Crystal Shin

Prevention v. Punishment: Threat Assessment, School Suspensions, and Racial Disparities

CO-AUTHORS Dewey Cornell
Legal Aid Justice Center & University of Virginia Curry School of Education


Racial disparities in school discipline today are troubling. Nationally, nearly one third of black male high school and middle school students undergo suspension, while only one in ten white males are suspended. In Virginia, black males are suspended at approximately twice the rate of white males in elementary, middle, and high schools. Black females are suspended at more than twice the rate of white females. There are racial disparities even when controlling for a variety of other factors, such as poverty and delinquency. Because suspension is linked to school dropout and delinquency, reducing disparities in suspension rates could help reduce school dropout and delinquency rates for all students, but especially for black males.

This report presents new evidence that the implementation of Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines (VSTAG) in Virginia public schools is associated with marked reductions in both short-term and long-term school suspensions. Furthermore, use of VSTAG is associated with reductions in the racial disparity in long-term suspensions. Schools using VSTAG have substantially lower rates of school suspensions, especially among black males, who tend to have the highest suspension rates. In 2013, Virginia became the first state in the country to mandate the formation of threat assessment teams in all its schools. In light of this new data, it is important for schools to take this mandate seriously. In order to reap the benefits of threat assessment, however, it must be carefully implemented and balanced with student rights, all with the goal of improving school safety and climate for everyone. In addition to the seven recommendations found at the end of this report discussing ways for schools and communities to implement threat assessment safely and fairly, we also make the following policy recommendations:

1. The Virginia General Assembly should ensure that sufficient funding is available to provide school employees and law enforcement employees assigned to work in schools training in threat assessment, as well as other interventions that can help reduce suspension rates and improve student behavior.

2. The Virginia Department of Education and The Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services should draft a model memorandum of understanding between schools and law enforcement for implementing threat assessment procedures and related efforts to maintain school safety.

3. The Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice should collect data on school-based arrests, referrals to law enforcement by schools or school resource officers, and filing of delinquency petitions or criminal complaints based on conduct occurring at school.

4. The General Assembly should require that schools ensure that students who are suspended or expelled continue to make academic progress during periods of disciplinary removal.


Dewey Cornell, Crystal Shin & Angela A. Ciolfi, Prevention v. Punishment: Threat Assessment, School Suspensions, and Racial Disparities, Legal Aid Justice Center & University of Virginia Curry School of Education (2013).

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