Violence prevention in schools is an issue that is ever more with us. It is a challenge for education professionals at all levels. The statistics are troubling, yet they point the way toward violence prevention. National Youth Violence Prevention Week – which we just celebrated – is a good time to review what we have learned and how that knowledge can turn into a plan of action.
At the top of the plan is encouraging students to say something. Why? Over the last 25 years, research has shown that in 7 out of 10 acts of gun violence, someone was told that an act of violence would be committed or take place. In one study, it was reported that in four out of five school shootings, the attacker told people of his plans ahead of time.
This threat before the act may be verbal, written or posted on social media. When a student is made aware of the potential threat they must be comfortable with approaching a trusted adult with the information. It is the role of the educator to empower students to report threats. Many schools already have programs to educate students on the signs of a potential threat, especially in social media. It is the educator’s role to make sure the program is implemented, reinforced and encouraged.
Knowing these early warning signs and acting on them can save lives:
- Social withdrawal
- Excessive feelings of isolation and being alone
- Being a victim of violence
- Feelings of being picked on or persecuted
- Low school interest and poor academic performance
- Expressions of violence in writings, drawings and social media
- Uncontrolled anger
- Patterns of impulsive hitting and chronic hitting
- Intimidating and bullying behavior
- History of discipline problems
- Past history of violent and aggressive behavior
- Intolerance for differences and prejudicial attitudes
- Drug and alcohol use
- Affiliation with gangs
- Inappropriate access to, possession of, and use of firearms
- Serious threats of violence
The experts are clear about the use of early warning signs. No one sign is necessarily an indication of a pending act of violence. However, presence of an early warning sign should be noted and action taken if more than one sign appears. The physician’s oath to “do no harm” applies here. Violence and aggression, for example, require context. Is the cause in the school, the home or the student’s social environment? Also be aware of stereotypes--they can color your thinking.
Accordingly, you should understand that students who pose a threat will exhibit multiple signs. An angry, socially withdrawn 14 year-old who is showing violent impulses toward classmates and adults requires attention. The presence of weapons in the equation changes the dynamic completely.
None of the signs alone is sufficient for predicting aggression and violence. It is a mistake to use the early warning signs as a checklist. Rather, the list is an aid to guide educators in identifying and referring students who may need help. Only trained professionals should make diagnoses in consultation with the students’ parents or guardians.
The goal is to prevent violence before it happens. This requires hard work by administrators, teachers, coaches, support personnel and students. Multiple organizations, like Students Against Violence Everywhere (SAVE) and Sandy Hook Promise, have extensive programs that schools can use to educate all concerned.
Knowledge is indeed power, and it can save lives.