What Really Prevents School Violence?

(Article co-author Dr. Suzanne Button)

Assessment And Outreach For Youth Is A Powerful Preventive Measure

Couple giving two young children piggyback rides smilingSchool violence is one of the most concerning and tragic issues in our country today.   All too often, we hear of another instance of a young person turning on others and themselves with weapons and feel pressed to help in some way.  We can help prevent these events, but to make real progress we have to turn to experts—like the FBI and those who study gun violence—and adopt approaches that really make a difference.   While much of the debate around prevention of these tragedies focuses on gun control, we also know that thorough assessment and outreach for youth who may be future perpetrators of violence can be a powerful preventive measure.

Identifying Potential Warning Behaviors In Our Youth?

It is clear, when each incidence of school violence is analyzed, that youth committing the violent acts did not just “snap.”  Instead, each young person exhibited a pathway of behaviors leading up to the incident.  While it is important to avoid “profiling” at-risk youth, it is effective to identify potential warning behaviors in our youth and intervene with any youth who are exhibiting concerning signs.  Youth who are at greater risk of violence tend to be isolated, severely disconnected from supportive relationships, school, and community, often exhibit anger management problems and intolerance of others, and have access to weapons, violent computer games, violent peers, and/or drugs and alcohol without adequate guidance, supervision, and support from caring adults.

dv1940003We know what does not help.  Previously-accepted strategies to eliminate school violence may actually increase its likelihood.  In school violence “profiling” (compiling a list of behaviors and characteristics based on past school violence perpetrators in an attempt to predict who the next perpetrator will be) for example, youth who are struggling and exhibiting difficult behaviors, but may never become violent, can feel discriminated against and stigmatized.  Importantly, youth who are contemplating violence and who are profiled, isolated, and stigmatized may actually feel more encouraged to turn to violence.

“Zero Tolerance” Policies can be Harmful

“Zero tolerance” policies (expelling or suspending youth who talk about or express the desire to perpetrate violence) also have been shown to be more harmful than helpful.  Dismissing potentially violent offenders can send youth the impression that their school does not care, and may actually intensify violence tendencies.

When youth do show a constellation of concerning behaviors, the use of specific “threat assessment” guidelines, such as those developed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, should be used to develop appropriate plans for intervention and prevention.  Any threat of violence, whether direct or indirect, should lead to careful evaluation of level of real risk.

When fully assessed for risk, more specific, direct, plausible threats (the threat of a specific act of violence against a specific target) often indicate the need for strong preventive action, while indirect hints at violence often lead to the need for outreach and intervention with a struggling youth.  Full assessment includes examination of the threat itself, but also involves an examination of an individual’s personality, behaviors, family and community supports, and social skills and experiences.  Click here for a full outline of recommended assessment steps.

Providing a Strong Social Support Network

Blog Picture #2While it is important to be on the lookout for threatening behaviors, it is equally important to stop youth from reaching the point where they would want to make a threat at all.  As always, factors that prevent the tendency toward school violence revolve around connection.  Youth who have a strong social support network, a positive attitude towards authority, and a sense of commitment to the school are far less likely to turn to violence as an option.  If all caring adults (parents, educators, and members of the community) commit to developing these connections for all youth, school violence can be eliminated.

Creating Safe School Communities

School communities are the most critical factor in the prevention of school violence.  The more inclusive and welcoming the school community, the more connected most youth in that community feel.  The more connected youth feel, the more likely it is that any youth contemplating violence will be revealed to caring adults early in the path toward an actual violent act.  Warm, inclusive, safe school communities are created by the promotion of collaborative, effective anti-bullying initiatives, by emphasizing the building of connection with youth as a key expectation of all teachers and school administrators, and by using strict, exclusionary punishments (suspension and expulsion) as a last resort.