Preventing School Violence: Plans Make it Possible

Despite the fact that schools remain one of the safest places for our children, recent tragic school events, such as the shootings at Virginia Tech, Platte Canyon High School, and the Amish schoolhouse have raised the level of anxiety about the safety of our students at school. And because of incidents like these, approximately 6 percent of students report being afraid of an attack at school (Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2006).

These tragic events beg the question: “What can be done to prevent violent attacks from occurring in our schools?” The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative:Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States, presented by the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education (ED) in 2004, discusses the implications of this question, particularly with regard to student-on-student violence (the most common type of school violence).

The initiative examined 37 incidents of school shootings and attacks that occurred between 1974 and 2000 with particular focus on the attackers’ planning behaviors and communications. The final report indicates that schools are better prepared by using a formal threat assessment process to appraise behavior, rather than relying simply on stated threats or specific student traits that warrant concern. As part of the threat assessment process, the appropriate authorities gather information, evaluate facts, and make a determination whether an identified student poses a threat of violence. From there, the appropriate level of intervention must be made. Detailed information about the development and institutionalization of a formal threat assessment process is available in the Secret Service’s Threat Assessment in Schools Guide available online at
http://www.secretservice.gov/ntac/ssi_guide.pdf.

Targeted School Violence Key Findings

  • Attackers make plans.

  • Attackers talk about their plans.

  • Attackers often do not make direct threats.

  • There is no stereotype or profile.

  • Warning signs are common.

  • Attackers may have difficulty coping with loss or failure.

  • Bullying can be a factor. Attackers have easy access to guns.

  • Attackers are encouraged by others.

  • School staff are most often the first responders.

Conducting threat assessments is important in addressing school violence but is only one component in an overall strategy to create safe schools. A more comprehensive approach involves the establishment of a school climate that offers students safety, respect, and emotional support. This type of environment can help diminish the possibility of targeted violence in schools. Environments where students, teachers, and administrators pay attention to students’ social and emotional needs, as well as their academic needs, will have fewer situations that require formal threat assessments and interventions.

School administrators, teachers, and staff members have the power to positively affect the school climate. For example, educators may take the following steps to promote a healthy and safe school climate:

• Assess the school’s emotional climate using surveys or other tools that ask about behaviors and attitudes related to safety.

• Emphasize the importance of listening in schools. Encourage students to find an adult at the school who will listen and help with problems when necessary.

• Prevent or intervene in cases of bullying by paying attention to warning signs and enforcing a consistent, fair policy that addresses bullying behaviors. Consider using a formal, age-appropriate prevention program.

• Involve all members of the school community in planning, creating, and sustaining a school culture of safety and respect. Encourage open communication between the staff, parents, and community members to foster strong relationships and cooperation.

Prevention of school violence entails comprehensive and ongoing efforts, and an effective initiative includes both a formal threat assessment process as well as the development of a positive school climate. Although the task is neither quick nor easy, schools and communities do have the power to create safer school environments that minimize the risk of violent events.

Complete findings from the Safe School Initiative are available online at
http://www.secretservice.gov/ntac/ssi_final_report.pdf. 

School Safety Centers

In response to youth and school violence, many states have established school safety centers devoted to serving the education community by promoting safety and violence prevention through research, legislation, and policy development. These safety centers were created to provide resources to educators in their home states. Here we are highlighting four as reliable models for any state considering establishing its own school safety center.

Center for the Prevention of School Violence 
North Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency
http://www.ncdjjdp.org/
Established in 1993 by the governor of North Carolina, this center is the primary resource for addressing school violence in the state. The center:
• Provides information and technical assistance to any and all stakeholders involved in safe schools and youth development.
• Operates as a think tank for school violence prevention and policy development.
• Maintains an expansive resource library.
• Conducts workshops and trainings on issues related to school safety such as program development, research, and evaluation.
Kentucky Center for School Safety 
Eastern Kentucky University
http://www.kysafeschools.org 
Established by legislation in 1998, the center serves as a central point for data analysis, research, dissemination, and technical assistance for safe schools in Kentucky. The center:
• Provides a clearinghouse of information and materials on violence prevention.
• Analyzes school safety and discipline data as reported by local districts.
• Evaluates existing school safety programs.
• Provides an annual report to the governor, Kentucky Board of Education, and the Interim Joint Committee on Education on the status of school safety in the state.
• Advises the Kentucky Board of Education on administrative policies and regulations.
Virginia Center for School Safety 
Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services
http://www.dcjs.virginia.gov/vcss 
Established in 2000, the center works to provide Virginia’s students with a safe and secure learning environment. It does this by encouraging partnerships, introducing legislative initiatives, offering training programs, conducting data collection, and evaluating programs. The center:
• Provides training for public school personnel in the effective identification of students who may be at risk for violent behavior and in need of special services or assistance.
• Collects, analyzes, and disseminates Virginia school safety data.
• Provides training for and certification of school resource officers.
Missouri Center for Safe Schools 
University of Missouri–Kansas City

Established in 1995 with a grant from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the center offers resources and facilitates networking between schools across Missouri as they develop effective measures to combat violence and other safety issues. The center:
• Conducts building and district safety reviews including security, staff screening, and compliance with the Missouri Safe Schools Act.
• Provides staff development on safety issues including sexual harassment.
• Provides examples of school emergency management plans and direct assistance to schools that request help.