When a student throws a chair in class or threatens a teacher, school administrators take several steps to determine whether that student has the capacity for larger acts of violence. But that process could be really hard on that student.
A new study from the International Journal on School Climate and Violence Prevention looks at how one of the protocols, which is known as a student threat assessment, affects the students who are being assessed.
"Even when it’s shown that their threat was transient, [the assessment] can really torpedo a student’s education," said lead study author Nancy Rappaport, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Rappaport and her team interviewed 12 students and their families who attended one school district in the northeastern United States. The team asked them questions like how the threat assessment process made them feel, what they thought about the school's decision, and what advice they'd give kids who were going through the process now.
"The study helped us understand how much stigma and shame is associated for students and families when they do have these safety assessments," Rappaport said, adding, "Often it's incredibly terrifying for families. They feel under siege when the school is alarmed."
Rappaport said her team also came to appreciate how the discipline process can reinforce the student and family's feelings about systematic discrimination.
Based on the study's interviews, researchers made several suggestions for improvement in the system including avoiding power struggles and finding avenues for students to cool off when tempers flare. The team also suggested a greater understanding that when students display concerning behavior, they're likely dealing with underlying emotional disorders or challenging situations in their lives outside of school.
Rappaport added the interviews also reinforced how important positive adult connections are at school. She said those can go a long way in convincing students and their families to access mental health resources and stay on track with educational goals.
The student threat assessment is a recommended protocol of the U.S. Department of Education's Safe Schools Initiative. The outcomes of the assessment have been thoroughly studied. While data can't show that a school shooting was prevented, research has shown that suspensions and detentions among students who were investigated were significantly reduced.
But Rappaport argues that body of research is missing an important factor: the emotional impact of going through a threat assessment. While Rappaport acknowledged the sample size of this study was small, she insisted this is likely the first of many projects exploring the topic.
In the end, Rappaport said the goal is to help officials refine their school safety systems so that assessments become more responsive to the student and the school's needs.