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How can we stop school violence?

School shootings are every parents worst nightmare. But researchers say school may be the safest place for children to be, and there are steps parents can take to prevent campus violence.

By Marian Wilde

The American public is reeling after the horrific shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. This latest attack follows campus shootings around the country, most recently in Ohio, California, Illinois, Pennsylvania and at Virginia Tech.

Despite the recent violence, school shootings have been generally on the decline since the notorious 1999 attack at a high school in Colombine, Colorado, which left 12 students and one teacher dead. As the police investigation unfolds in Connecticut, the fact remains that school shootings are rare and that children are safer in schools than they are outside of them.

In the meantime, parents want to do what they can to ensure that their schools are safe. Some experts say that increasing a school's physical security, such as adding metal detectors, is not a realistic solution. If an attacker is intent upon killing others, metal detectors present a relatively ineffective barrier. Instead, these experts say that schools would do better by addressing the root causes of violence: bullying, a lack of a respectful environment, and neglecting despair and depression in students.

An exhaustive study of school shootings compiled in 2002 by the U.S. Secret Service and the U. S. Department of Education is available online. One document produced by the study, Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates includes an action plan for school leaders to make their schools safe. The final report issued by the study, called Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States, discusses the characteristics of school attackers.

For a succinct distillation of the information about school attackers, see Ten Myths About School Shootings.

Schools Are Safer Than They Were a Decade Ago

Every year the federal government issues what it calls a snapshot of school violence. This survey, called Indicators of School Crime and Safety, is a compilation of data from several government agencies, including the FBI, the Center for Disease Control and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The survey looks at victimization, bullying, student perceptions of school safety and many other topics.

The latest of these snapshots was released in 2006, using data from 2003 through 2006. This study, and others, indicate that:

  • Statistically, school is the safest place for children to be.
  • Students are more likely to be victims of violence outside of school than inside.
  • School-related violence is on the decline.

Some Troubling Indicators Persist

While these numbers are encouraging, some indicators are troubling. When 24 percent of all students report gangs present at their school, and 25 percent of high school students say illegal drugs are available on school property, clearly there is still much work to be done to improve the safety of our schools.

What Schools Are Doing

Schools responded to the Columbine shootings with "hard" programs: mandatory expulsion for bringing a weapon to school, zero tolerance policies, improved crisis response plans and random locker checks.

While hard programs have their place, some experts believe increased use of "soft" programs, a collective term for programs that teach conflict resolution, anti-bullying, anger management, and emotional intelligence is what will fundamentally improve school safety.

Lisa Bateman of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence, a North Carolina resource center dedicated to promoting school safety, notes that "our schools reacted to the major incidents with a couple of major trends. One was a move toward more physical prevention of violence, such as metal detectors and school security officers. The other was that schools are focusing on staff training on how to recognize warning signs and looking at equipping teachers and students in conflict management skills."

"But," she cautions, "while schools are doing a better job of keeping campuses secure, our schools mirror our society. If we have a violent society, we will have violent schools."

The Latest Trends in School Violence Prevention

Vigilance in implementing both hard and soft programs has resulted in more comprehensive approaches and, as a result, improved school safety.

While hard programs may avert some violent acts, they don't address the underlying issue that soft programs focus on, including teaching students to understand and control their emotions, particularly anger.

Alicia Santamaria, of the California-based Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center (PCRC), an organization that provides in-school conflict resolution training, believes that teaching children to talk it out and to negotiate is important in preventing violence.

Post-Columbine, PCRC received many more calls for anti-bullying training. Santamaria also notes that there is now a heightened awareness about the negative effects of epithets and put-downs.

"We hear terms like 'enrichment programs,' 'character education,' 'school safety initiatives,' but perhaps calling them 'soft' in a society that values strength and brawn isn't doing them enough justice," Santamaria says. "These programs and skills are extremely powerful and have the capability of transforming the climate in our schools."

Stan Adamson, a mental health counselor and anger management specialist at The Door, a Manhattan youth development agency, feels that a multipronged approach to violence prevention is best. "There should be no tolerance for serious infractions, but there should be a range of interventions available for behavior problems. A young person needs to learn how to use a social-skills response to a difficult situation rather than an aggressive response. When he experiences some success using these skills approaches to dealing with conflict, the student usually becomes motivated to learn more."

A move away from old-fashioned detention and suspension

Many principals are looking at alternatives to having children sit in rooms by themselves as punishment for misbehaving. This form of detention removes the student from the learning process and doesnt address the root of the behavior that landed him in detention in the first place. A more productive approach is to have the troublemaker see a counselor.

The same thought applies to suspensions and expulsions. Sending the student home often puts him on the streets where society as a whole has to deal with him.

Bateman suggests that throwing a student out of school only contributes to what has been called the school-to-prison pipeline. "States with high numbers of suspensions and expulsions also have high numbers in the juvenile justice system. This is because students who are suspended from school and released to a parent who works often are not supervised."

No Child Left Behind and persistently dangerous schools

Under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, a school may be labeled as "persistently dangerous" if it meets certain criteria established by each state. If a school is designated as persistently dangerous, the district must inform the school community. Parents may then ask for a transfer to another school.

Many feel that the criteria required to be listed as persistently dangerous is so restrictive that truly dangerous schools are not identified as such. In 2003 only 54 schools in the nation were labeled as persistently dangerous.

What Parents Can Do to Improve School Safety

In 1998, in response to a school shooting, President Clinton asked the government to produce a guide for schools and parents on how to prevent school violence. As a result, two comprehensive guides were published: Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools and Safeguarding Our Children: An Action Guide.

Components of safe schools

According to Safeguarding Our Children: An Action Guide, a safe school will have three major components:

  • A school-wide foundation for the well being and success of all students.
  • A system for identifying students with acute behavior problems.
  • A system for providing interventions and therapies for at-risk students.

Early warning signs

Both guides list warning signs, as do many other guides available to parents. However, any time there is concern about a student it is important to guard against judging or oversimplifying. Helping the child, and the entire school community, should be the paramount concern.

Below are some of the warning signs that a student may pose a threat to the school. If you observe any of these indicators in a student, report your concerns to school staff. A potentially violent student usually exhibits more than one of the following behaviors:

  • Difficulty eating or sleeping
  • Abuse of animals
  • Unusual attraction to violent entertainment
  • Withdrawal from social interaction
  • Feelings of rejection and/or persecution
  • Unusually intense or frequent violent content in personal writings or artwork
  • A pattern of bullying
  • Intolerance or prejudice against certain groups of people
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Membership in a gang
  • Threats of serious violence

Imminent warning signs

Imminent warning signs require immediate intervention and may include:

  • Physical fighting with others
  • Destruction of property
  • Intense anger for minor reasons
  • Detailed threats of violence
  • Possession of weapons
  • Threats of suicide

Additional Benefits of Soft Programs

Santamaria, of PCRC, feels that teaching conflict prevention always has unforeseen positive results. We often think of conflict resolution programs in terms of how they can contribute to a safer school climate, but the impact on the students involved in the training is tremendous, according to Santamaria.

"The difficult thing about evaluating prevention programs," she explains, "is that you don't know what would have happened without them. If two young people resolve their conflict in peer mediation, we will never know what would have happened if the conflict had been allowed to escalate. We would like to think that each conflict that gets resolved through kids using their conflict resolution skills is a success story.

Comments from readers

"I really love your writing, unlike most blogs I actually learn things, find the content useful and it’s well written. 11/10 every time! "
"How come violence and bullying of teachers is allowed by administrators who are too weak to stand up and do the right thing? I don't understand the mentality that allows students to engage in disrespect, criminal-like behaviors at school when in every other civil part of society it is not tolerated. Schools need to have a zero tolerance for drugs, defiance issues, vandalism and non-cooperative students. But due to public pressure on schools and everyone expecting schools to solve all of society's problems we end up encouraging failure more than promoting success. If a student is only there to screw around, be rude and just socialize then he should be given online or alternative school options. Imagine you having to go to work and someone came in to your office cussing and threatening you or your boss. Would you allow him back the next day? Now imagine he was your co-worker and your boss let him back the next day and his attitude is still the same? That is what public ! schools are like because it is mandatory for some spoiled, lazy, criminal-like and wannabe thugs to be in a place they do not want to be when they would rather be stealing, tagging, drinking and smoking dope. So they bring all this with them to school and waste everyone else's time with their non-sense and stupidity when they should be choosing to learn and prepare for their future. It is misplaced students and lack of programs for them that causes most of the problems in schools. And lets face the reality that not all kids are good. Some belong in jail and will only learn through natural consequences. "
"Zero tolerance for 'weapons' merely victimizes non-violent kids, since it makes no distinction between common household/workplace objects and real weapons. If possible life imprisonment does not deter, nor will expulsion. They are also hypocritical, since tire irons, baseball bats, etc. are great 'weapons'. Even worse is when felony charges result, since there is virtually no hope for getting a good job. Ironically, people think that zero tolerance policies would make one feel good about sending their kids to a safe school, when precisely the opposite is true."
"I think it's interesting to read Bateman's theory about the 'school-to-prison pipeline'. The cause she suggests is that the public school system is not disciplining the problem students effectively. She measures this problem/cause by what she considers the effect which is the number of young people in the juvenile justice system. I think that the picture needs to broaden a bit. If you put the burden of change on the wrong set of shoulders it only causes more frustration and doesn't result in any real change. It's interesting that the sun rises every morning at 6 AM when my alarm goes off. I thought about changing my alarm to 6:30 but I'm afraid the sun may not rise. Absurd? Exactly. Almost as absurd as the public school system being responsible for the number of youth in the juvy system. Just because the two seem to coincide lets not be hasty in our estimations,quick to find the easy answer and let's take the time to dig a little bit deeper. I suggest that we should put the burden of change with the parents where it should be. Is that the easy answer? No. Broken homes, absent fathers, moral and ethical values not central in parenting, that's a hard thing to address but unless we make an effort to address the real problem we're wasting tax dollars and chasing our tails."
"Do uniforms honestly stop school violence or make it so that schools are safer? As a teacher I feel that it doesn't."
"School violence is unfortunate, however everyone thinks that to curb the violence we should mandate uniforms. Imagine being on a high school campus with everyone in the same colored shirt....the gun man ( a student) is also in the will the SWAT team know who the bad guy is? As an educator I a not in favor of school uniforms for this reason. I believe that we should be teaching students to be unique and step away from the crowd. I am all in favor of doing what we can do to keep our young people safe, but my worse fear is to not be able to describe the person who is breaking the law. We all hope that it will never happen at our school, but I am sure that Columbine would have had more difficulties had everyone been dressed alike. "
"Hello, I had a shocking experience at a charter school I worked at. A student who was out of control was a constant threat to students and staff. This student ended up shooting a classmate in the shoulder with a shotgun. Just playing and it was an accident??? This student was able to come back and was like a hero to the kids. How strange. This kid then threatened to put his hands around my neck. Next he was not expelled , because that takes 'guts' from the school board, so his mother took him out of our school. Next he stalked the school grounds for at least a week and was targeting a student to beat up. The old student just walked up to the school grounds and beat to the ground his target as the principal just stood and did nothing. Actually he said to me 'This is what this kid needed was a beating' What are we to do when administration is weak, ignorant and down right negligent to providing safety to our kids and staff? I was shocked. "
"I feel we should let the daily prayer back in all our classrooms! ! !Wake up society!If children have different cultures,let them all quietly pray in their own religion!Where has the respect gone today? Not in our schools obviously!These children are crying out! Lets help them!Save the children,Say a prayer!From B,Iowa"
"I think 'bullies' should be addressed and teachers/paraprofessionals/principals should be held accountable for their lack of action. In Byron Michigan,our school is filled with the bully conduct,nothing is done except the innocent are punished.I have personally observed this;I have no children in schoo."
"I think that you should also address the bullying of teachers and other adults in the school community, presently covered up by those in power and control. Teachers who dissent or otherwise are 'in the way' may be controlled or removed by fabricated charges which are upheld by the courts. Such bullying exacerbates school violence (if the adults don't respect each other, the students won't), obstructs true school reform, and inhibits the recruitment and retention of quality teachers. check"
"This article contains information that needs to be disseminated out into the public sector. I would like to add that there is an organization available to all area high schools in the country that helps educators address school violence as well as other life-essential topics. The organization, through Directors of Educational Outreach, promotes 30, 45-minutes presentations, free of charge, to high school students across the nation. Topics include violence prevention, conflict resolution, drugs & alcohol abuse awareness, health and nutrition and a host of others. For more information on getting these presentations into the schools, please visit One other website that offers a career planning program to help students set life goals is Let's work together to motivate students to work with each other to gain balance and success in their lives. 'Destiny is not a matter of chance, it's a matter of choice.' anonymous"
"Well Century had a bomb threat found on Wednesday but threatening the school on Thursday. They didn't do a good job of informing the public at all. Most parents probably wouldn't have known about it unless their child told them."
"Hi, I am an SRO from deep south texas. Not to scare any parent out there, but you need to keep an open door communication policy with your kids. After working with middle school and high school level kids I have grown to learn that more and more drugs are around and drug use leads to more and more violence. Bullyng is a big issue in south texas and rarely goes unheard by the victims of bullying. The drugs problem can be controlled but never stopped. As far as violence, well there are alot of gangs in south texas and many games being played, like the choking game where kids choke each other and then come out of it (sometimes they don't) fight's, like seen on tv are being played and kids actually dying from sustained injuries. Kids are invited to attend these fights and record them (which recently happened here in south texas in a small town called 'Progreso'. Also alot of school staff and students don't take the practice drills seriously, I think that is a very critic! al problem in any school.. kids and staff just don't take it seriously and don't think it could ever happen to their school!"
"This is propaganda at its best. The public school system is too large to meet the true needs of the student emotionally, physically, and educationally. Schools need to be smaller, decisions need to be made locally, and families need to take back responsibility for making sure their children are getting a good moral education. U.S public education strips spirituality and religion from all subjects and then we wonder why our children are so lost! Take your children out of public school today. Teach them values, teach from your heart or cooperate with other families to create a small school that teaches your true values."
"We may as well not spend one thin dime on Violence prevention and Anti Bullying education without addressing the archaic use of corporal punishment. We must get all forms of violence out of schools. Teachers must not hit children, for any reason. They must model the very behavior we are striving for in our schools. In schools that use corporal punishment, the bully has simply moved to the head of the class. "
"Though I am just a 9th grader in high school, I still see those that are older than me not resolve a conflict with negotiation but instead with violence. I believe that it involves gang members, but then again I am not sure. I attend Champlin Park High School in Champlin, Minnesota and it is a fine school overall. But, some things there bring it all down. Kids always swearing at each other, wrestling like children, being racist and prejudice, kids insulting those who dress in a 'geeky' manner to their eyes and a lot more. Do not think that I am saying this school only have problems, every school does. Nothing is perfect in this world we all live in. I mean, can these 'children' in high school act like high schoolers? They cannot see that we all are human beings and live within different situations. Yet, they say something aloud on purpose so the one offended can come and confront them to fight. Things are certainly chainging around the schools as well as the world."