Preventing student harm to self and others in remote learning

Even in a remote environment, teachers remain the most likely adults to spot signs of bullying, abuse, anxiety, depression, and disengagement among students
By: and | January 8, 2021
Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash.
Dewey Cornell, left, is a professor at the University of Virginia. Scott Poland is a professor at Nova Southeastern University.

Dewey Cornell, left, is a professor at the University of Virginia. Scott Poland is a professor at Nova Southeastern University.

For years, schools have implemented policies and procedures designed to support students who show signs of harming themselves or others. The current challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting remote-learning environments, however, have left many school administrators and teachers wondering how to respond when threats of harm come to their attention. This uncertainty can exacerbate the challenge schools face of either over- or under-reacting to incidents, leaving the door open to parental disputes, liability and potential tragedy.

Even in a remote-learning environment, teachers remain the most likely adults to spot signs of bullying, abuse, anxiety, depression and disengagement among students. Their role is especially critical now: This year has seen an uptick in domestic violence, isolation and economic insecurity among many families, and such stressors are leaving children at risk of injury, self-harm, peer aggression, and suicidal ideation.

Never has it been more critical to understand how our youth are doing. In a recent webinar we held in conjunction with District Administration, we discussed the challenges involved with recognizing and mitigating student threats of harm in this era of remote learning. Here are our thoughts.

The framework

When incidents of harm do occur or when a student expresses concern for a peer, it is critical to conduct a behavioral threat assessment. This can include a behavioral threat assessment model like the Comprehensive Student Threat Assessment Guidelines (CSTAG) or an evidence-based suicide assessment like the Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale. Both can be used in tandem, if applicable.

Although some information must be collected remotely, the principles and conceptual framework will remain the same. We want to assess the student’s statements and behavior holistically using multiple sources of information before taking action. We want to understand the when, what, how and why of the student’s behavior and avoid a rigid formula or zero-tolerance approach. And we want to build trusting alliances with students and parents; we want them to understand that we have the common goal of helping the student overcome his or her problems in order to be successful in school and life.

Although a threat assessment protocol differs from a suicide assessment protocol, those conducting the assessments should follow similar best practices. This includes having a single staff member conduct the interview so the student doesn’t feel intimidated. The interviewer should make sure that the student is in a safe and private space. Use video when possible. The interviewer should know where the student’s parent or guardian is and have a means of reaching that person during the assessment.

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Before the remote assessment

Before beginning a remote assessment for threats to self or others, school staff should know the student’s location in case a wellness check is required. They should also have a back-up plan to contact the student if the Internet connection is lost. Schools should notify parents when their child is being assessed and know the parents’ contact information and location. Some possible exceptions to parental notification are when the assessment is being conducted on an emergency basis without time for parental contact or when there is concern that parent notification would endanger the child (for example, the child is suicidal because of parental abuse).

Although there are several suicide assessment and response protocols, all should screen for suicidal thoughts, plans, methods, and intent. The vast majority of suicidal students are not thinking of harming anyone but themselves. However, when there is a history of aggression or when they are angry and blaming others, it is appropriate to ask if they have thought about harming others. Conduct a behavioral threat assessment if appropriate. While conducting a threat assessment, it is appropriate to ask about thoughts of harming self and, if indicated, to include a suicide assessment and response protocol as part of the process.

Assessment outcomes

School authorities should understand that most threatening statements made by students do not pose a serious threat of violence and can be resolved with counseling and clarification. In the small number of serious cases, the threat assessment team will devise a multifaceted safety plan that, depending on the complexity of the case, can involve safety measures, consults with intended targets and parents, counseling and mental health services for the student, possible changes in the student’s educational program, and in appropriate cases, law enforcement. Research with the CSTAG model has found that about 75% of cases can be resolved as non-serious, or transient, threats. Across all cases, 85% of students can continue learning in their original school. Only about 1% are expelled, and only about 1% are arrested.

If a suicide screening indicates a serious risk of self-harm, the school staff member (likely a school psychologist) conducting the assessment will work with the student to develop a safety plan. The safety plan usually includes ways the student can stay safe (including recognizing warning signs and avoiding triggers), a review of what has helped them stay safe thus far, external safety resources and trusted adults, and internal coping strategies. The school staff member will consult with parents and may advise teachers what they can do according to the circumstances. The student may receive community-based services conducted in coordination with the school.

Students deserve our help

Despite the enormous challenges of the pandemic and resulting remote learning, teachers and staff are key to helping students who may be feeling isolated, experiencing stress at home, or lacking needed supports. Threat assessment and suicide assessment remain important tools that can help identify students in need of these critical support services. We must work to build and enhance our behavioral threat and suicide assessment programs and understand the toll a remote-learning environment may have on students. The right assessment at a critical time can bring understanding and support to a student in distress.

Dewey G. Cornell, Ph.D. is a forensic clinical psychologist and Professor of Education at the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Virginia. He holds the Virgil Ward Chair in Education. Dr. Cornell is Director of the UVA Virginia Youth Violence Project and a faculty associate of Institute of Law, Psychiatry, and Public Policy. He is the principal author of the Comprehensive Student Threat Assessment Guidelines (CSTAG), which is an evidence-based model of school threat assessment used in schools across the United States and Canada.

Dr. Scott Poland is a Professor at the College of Psychology and is Director of the Suicide and Violence Prevention Office at Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Dr. Poland is a licensed psychologist internationally recognized as an expert on youth suicide, self-injury, school violence, school safety, threat assessment and school crisis. Dr. Poland is a past President of the National Association of School Psychologists, and past Prevention Division Director of the American Association of Suicidology.