Suggested APA style reference:

Dwyer, K., Osher, D., & Warger, C. (2000, Spring). Warning signs of school violence. ERIC Review. School Safety: A Collaborative Effort. 7(1) pp 16-17. (ERIC Document No. ED440640)

Warning Signs of School Violence

ERIC Review
Kevin Dwyer, David Osher, and Cynthia Warger
Spring 2000

Early Warning Signs

It is not always possible to predict behavior that will lead to violence. However, educators and parents and sometimes students can recognize certain early warning signs. In some situations and for some youth, different combinations of events, behaviors, and emotions may lead to aggressive rage or violent behavior toward themselves or others. A good rule of thumb is to assume that these warning signs, especially when they are presented in combination, indicate a need for further analysis to determine an appropriate intervention.

Most children who become violent toward themselves or others feel rejected and psychologically victimized. In most cases, children exhibit aggressive behavior early in life and, if not provided support, will continue a progressive developmental pattern toward severe aggression or violence. However, when children have a positive, meaningful connection to an adult whether it be at home, in school, or in the community the potential for violence is reduced significantly.

None of these signs alone is sufficient for predicting aggression and violence. Moreover, it is inappropriate and potentially harmful to use the early warning signs as a checklist against which to measure individual children. Rather, the early warning signs are offered only as an aid in identifying and referring children who may need help. School communities must ensure that staff and students use the early warning signs only for identification and referral purposes only trained professionals should make diagnoses in consultation with the child's parents or guardian.

The following early warning signs are presented with the qualifications that they are not equally significant and are not presented in order of seriousness:

  • Social withdrawal
  • Excessive feelings of isolation and being alone
  • Excessive feelings of rejection
  • Being a victim of violence
  • Feelings of being persecuted
  • Low school interest and poor academic performance
  • Expression of violence in writings and drawings
  • Uncontrolled anger
  • Patterns of impulsive and chronic hitting, intimidating, and bullying behaviors
  • History of discipline problems
  • History of violent and aggressive behavior
  • Intolerance for differences and prejudicial attitudes
  • Use of drugs and alcohol
  • Affiliation with gangs
  • Inappropriate access to firearms
  • Serious threats of violence

Imminent Warning Signs

Unlike early warning signs, imminent warning signs indicate that a student is very close to behaving in a way that is potentially dangerous to himself or herself or others. Imminent warning signs require an immediate response.

No single warning sign can predict that a dangerous act will occur. Rather, imminent warning signs usually are presented as a sequence of overt, serious, hostile behaviors or threats directed at peers, staff, or other individuals. Usually, imminent warning signs are evident to more than one staff member as well as to the child's family. When warning signs indicate that danger is imminent, safety must always be the first and foremost consideration. Action must be taken immediately. Imminent warning signs may include

  • Serious physical fighting with peers or family members.
  • Severe destruction of property.
  • Severe rage for seemingly minor reasons.
  • Other self-injurious behaviors or threats of suicide.
  • Threats of lethal violence.
  • A detailed plan (time, place, and method) to harm or kill others, particularly if the child has a history of aggression or has attempted to carry out threats in the past.
  • Possession and/or use of firearms and other weapons.

Immediate intervention by school authorities and possibly law enforcement officers is needed when a child has a detailed plan to commit violence or is carrying a weapon. Parents should be informed immediately when students exhibit any threatening behavior. School communities also have the responsibility to seek assistance from child and family services providers, community mental health agencies, and other appropriate organizations. These responses should reflect school board policies and be consistent with violence prevention and response plans.


Dwyer, K., D. Osher, and C. Warger. 1998. Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice. ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 418 372. (Available online at

This article is adapted from Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools, by Kevin Dwyer, David Osher, and Cynthia Warger.

Kevin Dwyer is President of the National Association of School Psychologists in Bethesda, Maryland.

David Osher is Director of the Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice at the American Institutes for Research in Washington, DC.

Cynthia Warger is an educational consultant and President of Warger, Eavy, and Associates in Reston, Virginia.