School Violence: Assessing the Threat

Dewey Cornell, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist and Education Professor, University of Virginia
Tuesday, April 17, 2007; 2:00 PM

Thirty-three people were killed and at least 30 injured during a shooting rampage this morning at Virginia Polytechnic and State University, making it the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

Dr. Dewey Cornell, clinical psychologist, education professor and director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia, was online Tuesday, April 17, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss threat assessment and gun violence in the nation's schools.

A transcript follows.

____________________ The discussion with Dr. Dewey Cornell will begin now at 2:30. Thank you.


Arlington, Va.: The sad thing about shootings like this is that they appear to occur in a cycle. The shooting takes place, the 24-hour news channels feed off the violence for a week, and the usual tired arguments about gun control and the Second Amendment are trotted out. The weeks go and, memories fade, and nothing happens as a result. Then the whole thing starts up again. Why has so little been done to address this issue? Is it just something we have to accept in an open society?

Dr. Dewey Cornell: It is true that news comes in cycles, but that does not meant there are not many individuals and organizations who are working all the time on this problem. For the past five years we have been training schools in threat assessment. Hundreds of schools are responding.


Washington, D.C.: Can these mass killings be prevented or are we simply to accept them as a new postmodern reality?

Dr. Dewey Cornell: Mass killings can be prevented, but not by massively arming our society. Prevention must start long before the gunman is at the door. In almost every case of a mass shooting, the perpetrator has spent weeks or months planning the attack, and has expressed threats that we could have detected. In many cases, we have prevented acts of violence by responding to these threats.


Arlington, Va.: Dr. Cornell, does violence in the media play a role in violence in kids and young people? If so, does it tend to affect all youth or those that already have some sort of destabilizing influence? Thanks. I've always wondered this, but public discussions on this always become so loaded with politics. I've never found whether or not there is a scientific basis for the effects/non-effects of violence in media.

Dr. Dewey Cornell: There are literally hundreds of studies that support the effect of media violence on the thoughts,feelings, and actions of children. Many scientific organizations and federal government study groups, including our Surgeon General, have repeatedly reached this conclusion. Nevertheless, special interest groups dispute it and try to attack the findings. There is no claim, however, that media violence is the sole cause or even principal cause, of violent behavior. It is a contributing factor. It does not affect everyone to the same degree. It is like smoking and cancer. Many people smoke but do not get cancer, and many people get cancer who do not smoke. But the correlation between smoking and cancer is about the same as the correlation between exposure to media violence and measures of subsequent aggressive behavior. It is not a perfect analogy, but it makes the point that the effect is real.


Washington, D.C.: The authorities are saying that the young man was a "loner." Could there have been signs that this young man was mentally ill and is there a way to help identify people who may be in need of evaluations especially since some illnesses manifest themselves around the time people are in college?

Dr. Dewey Cornell: In most cases like this, we find out that the attacker was depressed, angry, frustrated, embittered, and disillusioned. There is usually ample warning in the form of threats and desperate statements. Rarely are there no prior indications. Now I realize hindsight is 20-20 and I am not blaming anyone, but we know that such individuals can be identified and in fact we have successfully identified threatening individuals in the past.


Washington, D.C.: How do you assess threats like this in public places and institutions? What does your Violence Project do in this regard?

Dr. Dewey Cornell: Our project trains school teams to conduct threat assessments. The school educates students and staff to report threatening behavior, and then the team evaluates threats to determine how serious they are and what to do in response. Often there is an interpersonal problem, a bullying situation, academic problems, and other concrete problems that the team can address through counseling and other forms of assistance. It is possible to defuse these situations by acting early, not waiting until someone has a loaded gun and hoping that your security forces will stop them.


Fairfax, Va.: It's illegal to carry a gun, even with a Concealed Carry Permit, on school grounds in Virginia. So in this case no law-abiding person had a means of defending themselves.

If a student had been (illegally) carrying a firearm and had indeed used it on the gunman, perhaps saving dozens of lives, would said student have been arrested?

Dr. Dewey Cornell: It is always tempting to imagine heroic scenarios where someone with a gun comes to the rescue. We see it on tv every night, but it is not realistic. More things can go wrong than go right. When we look at other nations we see that they have a much, much lower rate of gun violence than we do, yet this is not because their citizens are armed and ready to shoot the shooters. We need a more realistic understanding of the problem and not one that has been produced by all our years of watching television violence.


Fairfax, Va,: What role does unfettered access to guns and the mass media's depiction of gun use as exciting and a good thing have in contributing to the breakdown of inhibitions against gun use. Do other countries' gun restrictions and cultural animus towards guns reduce gun violence?

Dr. Dewey Cornell: You are right that depictions of gun use and mass violence are sadly inspirational many of these angry, deranged killers.


Charlottesville, Va.: What is usually going in on in a person's mind that leads them to do something like this? And is suicide usually part of the plan?

Dr. Dewey Cornell: Suicide is often part of the plan, indeed the seedbed for the irrational thinking that leads to violence. Suicidal persons lose perspective on reality, see no hope for themselves, and develop tunnel vision that there is nothing else they can do. We have to more to identify and intervene with persons who are depressed like this. There are too few mental health resources, and too much stigma against mental health treatment, in our society.


Fairfax, Va.: Do you feel that the time between the first attack at Va. Tech and the next ones was time wasted and that the police force in Blacksburg should have given that first shooting more of a level of importance? Could the other 31 have been avoided?

Dr. Dewey Cornell: I would not be too quck to judge the police. They have to have good information before they take action. Keep in mind that we have shootings every day throughout the country (about 80 deaths a day). It is not standard practice to lock down a community every time there is a shooting, particularly if it appears to be a domestic dispute or boyfriend/girlfriend problem. In our grief and distress, we may want to point the finger of blame, but let's wait and see what all the facts are. And consider the consequences if we had an automatic lockdown everytime shots were fired in our society. Thousands of lockdowns every day.


Washington, D.C.: Is the media attention conditioning angry people that this is the platform or means to express their anger? All kids and adults have issues that are troubling and disturbing. Sometimes you have to take your losses and move on.

Dr. Dewey Cornell: Unfortunately, there is implied cultural support for the idea of going on a rampage to express your feelings. The Columbine boys have been the subject of too much glorification. Similarly angry and alienated youth identify with them.


Burke, Va.:"in fact we have successfully identified threatening individuals in the past."

How do you go about determining which maladjusted person (out of millions) is the one who's going to off on a homicidal rampage?

As you say, it's a lot easier to view this in hindsight.

Dr. Dewey Cornell: It is more complicated than I can respond on a chat line. I cover this in my book Guidelines for Responding to Student Threats of Violence. In this book we describe school responses to hundreds of student threats, most of which were not serious threats. In each case, however, we do a careful investigation and develop a response. Counseling, law enforcement involvement, conflict resolution, many possible interventions. This is not hypothetical, it is something that many schools are doing.


Arlington, Va.: Dr. Cornell said: "More things can go wrong than go right."

I've been having many conversations about the idea of an armed student populace defending themselves. To the people advocating the right to carry firearms, it is less about the outcome, and more on the principle. They ask, why does the government/school deny the individual the right to defend himeself? I suppose the answer would be that it is in the overall public interest (if it is shown that more deaths would result). But, the argument on principle is somewhat compelling to me, even if I haven't made up my mind.

Dr. Dewey Cornell: My principal is that we have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. All of this is endangered more than it is protected if millions of people are carrying firearms. Look at other countries around the world. How many have applied the principal of no gun regulation? Let me emphasize that guns are not the sole problem, and regulated access to guns is feasible and still protects our constitutional rights.


Washington, D.C.: You seemed to touch on the problem, at least I think you were headed in that direction. I have often thought and lectured that the systemic problem is violence in our meada and now in games. Our kids are raised and inoculated to think that violence is OK

Dr. Dewey Cornell: All of these issue are more complicated than a few sentences can describe. In my book School Violence Fears Versus Facts I spend a chapter summarizing hundreds of studies of the impact of media violence on kids. We cannot resolve these questions philosophically or based on our subjective hunches. There is a lot of solid, reputable research that addresses these issues and the accumulated body of evidence has given us some solid conclusions.


Ohio: I am aware there is profiling of typical people with violence tendencies. Details of how this is done is not something I know.

But if we can teach dogs to find firearms, explosives,drugs, bodies, etc. Maybe some intelligent soul could discover how to teach them to single out someone who was on the verge of a deadly event like this. It is worth pursuing, I hope someone does. Possibly a human emits a chemical of rage?

Dr. Dewey Cornell: The FBI and Secret Service both studied the possibility of developing profiles of school shooters and both concluded that it was not feasible or scientifically possible to have a PROFILE. However, both groups recommended threat assessment. Threat assessment involves investigating ONLY those individuals who have communicated or engaged in some kind of threat behavior. This is not profiling, but is a response to a behavior that indicates potential violence. Threat assessment is a widely accepted practice in law enforcement and has been encouraged for schools. We have spent the past 5 years training schools in threat assessment, as have others. Unfortunately, there is no federal funding for it and schools are forced to choose too often between prevention, security, and academics.


Whitefish, Mont.: Precisely what gun control measures would have prevented this disaster?


If concealed weapons were allowed on campus as they are statewide, would that have made a difference? I recall a shooting a couple of years ago brought to a halt by a student who recovered his 45 from his car and stood down the killer.

Dr. Dewey Cornell: You can always find a rare case to support almost any position. The question must be, what if we look at a large sample of cases; what trends emerge? Here the evidence is strongly in supporting of regulating handguns. Communities and countries where there are more handguns have more violent crime. It is more complicated than just a simple correlation, but the bottom line is that we are not safer as a society by having more guns around, Unfortunately this is such an emotional and political issue, we are not able to make much progress. There is even lobbying that prevents the federal government from doing research on gun ownership and violence that would help us understand the problem.


Washington, D.C.: I agree that arming ourselves even more is not the answer. I have felt for a long time that if you enact laws banning guns, you will begin to see a reduction in gun violence not right away, but 5, 10, 15 years down the road. Not all gun violence will be eliminated, but comparatively speaking, a LOT will.

Dr. Dewey Cornell: We don't have to go so far as completely banning guns. We still have a constitutional issue. But we can regulate guns in ways similar to how we regular automobiles without losing our basic right to own and drive cars. Pick almost any modern country in the world and you will find handgun regulation and much lower rates of violence. Again, the issue is more complicated and there are other factors than just guns in understanding violent crime, but guns are a critical factor.


Granger, Ind.: Thank you for your time. How likely is it that the Virginia Tech murders will inspire, if that is the word, copy-cat behaviors elsewhere?

Dr. Dewey Cornell: Unfortunately, it is possible that there will be copy cat effects. There will be false threats and pranks, expressions of anger, and perhaps, even an actual attempt at violence. I hope and pray this will not happen, but we have seen copycat effects in the past. Most of the copycats are false threats, but we have to take them seriously because one of them might be real. This creates a tremendous dilemma for school authorities and communities n general.


McLean, Va.: In response to the reader who questioned whether someone carrying a gun at the VT murder scene could have stopped Cho from continuing with his carnage, you suggested that that was an unrealistic scenario. You also implied that the reader had been watching too much TV. But a very similar scenario unfoled at a high school in Mississippi in 1997. When a teenager opened fire at the school, the principal, Joel Myrick, fetched a gun from his truck and held the shooter at gun point until Police arrived. The principal's decision to bring that gun into the school, though it violated the Federal Gun Free School Zones Act (18 US Code sect. 922(q)(1)(A)), undoubtedly saved lives. It's irrational to suggest that it could have done more harm than good for one of the students or faculty members at the VT murder scene to have been armed. How much worse could it have been?

Dr. Dewey Cornell: There are always atypical situations and I could imagine someone coming to the rescue at Va Tech. That is not my point. My point is that on a large scale, such a policy would produce more fatalities than it save. That is plainly the case in the U.S. now where we have the most widespread availability of guns the world has ever seen and a tremendous homicide rate.

_______________________ This concludes our discussion today with Dr. Cornell. Thank you for joining us.


Dr. Dewey Cornell: I need to go for now. It has been great talking with everyone. I know there is more to be said, but we covered a lot of ground. Our website has more information :


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