School Violence Prevention: The Importance of Proactive School Leaders
By: Sara Garrido, Psy.D and John Nicoletti, Ph.D., ABPP
When school violence became a more serious consideration for schools following the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, many schools responded by increasing their security, employing more security officers and installing more cameras. Another common trend was the use of “zero-tolerance” policies, meaning a student was automatically expelled for bringing a firearm to school or for making a threat. However, these zero-tolerance policies have since become largely criticized for being ineffective in contributing to school safety. Rather, they lead to a variety of negative outcomes for students and are seen as contributing to disproportionality in disciplinary practices for several groups of students, including minority students and special education students1,2,3. These policies also do not account for the seriousness of the threat, the level of risk, and they failed to focus on preventative factors4. Additionally, merely focusing on security measures or rewriting policy does not take into consideration the importance of psychological “buy-in” from both staff and students. It is essential for prevention strategies to account for both physical and psychological elements. That is, the use of security personnel, key-card access, identification badges, and locked doors (physical) but also ensuring that all school personnel are actively participating in maintaining a safe school by wearing their badges, ensuring doors remain locked, and reporting behavioral concerns or threats to the proper administrators for immediate intervention (psychological). The student “code of silence” is seen as a strong psychological factor leading to decreased reporting. While students, and even parents and teachers for that matter, may recognize a concerning behavior, they often minimize it saying, “he’s just having a bad day” or “she was just upset” and do nothing with the information they have. People are often more worried about how people will view them for reporting a concern than with the potential consequences for not reporting. This is related to the bystander effect which has shown that when a behavior occurs in a large group a) people assume that someone else will report the behavior if it’s really that concerning and b) no one wants to act differently than the group therefore they will react first to what everyone else appears to be doing. If not one else is expressing concern, the assumption becomes that the behavior must not really be concerning after all. Members of the school community should be provided information about the potentially devastating consequences of under-reporting and encouraged to report any concerns, even if they do so anonymously.
The authors have responded to a number of school violence incidents and have worked with districts across the county to develop violence prevention programming. They, along with other school safety experts, routinely focus on the following recommendations related to prevention efforts:
1. Development of a district level school safety team also referred to as a threat assessment team. The responsibilities of this team include:
a) Serving as a Vortex for all reports of behavioral concerns or threats to ensure all potentially relevant data pertaining to a potential risk is being reviewed through one acting body with specialized knowledge of behavioral assessment and intervention when assessing an individual’s level of threat.
b) Providing timely and appropriate interventions and countermeasures following an incident.
c) Assisting in returning students to the school environment following a threat assessment once they are deemed to no longer represent a threat.
d) Coordinating services for the student if a threat is determined to be credible.
2. All members of the school community should receive specialized training in school violence prevention to include:
a) General overview of both behavioral and psychological aspects of disruption and risk factors that a school could face.
b) Training for school administrators, staff, and teachers that would enable them to better detect, report, and confront concerning behaviors.
c) Identifying what behaviors should immediately be reported to the Vortex and how to document these concerns appropriately.
d) Developing, implementing, and evaluating countermeasures/intervention strategies.
3. Collaboration between mental health support staff, administrative, and disciplinary staff is also essential as it provides integrated efforts from professionals with differing expertise.
4. Schools should also consult with school safety experts to conduct routine audits of their threat assessment process and documentation procedures to ensure consistency and effectiveness of their practices.
Effective school leaders must be proactive in their approach to preventing school violence. Too often, schools have had to acknowledge critical deficits in their violence prevention efforts after a tragedy has occurred. School leaders are encouraged to consult with subject matter experts who are able to work with a district’s current threat assessment team or help to establish one, review current policies and procedures related to violence prevention, and make recommendations for improvements related to both physical and psychological security efforts.
1. American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force. (2008, December). Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools? American Psychologist, 63(9), 852-862.
2. Skiba, R. (2010). Zero tolerance and alternative discipline strategies. In A. Cantor, L. Paige & S. Shaw (Eds.), Helping Children and Home and School III (pp. S4H35-1 – 3). Bethesda, MD; National Association of School Psychologists.
3. Skiba, R. & Rausch, K. (2006). School disciplinary systems: Alternatives to suspension and expulsion. In G.G. Bear & K.M. Minke (Eds.), Children’s needs III: Development, prevention and intervention (pp. 87-107). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
4. Cornell, D. and Sheras, P. (2006 ). Guidelines for responding to student threats of violence. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.