It’s been more than a year since the deadliest school shooting in US history, but the after-effects are still with us. School safety and school violence continue to be a key discussion topic for school boards and committees in all areas of the country.
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 30 to 50 per cent of students have reported being bullied in the past year. For teachers, the figure is even higher. Bullying and harassment, lockdowns, physical fighting and weapons on campus are daily threats that require training and tools to prevent.
And while districts and boards already work diligently to prevent school violence and make sure that schools are safe for staff and students, it’s difficult without the right policies, initiatives and security measures in place.
Read on to learn violent behaviors to watch for and how big a problem they pose. Then, learn eight effective strategies to reduce violence and improve safety in your school.
Bonus: investigate violent incidents better with this Investigation Report Template made specifically for schools.
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The term “school violence” includes any form of violent behavior occurring on school grounds, during a school event or on the way to or from school or a school event. School violence harms people, negatively impacts safety and disrupts the learning process.
Violence can occur at any school—public or private, rural or urban, K-12 or post-secondary—and encompasses many behaviors, including:
- Physical violence (punching, slapping, kicking or hitting)
- Psychological violence (verbal abuse, exclusion or isolation)
- Sexual violence (harassment, assault or rape)
- Use of weapons (as a threat or a tool to cause harm)
- Bullying and cyberbullying
Statistics have proven that we should be concerned about the frequency at which school violence occurs. In 2017, students in grades nine through 12 participated in the national Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS).
The survey found that in the 12 months prior:
- Six per cent had been threatened or injured with a weapon at school
- Nearly nine per cent had been in a fight at school
- 19 per cent had been bullied on school property
The same study found that in the 30 days leading up to the study:
- Nearly four per cent carried a weapon on school property
- Nearly seven per cent avoided going to school due to safety concerns
- Nearly 15 per cent experienced cyberbullying
The type of violence a student experiences varies based on age and gender. Boys experience more physical bullying whereas girls experience more psychological harm. Middle school students experience more teasing, threats and exclusion. High school students experience more cyberbullying.
If bullying is a problem in your school, download The Busy Teacher’s Cheat Sheet to Talking to Parents About Bullying.
Violence in schools usually occurs during “transition” periods: before school, between class, during lunch and after school.
Teachers are bullied often too. A study conducted in 2014 found that 80 per cent of teachers had been bullied in the previous two years, mostly by students or parents.
There is no proven step-by-step method to improve school safety. Each school has a unique make-up of students, staff, culture and risks.
Instead, the most effective way to improve school safety is by implementing a combination of policies, initiatives and security measures. Here are eight popular strategies to reduce violence in schools:
1. Adopt Physical Security Measures
A common way to reduce violence in schools is to implement stronger security measures, such as surveillance cameras, security systems, campus guards and metal detectors.
Surveillance cameras can be placed in hallways, classrooms and near doors to provide school safety personnel the ability to monitor unfamiliar faces, loitering guests and dangerous situations from afar.
Install security systems to control building access. Restrict how people enter the school by assigning the main door as the only entrance point and locking all side doors from the exterior. Or, restrict when people enter the school by setting up an alarm that contacts local law enforcement if a door opens outside of regular school hours.
Employ security guards to patrol the school, parking lots, campus grounds and other common areas. Security guards watch for suspicious behavior and can remove dangerous individuals from school grounds before they cause any harm.
Schools with weapon or gang violence issues may implement extreme security measures, such as metal detectors and routine bag searches, to deter students from behaving violently.
2. Implement Policies Designed to Prevent Violence
Policies can improve school safety in two ways.
The first way is through deterrence. Zero-tolerance policies will punish those who perpetrate violence and deter students from behaving violently. If a single violation results in punishment, students are less likely to be violent, bring weapons around the school or bully others.
Hang anti-bullying posters in the hallways and classrooms to remind students about the school’s commitment to improved safety. Download ours here.
The second way is through fostering an inclusive, safe environment. For students, adopt policies outlining school-wide behavioral expectations that stress positive values such as inclusion, communication and respect. For staff, adopt policies outlining the teacher’s role in preventing violence. For example, require visitors to wear badges and require teachers to report guests not wearing one.
A code of conduct is a great home for student behavior contracts and visitor badge policies. Update your school’s code to include these topics with our comprehensive template.
Review these policies and procedures annually to ensure their effectiveness.
3. Organize Training Programs for School Personnel
To improve school safety, create a safe, understanding school environment through education and training programs.
According to one study, nearly 50% of school homicide perpetrators gave at least one warning (e.g., making a threat) before turning violent. Teaching school personnel the warning signs could prompt them to intervene before situations become violent.
Early warning signs of violence include:
- Social withdrawal
- Poor academic performance
- Expression of violence in writings and drawings
- Uncontrolled anger
- Patterns of impulsive hitting
- Bullying behaviors
- History of discipline problems
- History of violent behavior
- Drug or alcohol use
- Affiliation with gangs
- Serious threats of violence
- And more
In addition to raising awareness about early warning signs, develop training programs that educate teachers on how to communicate effectively and defuse violent episodes. Training programs will equip school personnel with the right tools to intervene when warranted and handle emergencies.
4. Profile and Counsel At-Risk Individuals
If carried out correctly, identifying and monitoring at-risk children will improve school safety. Identifying potentially violent individuals early means there is more time to steer the student onto a new path, and also ensures that these efforts will be more effective.
Employing a qualified mental health professional who has experience handling at-risk children or adolescents may be necessary for some situations. A professional can counsel potentially violent individuals with undivided attention and support that can further prevent dangerous situations.
However, profiling and counseling potentially violent individuals can cause problems. There is a stigma that comes with being labeled as an “at-risk” student. It’s important that each step is carried out as professionally and as carefully as possible.
5. Use Software to Identify Trends and Risks
Incident tracking software gives you the tools to identify trends in school violence. When every incident is reported and consolidated into a single database it’s easier to pinpoint the severity of violence, where violence is occurring and the groups and individuals responsible for the violence. The data shows where attention is needed.
Studies out of the US, Israel and France found that “systematic monitoring can be used to collect and interpret data from multiple layers and to quantify and explore issues of concern in particular communities”. In 2014, more than 100 American schools learned the benefits of systematic monitoring. Through data, they learned that bullying, school safety, weapon use and substance use were areas of concern.
i-Sight has helped the Union County Public School (UCPS) district monitor and address issues before they become much larger problems. According to Steve Simpson, an investigator for UCPS:
“Being able to flag repeat harassers or see multiple complaints about the same employee or issue is invaluable to UCPS and helps them to identify and address areas of risk in the district”.
6. Develop A Crisis and Emergency Plan
During a crisis, students often go into a state of shock and forget how to react properly. To prevent this from happening in a real emergency, schools have adopted routine fire, natural emergency, evacuation and lockdown drills.
Similarly, developing and practicing a crisis and emergency plan will teach school personnel how to respond to questions, how to defuse dangerous situations (if applicable) and keep everyone safe during a violent incident.
Your crisis and emergency plan will outline how teachers and other staff members should behave in a situation where a student or visitor is showing imminent warning signs of violence. “Imminent” signs include:
- Fighting with peers
- Destroying property
- In a severe bout of rage
- Making violent threats
- Possessing weapons
- Making a detailed plan to harm
Begin by conducting a risk- and threat-assessment to identify serious potential emergencies. Then, develop and document a step-by-step plan that can be read and practiced routinely. When a crisis strikes, the staff member will be able to reflect on their training and handle it appropriately.
7. Assign Roles for Students, Parents and the Community
School-community partnerships create a safe environment inside schools by creating a safe environment outside of schools. Community watch programs and police surveillance initiatives extend student safety beyond the confines of the schoolyard, effectively reducing the severity and prevalence of violence in schools.
Parents can also play a major role in ending school violence with the right education and support. Include the parents of students in devising plans for improved safety. Teach parents the correct way to speak to their children about bullying, threats and weapons.
Encourage students to take responsibility for maintaining a safe space and offer them support when they do. Students may need emotional assistance if they’re feeling guilty about resisting peer pressure or reporting a violent friend.
8. Address and Resolve Conflicts the Right Way
Some schools have trained school psychologists or counselors to mediate violent behavior, but for the schools that don’t, mediation is often one task of many for an administrator. In less dangerous situations, such as a verbal argument with no signs of escalation, there are certain steps the mediator can take to resolve issues effectively.
First, acknowledge that violent tendencies can be the result of several risk factors such as association with troubled peers, community poverty, poor grades, access to weapons, substance abuse and poor home environment.
Then, create a safe setting. If possible, engage with the violent individual in a semi-private location with a limited number of spectators. A violent individual is more likely to lash out if his or her personal space is disrespected and there is little room to breathe.
When you’re in the right setting, discuss the incident. Demonstrate open, calm body language and a tone to match. Treat the perpetrator respectfully, avoiding sarcasm, negative comments and passive-aggressive remarks. The individual may be severely upset, making it difficult to understand complex, long-winded sentences so stick with a basic vocabulary.
Direct the conversation to find a goal. A safer learning environment is the ultimate goal, but at this point, it’s just to understand the violent individual. You want to understand their feelings and why they’re behaving this way.
Based on the goal, resolve the issue completely. Find a solution using a conflict resolution strategy (see step 8) that fixes the current situation and minimizes the chance it will happen again.
A Bill titled the “Student, Teachers, and Officers Preventing School Violence Act of 2018” passed the House in March 2018.
The Bill recommends a number of statutes to reduce and prevent violence in American schools, including:
- Training for police, teachers and students on violence prevention.
- Anonymous reporting systems to report violence.
- Specialized training for officials responding to mental health crises.
- Use of metal detectors, locks and other deterrents.
- New technology for quicker notifications of emergencies.
- Funding for law enforcement, schools, districts, etc.
Stay up-to-date on the progress of the Bill here.
The Bill argues that increased funding, improved training and the use of advanced technology will help to reduce school violence and provide a safer learning environment for all.