As school systems and educational institutions continue to return to a sense of normalcy, misbehavior and threats of violence are on the rise.1 Officials should review their school violence prevention plan and crisis response strategy.
“A return to the classroom after more than two years of change can have an impact on students and how they behave,” said Heather Savino, education industry practice lead at The Hartford. “Having a developed plan to help prepare for and respond to an emergency is essential in creating a safe environment for teachers and students.”
In a survey by Ed Week Research Center, nearly half of school officials reported getting more threats of violence by students than they did in the fall of 2019.2 The survey also found that two out of three teachers, principals and district leaders said students are misbehaving more.3
These findings aren’t uncommon. There seems to be a trend of school violence and safety issues ticking upward.
A July 2021 report by the Institute of Education Sciences found certain crime and safety issues became less prevalent at schools throughout the last decade.4 The study showed that in 2019, students ages 12 to 18 experienced over 764,000 criminal victimizations at school – a rate of 30 victimizations per 1,000 students.5
Other types of crime and safety issues remained unchanged or increased in frequency.
For example, there wasn’t a change in students in 2019 who reported being threatened or injured with a weapon or being offered, sold or given an illegal drug.6 Compared to 2009, more students in 2019 reported avoiding a certain area of their school because they were afraid of being attacked.7
How Can Schools Prevent Violence?
As lockdown drills become more common in schools across the U.S., students and parents wonder how safe their school is. Preventing school violence isn’t easy. Although no school is immune to violence, professionals at The Hartford believe recent incidents are a wake-up call.
Beginning with preparedness can give schools a good foundation for safety and preventing school violence. This can include:
- Prevention and early intervention strategies
- Recognizing early warning signs
- Community interaction
What Helps Make a School Safer?
Strategies for preventing and responding to school violence can be more efficient in communities that:
- Focus on academic achievement
- Involve families in meaningful ways
- Develop close ties to community resources
- Help foster student support from school staff
- Discuss safety issues openly
- Treat students with equal respect
- Create ways for students to share concerns
- Help children feel safe while expressing their emotions
- Have a system to refer victims of suspected abuse or neglect
- Offer extended before- and after-school programs for children
- Promote good citizenship and character
- Identify problems and assess progress towards solutions
- Support students in making the transition to adult life and workplace
- Educate students and school community on signs of violence
- Give students and communities a voice
Creating a School Security Plan
Controlling access to and from school buildings is an essential part to overall safety. When reviewing, updating or creating a school security plan, try to address these seven areas:
- Control access by only having one unlocked entrance door to each building and keeping all other access points locked.
- Monitor visitors and have a policy where staff ask them to sign in and out.
- Report strangers who don’t have identification or seem suspicious.
- Install alarms that offer full perimeter protection and interior motion detection. This can include silent alarms for offices or out-of-the-way areas.
- Install metal detectors if you determine they’re appropriate for your school.
- Employ on-site security staff, whether it’s through a private contracted company or School Resource Office (SRO) assigned by your local police department.
- Ensure proper training so officers or other security personnel have knowledge and experience in various areas like school psychology, conflict resolution and federal and state laws about child abuse or neglect.
What Are the Warning Signs of a Troubled Student?
Teachers and school officials should know how to recognize and identify behavioral or emotional problems in a student, said Dr. Michael Lacroix, a medical director at The Hartford.
“While behavioral or emotional problems don’t necessarily result in school violence, they are indicators that the student needs help,” Lacroix explained. “Being able to recognize those signs and being proactive to offer ways to help is a critical part of student safety.”
It’s also important for teachers and officials to know what the imminent warning signs are because they can signal a student will engage in potentially dangerous behaviors to themselves or others.
Some early warning signs include:
- Social withdrawal
- Excessive feeling of rejection, isolation and being alone
- Having been a victim of violence
- Feelings of being picked on and persecuted
A few imminent warning signs include:
- Serious physical fighting with peers or family members
- Severe destruction of property
- Severe rage for seemingly minor reasons
- Detailed threats of lethal violence
How Should Schools Respond to Early Warning Signs?
It’s important for school officials to not jump to conclusions after recognizing early warning signs. To help interpret the early warning signs, follow these principles:
- Do no harm
- Understand violence and aggression within context
- Don’t tolerate stereotypes
- Consider the student’s developmental level
- Look for multiple warning signs
How Should Schools Respond to Imminent Warning Signs?
Seeing any imminent warning signs, Lacroix noted, requires immediate action. School officials should act if a student:
- Presented a detailed plan to harm or kill others
- Singled out students or staff in threats
- Warned family and friends to stay away from an area during a specific date or time
- Made social media posts admiring past shooters or terrorists
- Posted pictures pointing a firearm at themselves or the camera
- Threated to use a weapon
- Is carrying a weapon
- Presents other threatening behaviors
If any of these signs are observed, officials should inform the student’s parents. If required by law, notify the required agencies, like child and family services.
Develop a Violence Prevention and Response Plan
Violence prevention and response plans are unique to each school and educational institution. Not every school is the same. There are unique needs from teachers, students and the greater community. Some areas you may want to include in your plan are:
- Early warning signs of potentially violent behavior
- Procedures for identifying children who exhibit early warning signs
- Effective prevention practices
- Strategies to help troubled students
Addressing school violence requires educators and community members. That’s why it’s a good idea to create a violence prevention and response team that’s made up of people in the broader community, like:
- Building administrators
- General and special education teachers
- Pupil support services representative
- School resource officer
- Safe and drug-free schools program coordinator
- Community leaders
- Law enforcement personnel
Prepare for the Worst-Case Scenario
School violence can happen anytime and anywhere. And while no school is immune to the possibility of violence, preparing for the worst can be beneficial. The two components that are critical to school safety are intervention and response.
Know what kind of situations will require immediate, planned action and long-term intervention, such as:
- The presence of weapons
- Natural disasters
- Bomb threats or explosions
A school’s response after a crisis is equally important. Crisis team members should understand how people react to stress and how different people respond to death and loss.
Schools that have experienced a tragedy should help:
- Parents understand children’s reaction to violence
- Teachers and other staff deal with their reactions, like through a debriefing or grief counseling
- Students and faculty adjust with short- and long-term mental health counseling
- Victims and family members re-enter the school environment with a process making it easier to adjust
- Students and teachers address the return of a previously removed student from the school and make the transition as smooth as possible