Dewey Cornell ’78
PREVENTING VIOLENCE BEFORE IT BEGINS
When forensic psychologist Dewey Cornell ’78 began his graduate studies, he had only met one other clinical psychologist. That was Richard Honey, a professor and Cornell’s mentor at Transylvania.
“I basically made my career decision based on his influence,” Cornell said. “He had a great impact on me.”
Looking back, Cornell sees choosing a field of study based on his experiences with one person as somewhat of a gamble, but it turned out to be a good one. A philosophy and psychology major at Transy, Cornell earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Michigan and found that conducting forensic evaluations at a state hospital after graduate school sparked his interest in legal issues.
Cornell now holds the Curry Memorial chair in education at the University of Virginia and is the director of The Youth Violence Project, which began in 1993 as an effort to help schools deal with juvenile crime and violence.
Over the past 15 years, Cornell and his graduate students have undertaken a series of research and training projects to address problems that range from school shootings to bullying, gangs, and student suicide. He has testified as both a defense and prosecution expert in numerous criminal proceedings, including the 1997 school shooting in Paducah, Ky., and the 2002 Washington, D.C., sniper shootings.
The challenge for any forensic psychologist, Cornell said, is to translate scientific knowledge into facts that the courts can rely upon.
“The legal system is intensely adversarial and partisan, and assumes that the truth will emerge from conflict between rival points of view,” he said. “Many mental health professionals steer clear of forensic issues because of this fundamental problem.”
But Cornell finds it rewarding when his research and opinions have an impact on a legal matter, and despite a widespread fear of campus violence, Cornell’s findings support the idea that schools are not dangerous places.
“There is a misconception that juvenile violence is on the rise, when the opposite is true since its peak in the early 1990s,” Cornell said. “The media has tremendous impact on our perceptions of violence. Although it is important that the media inform us and draw attention to pressing social problems and needs, all too often media attention generates an exaggerated view of reality.”
According to Cornell, media coverage of violence not only engenders unrealistic fears in the general public, it can stimulate copycat behavior, as we saw in reaction to the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings. This copycat effect creates short-term trends that reinforce the perception of danger.
Cornell’s book School Violence: Fears Versus Facts, published in 2006, features numerous case studies that identify 17 myths and misconceptions about youth violence, such as the notion that get-tough policies will deter youth from delinquency.
“Zero tolerance in schools and policies to send juveniles to adult court backfire and increase juvenile crime rather than reduce it,” he said.
Focusing on prevention strategies rather than crisis response, Cornell is at work on projects to make bullying prevention more effective, to demonstrate the effectiveness of threat assessment teams in primary and secondary schools, and to establish procedures for college threat assessment.
After the Columbine shootings, there was a widespread demand for a checklist of characteristics that could be used to identify the next shooter, but Cornell contends that there is no single profile of the juvenile offender.
“Having worked with hundreds of people who have committed severe acts of violence, I have learned that most of these individuals, even those who murdered someone, are surprisingly normal and not fundamentally evil or crazy,” he said.
However, in almost every case, the violent students communicated their intentions well in advance of the attack.
In May 2007, Cornell testified before the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor about student threat assessment—an effective, systematic response to threats that involves identifying a threat, evaluating how serious it is, and taking action to prevent it from being carried out.
“Prevention is not something that you do when there is a gunman in the parking lot,” he said. “Prevention has to start with the conflicts and problems that occur months or years before the shooting starts.”
Cornell points to a substantial body of scientific research outlining what works in terms of violence prevention—methods like problem-oriented, community policing; teaching young people how to resolve conflicts; linking young people with mentors; and providing constructive after-school activities.
Juvenile violence is a heavy topic, and Cornell admits his chosen field can be consuming, but at the end of the day, his work makes him more appreciative of things he might otherwise take for granted.
“It’s a tremendous relief to spend time with my family,” he said.
He and his wife, Nancy, have three daughters, one in high school and two in college. Of his own college experience, Cornell said things he learned and read and debated with his Transy professors still inform his lectures and writings 30 years later.
“I have been reviewing applicants for graduate school for 22 years,” he said, “and even though we have candidates from the top institutions in the country, few have had the breadth and depth of coursework that I experienced at Transy.”