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Creating a Safe School Climate

When acts of school violence occur, school systems everywhere are prompted to re-evaluate their own violence prevention approaches and security procedures.

In studying more than 30 planned attacks in schools, investigators from the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Secret Service found that although there is no typical “profile” of a student who plans and carries out an attack, there are circumstances and prior behaviors that can indicate the possibility that such a tragic event might take place. Many common factors were identified in the school environments they examined, and the circumstances of individual students who carried out the attacks. In many instances there were signs before an attack that a potentially serious and dangerous situation was developing in a troubled student, and the investigators concluded that familiarity with these contributing factors and indicators may make it possible to take effective preventive action.

Key findings and recommended courses of action for reducing the risk of violent events were published in two documents, Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative and Threat Assessment in Schools, which are summarized here in the following sections:

Resources for families and professionals helping students cope in the event of trauma and violence can be found at www.samhsa.gov/trauma/index.aspx.

Characteristics of Incidents of Targeted School Violence

Based on an analysis of 37 incidents of planned school violence, investigators from the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Secret Service found 10 factors that typically characterize the school environment and the individual attackers. The study authors recommend that an effective prevention policy should consider the following:

  1. Incidents of targeted violence at school rarely are sudden, impulsive acts.
  1. Prior to most incidents, other people know about the attacker’s idea and/or plan to attack. In most cases, those who knew were peers and siblings, and the information rarely made its way to an adult.
  1. Most attackers do not threaten their targets directly prior to advancing the attack.
  1. There is no accurate or useful profile of students who engaged in targeted school violence. The demographic, personality, school history, and social characteristics of the attackers varies substantially.
  1. Most attackers engage in some behavior prior to the incident that causes others concern or indicates a need for help.
  1. Most attackers have difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures. Many have considered or attempted suicide.
  1. Many attackers have felt bullied, persecuted or injured by others prior to the attack.
  1. Most attackers have access to and have used weapons prior to the attack.
  1. In many cases, other students are involved in some capacity.
  1. Most shooting incidents are brief and are stopped by means other than law enforcement intervention.

This material is condensed and adapted from The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States by Vossekuil, B.; Fein, R.; Reddy, M.; Borum, R.; and Modzeleski, W. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program and U.S. Secret Service, National Threat Assessment Center, Washington, D.C., 2002. To see the full text of this section of the Safe School Initiative Final Report, click here and go to chapter IV, pp.31-37.

How to Build a “Connected” Culture

Creating a culture of connection and a climate of safety is essential to the prevention of violence in schools. Investigators of past episodes of planned school violence recommend these steps for teachers, administrators, and students to work toward implementing school cultures of connection and climates of safety:

1. Assess the school's emotional climate.

2. Emphasize the importance of listening in schools.

3. Take a strong, but caring stance against the code of silence.

4. Work actively to change the perception that talking to an adult about a student contemplating violence is considered “snitching.”

5. Find ways to stop bullying.

6. Empower students by involving them in planning, creating, and sustaining a school culture of safety and respect.

7. Ensure that every student feels that he or she has a trusting relationship with at least one adult at school.

8. Create mechanisms for developing and sustaining safe school climates.

9. Be aware of physical environments and their effects on creating comfort zones.

10. Emphasize an integrated systems model.

11. All climates of safety ultimately are “local.”

This material is condensed and adapted from Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates by Fein, R.; Vossekuil, B.; Pollack, W.; Borum, R.; Modzeleski, W.; and Reddy, M. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program and U.S. Secret Service, National Threat Assessment Center, Washington, D.C., 2002. To see the full text of this section of Threat Assessment in Schools, click here and go to chapter VII, pp.69-74.

How to Assess Threats in Students of Concern

A systematic process should be followed to determine whether a particular student, who has come to the attention of school administrators or other authorities, poses a threat of targeted school violence. If the team concludes that there is insufficient information to be reasonably certain that the student does not pose a threat, or that the student appears to be on a path to attack, the study authors recommend that the matter be referred to the appropriate law enforcement agency for a threat assessment investigation.

As a first step, the study authors recommend that a threat assessment team at school should analyze answers to these questions:  

1. What are the student’s motive(s) and goals, and who is (are) likely the intended target(s)?

2. Have there been any communications suggesting ideas or intent to attack?

3. Has the subject shown inappropriate interest in any of the following?

  • school attacks or attackers
  • weapons (including recent acquisition of any relevant weapon)
  • incidents of mass violence (terrorism, workplace violence, mass murderers)

4. Has the student engaged in attack-related behaviors? These behaviors might include:

  • developing an attack idea or plan
  • making efforts to acquire or practice with weapons
  • “casing,” or checking out, possible sites and areas for attack
  • rehearsing attacks or ambushes

5. Does the student have the capacity to carry out an act of targeted violence?

  • How organized is the student’s thinking and behavior?
  • Does the student have the means, e.g., access to a weapon, to carry out an attack?

6. Is the student experiencing hopelessness, desperation and/or despair?

  • Has the student experienced a recent failure, loss and/or loss of status?
  • Is the student known to be having difficulty coping with a stressful event?
  • Is the student now, or has the student ever been, suicidal or “accident-prone”? Has the student engaged in behavior that suggests that he or she has considered suicide?

7. Does the student have a trusting relationship with at least one responsible adult?

  • Is the student emotionally connected to–or disconnected from–other students?
  • Has the student previously come to someone’s attention or raised concern in a way that suggested he or she needs intervention or supportive services?

8. Does the student see violence as an acceptable or desirable way (or the only way) to solve problems?

  • Do the individuals around the student (friends, fellow students, parents, teachers, adults) explicitly or implicitly support or endorse violence as a way of resolving problems or disputes?
  • Has the student been “dared” by others to engage in an act of violence?

9. Is the student’s conversation and “story” consistent with his or her actions? Does information from interviews with others and from the student’s own behavior confirm or dispute what the student says is going on?

10. Are other people concerned about the student’s potential for violence?

  • Are those who know the student concerned that he or she might take action based on violent ideas or plans?
  • Are those who know the student concerned about a specific target?
  • Have those who know the student witnessed recent changes or escalations in mood and behavior?

11. What circumstances might affect the likelihood of an attack?

  • What factors in the student’s life and/or environment might increase or decrease the likelihood that the student will attempt to mount an attack at school?
  • What is the response of other persons who know about the student’s ideas or plan to mount an attack?

This material is condensed and adapted from Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates by Fein, R.; Vossekuil, B.; Pollack, W.; Borum, R.; Modzeleski, W.; and Reddy, M. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program and U.S. Secret Service, National Threat Assessment Center, Washington, D.C., 2002. To see the full text of this section of Threat Assessment in Schools, click here and go to chapter V, pp.43-59.

 
 
   
 
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