There are sound reasons why law enforcement, school administrators, students and parents are concerned about the potential for violence in schools. Nearly half of all school and district leaders (44 percent) say they are receiving more threats of violence by students than they have previously.

Just looking at the numbers of violent threats does not tell the whole story, however. A new study by a team of Stony Brook child psychiatry experts sheds light on the mental health and personality characteristics of those students who threaten violence in schools.

Their findings are significant. The research is based on two decades of school threat assessment evaluations done by Deborah Weisbrot, a Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, and her colleagues.

When researchers examined threatening students’ records, actions and school history, they found striking similarities among the children who made dangerous threats.

The evaluations included 157 kids with a mean age of 13.4 years who were referred by school staff to Stony Brook’s Child and Adolescent Outpatient Clinic, now called the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Outpatient Clinic at Stony Brook Medicine.

What exactly does it mean when a student makes a “threat”? The team defined a threat as an expression of intent to do harm or act out violently against someone or something.

Threats were categorized as either verbal or non-verbal. An example of a non-verbal threat might be violent drawings. The study also included students who were involved in bringing a weapon to school.

It’s one thing to identify the threat as previous studies have done, but it’s another to dig deeper and try to find out what is going on within the student. “Evaluations of youths who make threats need to go beyond simply assessing the threat itself and should include identifying underlying psychiatric problems,” Weisbrot explained in a statement. “And psychiatric evaluations can lead to revelations about psychiatric diagnoses and crucial treatment and educational recommendations.”

When researchers examined threatening students’ records, actions and school history, they found striking similarities among the children who made dangerous threats. These included behavioral difficulties, learning disorders and previous traumas. For example:

  • Most youths had one or more psychiatric diagnosis such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity, expressive, anxiety and autism spectrum disorders. Learning disorders were also common.
  • Nearly 53 percent were receiving special education services.
  • Half of the students referred for threatening behavior had a history of psychiatric medication treatment; 37 percent had received psychotherapeutic interventions.
  • Nearly 90 percent reported significant traumatic life experiences, with 52 percent having experienced traumatic family events.
  • 43 percent had a history of being bullied.
  • 80 percent of the children had made verbal threats.
  • 29 percent had brought a weapon to school.

Looking at the reasons behind kids’ violent tendencies is more likely to suggest solutions than simply branding children as threats, an ultimately more valuable approach. “…[P]sychiatric threat assessment is much more than a risk assessment,” the authors believe “it is also an intervention providing essential psychiatric and educational treatment recommendations that could change the course of students’ educational career and emotional wellbeing.”

What should you do if you have concerns about a threat made by a student? The National Association of School Psychologists says that it’s important to act quickly. Steps to take can include contacting the appropriate school administrator, the school crisis team leader, the school-employed mental health professional or local law enforcement immediately.

The study is published in Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.