The violence that occurs in U.S. neighborhoods and communities has found
its way inside the schoolhouse doors. While we can take solace in knowing
that schools are among the safest places for young people, school
officials, administrators and teachers must do more to prevent violence, as
it is a preventable danger to children. Education and training is the first
step in preventing school violence, and a safe school plan is among the
many solutions that will assist in curbing this national epidemic.
These plans address behavioral and property protection, and foster an
environment where children can learn and teachers can educate without fear.
As with all violence prevention initiatives, the best plans involve the
entire school and the community at large.
Early Warning Signs of Violence
There are many early warning signs in most cases of violence, behavioral or
emotional signs that, when taken in context, can signal a troubled child.
Such signs may not indicate a serious problem or may not necessarily mean
that a child is prone to violence toward themselves or others. However,
they can provide school officials with the cue to check on the child
further and address his or her needs. Early warning signs can also allow
for school officials to assist a child before a situation becomes
Teachers, administrators and other school staff members are not always
trained to professionally analyze a child’s feelings and motives. Yet,
these individuals are on the front lines when it comes to observing
troublesome behavior and making referrals to the appropriate.
professionals. Therefore, it is not a surprise that effective schools take
special care in training their entire staff on understanding and
identifying early warning signs of violent behavior.
Principles for Identifying the Early Warning Signs of School Violence
Educators and families can increase their ability to recognize early
warning signs by establishing a close, caring and supportive relationship
with students. This involves getting to know them well enough to be aware
of their needs, feelings, attitudes and behavioral patterns. Then,
educators and parents can review school records for patterns of behavior or
sudden changes in behavior that may lead to violence. They can also ensure
that early warning signs are not misinterpreted. The U.S. Department of
Education recommends the following when analyzing early warning signs:
Understand violence and aggression within its context. These are
expressions of emotions that may exist within the school, home or larger
social environment only. For those children who are at risk for aggression
and violence, certain environments and situations may set them off, but they may normally be very calm,
- Avoid stereotypes. Be aware of false indications of violence including
race, socio-economic status, cognitive or academic ability or physical
appearance. Such stereotypes can unfairly harm children, especially
when the school community acts upon them.
- View warning signs within a developmental context. Children at
different levels of development have varying social and emotional
capabilities, and may express themselves differently based on that. You
must know what developmentally typical behavior looks like so that
actions are not misinterpreted.
- Understand that children typically exhibit multiple warning signs. Most
children who are troubled and at risk for aggression exhibit more than
one warning sign, repeatedly, and for an increasing intensity over
time. Therefore, it is important not to overreact to single signs,
words or actions.
Indications of Violence
All of the following early warning signs are not sufficient on their own to
predict aggression and violence. In addition, these signs should only serve
to aid and identify children who may need assistance by a professional.
However, school officials should take action when they notice a conjunction
of the following displayed by a child:
Excessive feelings of isolation and being alone
Feelings of rejection
Being a victim of violence
Feelings of being picked on and persecuted
Low school interest and poor academic performance
- Expression of violence in writing and drawings
- Uncontrolled anger
- Patterns of impulsive and chronic hitting, intimidating and bullying
- History of disciplinary problems
Past history of violence and aggressive behavior
Intolerance for differences and prejudicial attitudes
Drug and/or alcohol use
Affiliation with gangs
Inappropriate access to or possession of a firearm
Making serious threats of violence
Unlike early warning signs, imminent warning signs may indicate that a
child is very close to behaving in a way that is potentially dangerous to
themselves and/or others. Imminent warning signs require an immediate
response, and include the following:
Serious physical fighting with peers or family members
Severe destruction of property
Severe rage for seemingly minor reasons
Detailed threats of lethal violence
Possession and/or use of firearms or other weapons
Other self-injurious behaviors or threats of suicide
- A detailed plan to harm others, particularly if the child has a history
of aggression or has attempted to carry out threats in the past
Safe School Plan
Effective schools create a violence prevention and response plan and form a
team that can ensure that it is implemented properly. A sound violence
prevention program reflects the common and unique needs of educators,
students, families and the community that it serves. It also outlines how
the school community (administrators, teachers, parents, students, bus
drivers, support staff, etc.) can be prepared to spot the behavioral and
emotional signs indicating that a child is troubled. The plan should detail
how school and community resources can be used to create safe environments
and to manage responses to incidents ranging from acute threats to violent
An effective plan includes the following:
- Descriptions of the early warning signs of potentially violent behavior
(listed above) and procedures for identifying children who exhibit these
- Descriptions of effective prevention practices to build a foundation for
the program and enhances the effectiveness of its interventions
- Descriptions of intervention strategies that the school community can use
to help troubled children. This includes early interventions and resources
for students with mild to severe behavioral problems or mental health needs
- Compliance with federal, state and local laws, and also supports families
and the local school board
- Training and support initiatives executed on a regular basis
- Assessment tools for analyzing and monitoring the violence prevention
Creating a Prevention and Response Team
Establishing a school-based team to oversee the preparation and
implementation of the prevention and response plan can be very helpful.
This core team should ensure that every member of the larger school
community accepts and adopts the violence prevention and response plan.
Typically the team includes the building administrator, general and special
education teachers, parents and pupil support service representatives
(school psychologist, social worker or counselor).
In addition, crisis response planning can be greatly enhanced with the
presence of a central office administrator, security officer and youth
officer or community police department member. The core team should
coordinate with any school advisory boards that are already in place.
Responding to a Crisis
Crisis response is an important component of a violence prevention and
response plan. Effective schools provide adequate preparation for their
core violence prevention and response team, by not only planning what to do
when violence strikes, but also ensuring that staff and students know how
to behave when violent situations arise.
The first thing to remember is that weapons, bomb threats or explosions,
fights, natural disasters, accidents and suicides call for immediate,
planned action and long-term, post-crisis intervention. Planning for such
contingencies reduces chaos and trauma during the incident. Thus, the plan
must include contingency provisions, including the following:
- Evacuation procedures to protect students and staff from harm. Schools
must identify safe areas where students and staff should go during a
crisis. Drills should be performed regularly so that all individuals in the
school know how to proceed in a violent situation.
- An effective communication system must be established so that individuals
have designated roles and responsibilities to reduce and eliminate
- A process for securing immediate external support from law enforcement
and other relevant community resources.
Crises involving sudden violence in schools are traumatic because they are
generally rare and unexpected. In the wake of such a crisis, members of the school community are asked – and ask
themselves – what could have been done to prevent the incident? Yet, by
being prepared, schools can take solace in knowing that they took actions
to reduce the risk of violence and protect those within their walls.
Source: U.S. Department of Education, Special Education and Rehabilitative