Adolescent Threats and Violence: An Intriguing Difference

Published date01 July 2021
Date01 July 2021
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2021, Vol. 48, No. 7, July 2021, 923 –942.
Article reuse guidelines:
© 2021 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
An Intriguing Difference
Children’s Health Queensland
Relatively little is known about young people who engage in targeted acts of violence. In this study, we explored a sample
of young people referred to a youth forensic mental health service for a risk assessment of general violence risk, targeted
violence risk, or both general and targeted violence risk. Exploratory comparisons were made across mental health issues and
criminogenic risk factors, and results indicated that young people referred for a threat-only assessment were around 20 times
more likely to have a depressive mood disorder than young people referred for a violence-only assessment. Furthermore,
young people referred for a threat assessment had lower rates of physical abuse, family mental health issues, and prior offend-
ing. These results indicate that young people referred for an assessment of targeted violence risk may be distinguished from
young people referred for general violence risk, which has important implications for their assessment and treatment.
Keywords: violence risk assessment; juvenile offenders; risk assessment; juvenile delinquency; risk factors
International estimates suggest adolescents and young adults have the highest homicide
rates across all age groups (Krug et al., 2002). At the extreme, adolescents have engaged
in mass murder (Vossekuil et al., 2004) and familicide (Viñas-Racionero et al., 2016). In a
majority of mass targeted attacks, bystanders were aware of the young person’s plans prior
to the commission of the offense (Pollack et al., 2008), which suggests an opportunity for
AUTHORS’ NOTE: The authors would like to acknowledge the support of Dr. Anne Bernard, Head of
Biostatistics with QFAB Bioinformatics for her statistical advice and support for this manuscript. This research
does not necessarily reflect the views of Children’s Health Queensland. Correspondence concerning this article
should be addressed to Chelsea L. Leach, Forensic Child and Youth Mental Health Service, Children’s Health
Queensland, P.O. Box 5492, West End, Brisbane, Queensland 4101, Australia; e-mail: Chelsea.leach@health.
983854CJBXXX10.1177/0093854820983854Criminal Justice and BehaviorLeach et al. / Short Title
early intervention. Yet, threats of violence are not uncommon among adolescent popula-
tions (Nekvasil & Cornell, 2012); therefore, there is a pressing need to differentiate between
young people making an idle threat and those who pose a real risk of targeted violence.
There is a wealth of research focused on violence risk with young people (Olver et al.,
2009). This research has identified factors that have a causal impact on offending (Farrington,
1998), predict future offending (Borum et al., 2006; Corrado et al., 2004; Onifade et al.,
2008), and reduce violence risk (Limbos et al., 2007). From these studies, risk assessment
protocols have been developed, which utilize group recidivism base rates to predict general
risk of violence recidivism. However, these protocols are not designed to identify or prevent
risk of specific targeted violence, such as mass attacks or familicide. In fact, the frequently
used Structured Assessment of Violence Risk in Youth (SAVRY) cautions users against
applying the tool to assess targeted violence risk (Borum et al., 2006).
Threat assessment research is a relatively new field when compared with general violence
risk. In contrast to assessing general violence risk, a threat assessment is focused on explor-
ing behavioral patterns to assist “identifying, assessing, and managing the [specific] threat
that certain persons may pose” (Vossekuil et al., 2004, p. 5). Research interest in this area
emerged following a series of campus-based attacks in the United States (Vossekuil et al.,
2004), when the Secret Service undertook a retrospective study of 37 school-based lethal
attacks that occurred in the United States between 1974 and 2000. There were 41 individual
attackers identified yet the authors found no single profile that indicated the type of young
person who may commit such violence. Although limited by a small sample size, they
found that 69% of the attackers had no history of violence prior to the attack, 98% had
recently suffered a loss or failure, 71% were victimized by peers, and in 81% of cases, a
bystander was aware of the plans prior to the attack. Furthermore, while only one third of
attackers had prior contact with a mental health service, 78% had a history of suicidal think-
ing or attempts and 61% “had a documented history of feeling extremely depressed or
desperate” (Vossekuil et al., 2004, p. 22).
Young people who pose a specific threat may be identified in a multitude of ways. Most
commonly, young people make a threat directly to victims or discuss plans for violence with
their peers (Nekvasil & Cornell, 2012; Pollack et al., 2008). Despite this, threats of violence
are not rare, although infrequently enacted (Nekvasil & Cornell, 2012; Reid Meloy et al.,
2014). Nekvasil and Cornell (2012) undertook a study with 3,756 high school students
whereby 12% reported experiencing a threat in the past 30 days, but only 3% deemed the
threat was serious, and only 1% reported the threat was carried out, with a further 1% con-
cerned that it may still occur. This highlights that making a threat does not necessarily
indicate a young person actually poses a threat.
There may be several motives for making a threat. Warren et al. (2014) suggested that
any threat may fall into one of five categories depending on the individual’s motivation and
commitment to carrying out the action. The first category they termed screamers—who use
threats as a cathartic expression of emotions. This may be common in the community where
the person making the threat has no intent or commitment to carrying out the action.
Conversely, shockers use threats to induce fear and/or for attention, but still lack any real
commitment to carry out the action. With consideration of the Nekvasil and Cornell (2012)
study, it may be suggested that these are the most common threatener groups among young
people, given that three quarters of young people that reported being threatened did not
believe the threatener was serious. A third category is labeled schemers who, like shockers,

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