Youths Making School Threats Have Significant Psychiatric and Experiential Similarities

Vignesh Subramanian ’24

Figure 1: The sign outside of Sandy Hook Elementary School, where a school shooting took the lives of 20 children and 6 adults on December 14, 2012.

Amid spikes in school threats, school shootings, and the proportion of K-12 students requiring emergency psychiatric interventions and referrals at schools in the United States, attention is increasingly being focused on the characteristics and needs of youths predisposed to violence or mental health crisis. Decades of research have repeatedly found that students who threaten or engage in attacks against people and campuses are far more often predatorily, rather than affectively, violent – signaling actions of a goal-oriented and premeditated nature. These youths also frequently display depressive symptoms or antisocial behaviors, despite rarely being clinically psychotic and often lacking a known history of struggling with mental health prior to their violent acts.

Researchers led by Dr. Weisbrot of Stony Brook University aimed to build on this body of research and better understand what psychological motivations drive students to threaten harm to others. The researchers first compiled the psychiatric threat assessment evaluations of 157 K-12 students (of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and originating from nineteen Long Island school districts) referred by their schools to Stony Brook’s Child & Adolescent Outpatient Clinic over a roughly twenty-year span. These students were categorized by their disciplinary history, receipt of support services at school, and self-reported life experiences per their school records, as well as their diagnosis and treatment histories per their clinical records. Finally, statistical analyses were performed to identify similarities between referred students who had made what the study defined as a threat (qualifying as either a verbal or nonverbal expression of intent to do violent harm to someone or something). 

The researchers found that the vast majority of youths referred had at least one psychiatric diagnosis — whether for a learning disability, developmental disorder (like autism spectrum disorders and ADHD), depression, anxiety, or another condition — and a history of significant traumatic life experiences. The researchers also found that roughly half of the referred students had specifically experienced traumatic family events, had been bullied, were receiving special education services from school, or were prescribed psychiatric medication. The study itself was significant in that it is among the first to profile youths who make threats rather than simply those who violently and visibly act out, underscoring the role that precipitating conflicts, losses, and other events could play in flagging said youths as in need of early intervention. 

Works Cited:
[1] D. Weisbrot, et al., Psychiatric Characteristics of Students Who Make Threats Toward Others at School. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (2023). doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2022.12.016

[2] Image retrieved from:


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