ERIC Identifier: ED446344
Publication Date: 2000-09-00
Author: Lumsden, Linda
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Educational Management Eugene OR.
Profiling Students for Violence. ERIC Digest Number 139.
In the aftermath of the flurry of shootings and other incidents of violence
that have erupted in our nation's schools during the past few years, teachers
and administrators are desperately seeking reliable ways of foretelling which
students may be at serious risk of crossing over the invisible line into
violence. Although there is no crystal ball that can predict with certainty an
individual student's future potential for violence, school officials are
intensifying their efforts to identify potentially dangerous students.
Student profiling is one controversial approach to violence prevention that
many administrators are contemplating in their quest to keep schools safe. While
some perceive profiling as a promising tool, others view it as an ill-conceived
response to the issue of school violence that will do more harm than good. This
Digest defines profiling, discusses issues raised by profiling students for
violence, and describes additional strategies for reducing the risk of violence
WHAT IS STUDENT PROFILING?
Student profiling is a term used
to refer to a process in which checklists of behaviors and personal
characteristics associated with youth who have perpetrated violence are used to
try to gauge an individual student's potential for acting out in a violent
manner in the future. If a large number of items on the list appear to be true
for a particular student, the assumption is that the student is at higher risk
for committing violence.
As Fey and others (2000) state, "In inductive profiling, the profiler looks
for patterns in the available data and infers possible outcomes-in the case of
schools, possible acts of violence committed by students who fit the pattern.
The strategy is used to predict behavior and apprehend potential offenders
before they commit a crime" [emphasis in original].
SHOULD SCHOOL PERSONNEL ATTEMPT TO PREDICT STUDENT
One central issue surrounding the prospect of profiling students
for violence is whether school personnel should attempt to make predictions
about an individual student's propensity for future violence, a task that has
been elusive even for trained mental-health professionals.
U.S. Education Secretary Richard W. Riley opposes use of behavioral profiling
by schools to identify potentially violent students. Riley contends a better way
to enhance school safety is for teachers and administrators to create a caring
environment that promotes a sense of connection among students and between
students and staff (Kenneth Cooper 2000). Riley also points out that research
conducted at the University of Oregon's Institute on Violence and Destructive
Behavior indicates that when schools promote compassion, discipline, and
peaceful conflict resolution they can prevent 80 percent of violent behavior
Joe Morrison, school director at North Allegheny, one of Pittsburgh's largest
suburban school districts, states, "This is a business we shouldn't even
consider getting into" (McKay 1999). He believes students could be unfairly
labeled and information placed in their school files could haunt them for the
remainder of their educational careers (McKay).
The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective (O'Toole 2000), a report
recently released by the FBI, provides a model for assessing the seriousness of
threats and offering intervention. The report states that "at this time, there
is no research that has identified traits and characteristics that can reliably
distinguish school shooters from other students" and asserts that developing a
profile "may sound like a reasonable preventive measure, but in practice trying
to draw up a catalogue or 'checklist' of warning signs to detect a potential
school shooter can be shortsighted, even dangerous."
However, Mary Leiker, superintendent of the Kentwood, Michigan, Public
Schools, which has implemented a program to assess students for violence, has a
different perspective. She notes, "Profiling isn't something most of us think
we're going to do. But.... the fact is, I have to live with myself. If I, as a
superintendent and educator, left one stone unturned in trying to keep children
safe, if I lost one child because of it, I don't know how I would cope" (LaFee
Many of those in support of profiling students for violence are convinced
keeping schools safe is so critical that measures perceived as extreme are
warranted. Some administrators are concerned that if violence visits their
school they could confront legal action-as well as tremendous personal guilt-if
they haven't done everything in their power to try to create a safe school
environment. However, electing to engage in profiling also raises an array of
legal and ethical issues for schools.
IS PROFILING RELIABLE?
A critical issue to be examined is
whether profiling students for violence is a reliable process. That is, can
profiling accurately predict a student's potential for perpetrating violence?
According to Lois Flaherty, a child and adolescent psychologist and
spokesperson for the American Psychological Association, the verdict is still
out. She states, "I don't think we have any data to show whether it is effective
or not. And the lack of research is just one of many issues here" (LaFee).
FBI agent Terry Royster argues that teachers, who observe and interact with
students on a daily basis over time, are more reliable sources of information
about which students are most troubled and in need of help. He says, "What I
stress is to really forget the school shooter behavioral assessments and go into
the classroom. Every teacher can tell you who's likely to cause trouble"
Another complicating factor is that there is not a single list of behavioral
"warning signs" about which consensus exists among professionals. Rather, there
are several lists, each developed by different educational and mental-health
related organizations. When items on one list of "warning signs" are compared
with items on another, there is often only low to moderate overlap (Fey and
In other words, even the issue of what variables may be indicators of future
violence remains at least partially unresolved. Therefore, an initial challenge
facing schools that opt to engage in student profiling is deciding which list of
guidelines to use as the standard against which to assess youth.
Also, some warning-sign lists, like the one included in the Department of
Education publication Early Warning, Timely Response (1998), were never intended
to be used for profiling purposes. However, despite a strong caution to this
effect contained within the publication itself, in some cases this message has
gone unheeded, which disturbs Kevin Dwyer, one of the authors ("Profiling
Students May Cause More Harm" 1999).
WHAT QUESTIONS AND CONCERNS ARE RAISED BY STUDENT
A decision about profiling should not be made lightly. Its
implications for both students and schools are far-reaching and should be given
One caveat is that although certain behavioral patterns or characteristics
tend to be more prevalent among youth who commit violent acts, many youth may
display these behaviors or characteristics-or fit the "profile"-yet never become
violent. As LaFee states, "Descriptions of moody, angry, confrontational and low
self-esteem can be used to describe almost any teenager at some point."
Fey and others also point out that "school authorities could face legal
action, as well as negative media attention, once a student is wrongfully
identified as being at risk for committing violence."
Another concern is expressed by Hill Walker, codirector of the Institute on
Violence and Destructive Behavior at the University of Oregon, who notes that
efforts to gauge students' propensity for future violence inevitably result in
both false positives and false negatives ("Profiling Students May Cause More
Harm"). Walker believes "the potential of abuse is as great as the potential of
Other issues that remain unresolved are noted by Flattery: "There's the
question of who is doing the identifying of students and the evaluation. What
happens with the results? Will they be used to single kids out for further
stigmatization and isolation? What are the civil liberties concerns?" (LaFee).
Fey and others underscore the fact that "stereotyping, discrimination, and
the wrongful identification of potential perpetrators are ethically unjustified,
even if the intention is to protect children from harm." As they also point out,
implementing profiling alters a school's culture and climate, and "touches at
the very core of what schools should and will look like" (Fey and others).
Another significant issue, raised by Pam Riley, executive director of the
Center for the Prevention of School Violence, is that even if school personnel
are able to accurately identify troubled students through profiling, most don't
know what to do next (LaFee). Should school personnel just attempt to keep a
close eye on the student? Can or should they require students/families to obtain
mental health services? Move the student to an alternative educational
placement? Expel the student?
WHAT OTHER OPTIONS CAN SCHOOLS EMPLOY TO PREVENT
Youth violence is an extremely complex issue, and it will take a
concerted effort by many sectors of society to make headway in addressing the
problem. Fortunately, some promising paths to pursue are at hand.
Elias and colleagues contend that schools can play a major role in preventing
violence by choosing to invest in social and emotional learning as well as
academic learning. They believe the mission of schools must include teaching
students "to engage in thoughtful decision making, understand signs of one's own
and others' feelings, listen accurately, remember what we hear and learn,
communicate effectively, [and] respect differences." Assisting students to
develop competence in such social and emotional skills will not only reduce
interpersonal violence but will also foster a caring and cooperative environment
that supports academic learning.
Engaging in what is sometimes referred to as incident profiling (as opposed
to student profiling) can also aid schools in their quest to reduce violence and
other behavioral incidents (LaFee). Incident profiling entails reviewing
office-referral data to learn such things as the primary reasons students are
sent to the office or suspended, locations in the school building where problems
tend to occur (such as lunch room, hallways), whether incidents are clustered
around certain segments of the school day, and so forth. Office-referral data
are maintained by most schools but rarely reviewed and analyzed. The data can
often reveal trends and shed light on adjustments that are needed in the school
setting (for example, placing more teachers in the hallways to better monitor
the between-class transition time if most incidents in a particular school are
happening during these periods).
Functional assessments are another tool schools can use to address problem
behavior at an individual level rather than a schoolwide level. In a functional
assessment, data concerning factors that may be influencing a particular
student's problematic behavior are collected through direct observation. The
purpose of the assessment is to identify variables that trigger the behavior and
factors that help to maintain it, form hypotheses about the purpose the behavior
is serving for the individual, and ultimately to formulate a behavior-support
plan to teach and promote desired behaviors to replace the problem behavior
(Sprague and others 1998).
Michael Greene, executive director of The Violence Institute, says, "First
and foremost school officials, whether administrators or teachers or whoever,
have to listen to students in a non-judgmental manner. Often, that's all a child
needs-someone to talk to. And that requires only minimal training" (LaFee).
In a time when communities across the country are clamoring for evidence that
school leaders are doing everything in their power to prevent further episodes
of school violence, administrators must carefully consider the potential risks
as well as the possible benefits associated with anything being touted as a tool
to make schools safer.
Cooper, Kenneth J. "Riley Rejects Schools'
Profiling of Potentially Violent Students. The Washington Post Online (April 29,
Dwyer, Kevin; David Osher; and Cynthia Warger. Early Warning, Timely
Response: A Guide to Safe Schools. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education,
Elias, Maurice J.; Linda Lantieri, Janet Patti; Herbert J. Walberg; and
Joseph E. Zins. "Violence Is Preventable." Education Week (May 19, 1999): 45-49.
Fey, Gil-Patricia; J. Ron Nelson; and Maura L. Roberts. "The Perils of
Profiling." The School Administrator 57, 2 (February 2000): 12-16.
Goodman, Steven. " The Power of Listening." Education Week (December 1,
LaFee, Scott. "Profiling Bad Apples." The School Administrator 57, 2
(February 2000): 6-11.
McKay, Gretchen. "Can 'Profiling' Prevent School Violence?" Pittsburgh
Post-Gazette (October 27, 1999). (Online Post-Gazette)
O'Toole, Mary Ellen. The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective.
Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Investigation, September 2000. 46 pages.
"Profiling Students May Cause More Harm." School Violence Alert 5, 10
(October 1999) 1, 4.
Sprague, Jeffrey; George Sugai; and Hill Walker. "Antisocial Behavior in
Schools." In Handbook of Child Behavior Therapy, edited by Watson and Gresham.
New York: Plenum Press, 1998.
Walker, Hill M., and Janet Eaton-Walker. "Key Questions About School Safety:
Critical Issues and Recommended Solutions." NASSP Bulletin 84, 614 (March 2000):
Wise, B.J. "Vaccinating Children Against Violence." Principal 79, 1
(September 1999): 14-15, 17, 20. -----