ACA Blog

Jan 22, 2013

Principles for Identifying the Early Warning Signs of School Violence

This series of blogs is excerpted from a chapter of a book that I contributed to. It is being shared here in the hopes that it may help to provide some foundation for ideas in your area. Please excuse the formality of the writing, I look forward to trying to interject humor, tractors, nature and nurturing in future blogs but for the moment I have lost my sense of humor.

Principles for identifying the early warning signs of school violence:

There are many sources for information on the early warning signs of school violence. While most information is in agreement, some are at odds with one another. No one source should be viewed as having the superior or preferred information as the author feels they are all vital in establishing an effective view of the situations we are dealing with and trying to learn to prevent.

When addressing concerns about school safety and the identification of early signs of potential violence, the school clinical staff (counselors, social workers, and school psychologist), administration and staff must keep certain factors in mind. It should be noted that many children would show one or more of the established warning signs without being a potential perpetrator who needs intervention. Simply having some factors that appear to be a problem does not mean someone will commit violence, just as there are some that do not fit any or most of the patterns but who have indeed committed crimes. When making evaluations and observations it is imperative to keep things in a developmental and situational context, and here is where regular education of all parties who are involved with children is key. It is important that we keep stereotyping out of our evaluations. Simply because a person does not fit our ideas and ideals of a productive student, does not make that person a risk. Baggy pants, which have been associated by many with gang bangers, and trench coats which were once associated with the gothic and “Emo” lifestyle, should not be the reason someone is marked as being at risk. As with therapy, education and all around good professionalism, we must remember to “do no harm.”

At risk students often have been observed as being socially withdrawn with excessive feelings of being isolated and alone (Witkin, Tharp et al, 1998). They often feel rejected by society at large, their community (Cornell, 1999) and family in general. They may be or have been the victim of violence (USDE (6), 2000). They often times have feelings of being “picked on” or “persecuted” (Reaves, 2001). At risk students often times show a superficial interest in school and have poor or sporadic academic performance (USDE (6), 2000).

In terms of writings and drawings (or other artistic expressions), violence and anger are often the central theme (Skeesis, 1999). Impulsivity, chronic hitting, history of intimidation, bullying, violence or other aggressive behavior as well as expressions of uncontrolled anger are also frequently present (USDE (6), 2000). At risk students often have a history of discipline problems which may include drug (including alcohol) use, intolerance, prejudicial attitudes, gang affiliation as well as the expression of serious threats of violence (USDE (6), 2000).

Inappropriate access to, ownership of or known use of firearms (Musil, 1998) when combined with many of the aforementioned are grounds for concern. Students who have been found to have serious fights with peers and or family, who destroy property or exhibit self injurious behaviors including suicide threats, should be noticed as potentially at risk. Finally, severe rages for no apparent reason as well as detailed lethal threats of violence are also concerns.
Students who show a “triad” of behavior (excessive bedwetting beyond the normal age, cruelty to animals and fire starting) should be evaluated for psychological services and referrals made as indicated.

Immediate reaction and the implementation of an intervention plan is warranted if the student is found to have a weapon and has threatened to use it, the student has given a detailed account on how he is going to hurt themselves or others (USDE (6), 2000).

School violence:
As with most things in life, in order to be consistently effective over the passage of time, individuals, institutions and society must find ways to prepare for and possibly reduce the threat of violence. Simply developing a plan to react to violence only is not an effective idea, as it will do little to nothing in terms of raising awareness and prevention. Therefore it is the opinion of this writer that effective plans for dealing with school violence include a system of raising awareness and instituting well thought out prevention strategies. This strategy should include a plan that allows for schools to be able to alter the district wide plans to suit the need of each individual school (USDE (2) 2007).

Anter & Garrison (1998) believe it is imperative to have an institutional view and approach to meeting the needs of both staff and students. An interdisciplinary committee representing all stages and phases of school life should be included when formulating strategies, accessing needs and developing a comprehensive prevention plan. This committee can be used to help get a total picture of campus life, the areas of concern, as well as gaining the perspective from the staff members that usually have little to no input in the decision making process. This committee will include kitchen staff, grounds people and maintenance workers (USDE (6), 2000) as they many times get different views and see students in areas and behaviors that may not be easily assessable to teachers and administrators. Years ago when this author was working at a transitional living facility, the maintenance supervisor shared an insight and offered an intervention strategy that had up to that point eluded those on the clinical team. It does not take advanced degrees to make valuable contributions to prevention protocols.

A safety minded school has systems in place to deal with the mental, emotional and behavioral issues of the students they serve (Cornell, 1999). One example would be for the school psychologist working along with the assistant principal to develop an anti-bullying and intimidation mindset and atmosphere among staff and students. This mindset would include counseling, education, intervention as well as the requisite awareness and prevention components. Education would include ways in which people could identify the signs and potentiality of hostilities before they progress too far.

In reviewing the current literature available on safe schools, trends are found in the recommended characteristics that define a safe school. Effective prevention, intervention, and crisis response strategies operate best in school communities that address the following:
Schools need to have a system designed to identify problems and assessing the advancements made toward substantial solutions (USDE (6), 2000). This may take form in the interdisciplinary committee as described earlier, or may take the form of parent, teacher and administrator run boards. The school will promote familial involvement at many levels including meaningful situations beyond the usual superficial means adopted by many schools in the past. Family support groups, activities, networking and activities that are of local significance would be a few such examples. Family shall be defined to include those members that are close to the students regardless of blood or legal ties. By including families, school systems will be more easily involved with the community at large which is imperative in the development of establishing strong links with the community (Mitchell, 2000). Including local businesses and other interested parties can also help ensure a continuity of quality interventions that eclipse the physical confines of the school itself.

Relationships between staff and students need to be positive (Skiba, Peterson, et al, 2001) as is the need to treat students with equal respect (regardless of age, race, background, socioeconomic status, or reputation (both family and individual). With an open and comfortable relationship established between staff and students, teachers will have an easier time discussing safety issues and concerns (USDE (4), 2000). It also will serve as a way for the teachers and other staff to model ways for the expression of feelings in a safe environment. Citizenship and character development would be emphasized as well (USDE (9), 1998).

Mitchell (2000) states that safe schools employ extended day programs for students. The FBI reports that 1 in 5 violent crimes occur in the 4 hours following the end of school. This statistic has some recommending that the hours for after school programs should be extended (Donohue, Schiraldo & Ziedenberge, 1998) while maintaining a focus on academic achievement by supplying adequate resources for all programs (USDE (2), 2000). They will also have an established system for the referring of children who are suspected of being abused, neglected or at risk (USDE (6), 2000). Lastly, schools will remember to provide the great deal of support needed by the students when making the long and hard transition from adolescents to adult life and employment (USDE (6), 2000).


Warren Corson III (Doc Warren) is a counselor and the clinical & executive director of a community counseling agency in central CT (www.docwarren.org).

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