the decrease in school violence that we’ve seen nationwide is reflective of the progress we have made.”
Preventing school violence
Effective communication with and support for children in crisis lie at the heart of preventing school violence, Cornell says. He also advocates:
- School-based prevention programs, which can cut violence by 50 percent. Effective programs include counseling, cognitive behavior therapy and conflict resolution training.
- Redefining “snitching” to distinguish it from seeking help to preventing violence. “Young people feel a real reluctance to ‘snitch’ on each other,” Cornell says.
- Recognizing the influence of violence in the media. “There is a tremendous body of evidence that violence in movies and video games increases violent thoughts and aggressive feelings.”
- Addressing access to firearms, a big factor in juvenile murder.