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In an era where threats of violence among students have become almost commonplace, teachers and administrators need to be aware of the early warning signs of violence, and school procedures must be in place to respond to threats. Just as important, however, are school-wide screening procedures and mentoring or counseling programs that enable schools to identify and provide support to alienated or at-risk youth.

What are early warning signs of violence, and how can they be used?

The early warning signs included in that guide include acting-out and disruptive behaviors that typically receive the most attention in schools. In the wake of the Springfield, Oregon school shooting in 1998, the White House directed the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice to develop a guide to schools and communities, entitled Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools1.

Such signs may or may not indicate a serious problem-they do not necessarily mean that a child is prone to violence toward self or others. Rather, early warning signs provide us with the impetus to check out our concerns and address the child's needs. Early warning signs allow us to act responsibly by getting help for the child before problems escalate. (Early Warning, Timely Response, p. 6)

The early warning signs included in that guide are presented in Table 2. These signs include some acting-out and disruptive behaviors that typically receive the most attention in school attention. But it is also important to note that a number of the warning signs identify students who are socially withdrawn, isolated and rejected, and may themselves have been picked on, bullied, or persecuted. Most of the school shootings of the last three years have in fact been perpetrated by such withdrawn and alienated youth.

While an increased awareness of risk factors for violence can be helpful to schools and families, several important cautions must be borne in mind. First, it is important that the warning signs not be used as a rationale for punishment or exclusion, or to label or stereotype students. Rather, the intent is to get early help to a child at-risk for disruptive or violent behavior. Further, it is important to understand the complexity of children's behavior and development. Since students at-risk for serious aggression or violence typically exhibit more than one warning sign, it is important not to overreact to any single incident or behavior. Finally, warning signs should always be understood within an appropriate developmental context and with common sense. What is a warning sign at one grade level may be more typical of students at another age. Carrying a knife to school is indeed a serious infraction and banned by the Gun-Free Schools Act; but it is unclear whether suspending or expelling students for articles such as nailfiles makes an important contribution to school safety. Early warning signs are most helpful if they are interpreted as part of a serious pattern that may worsen over time, and used to provide support for students as early as possible.

SRS Fact Sheet: Early warning signs

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How should schools respond to threats?

In the wake of nationally publicized school shootings, schools have become sadly familiar with threats of violence. A survey of Indiana school superintendents in June of 1999 found 136 copycat bomb threats in the state in the six weeks after the Columbine shooting. These data are a striking reminder that there are many emotionally at-risk students in our schools who might go to great extremes to make their needs known. In such a climate, schools must be prepared with clear policies that outline roles and actions in response to threats of school violence. Such a plan should be available and well-publicized well in advance of threats, and should include attention to both a chain of communication, and actions to be taken. Building- or district-specific policies will vary, but should at the very least include the following components:

Reporting of threats by students: Students need to understand that it is in their best interest to report threats to adults. In order to ensure that there is always someone that students trust, a variety of options (e.g., favorite teacher, guidance counselor, coach, parent, administrator) should be offered with whom students can share their concerns. Students may need some guidance and discussion concerning what constitutes a reportable threat or warning sign, and must be assured they will be protected from retribution for their report.

Taking threats seriously: School and community dialogue should emphasize that parents and teachers cannot afford to dismiss certain reports, but need to pass all reports along to school administration, and perhaps local law enforcement. Students may feel they are putting themselves at some risk by reporting; if there is no response to a serious report, both reporters and their peers will be less likely to communicate future incidents.

Pre-planned responses: The time to decide what action to take in response to a threat is well in advance, not in the chaotic time after a threat. School psychologists or local mental health centers might be called upon to conduct a threat assessment. In some cases, suspension or expulsion may be conditional: that is, the return to school of a student making a serious threat is conditioned on the completion of a risk or threat assessment. Whatever the policy, it should be planned, written, and communicated to all staff in advance, to avoid panic in a threat situation.

Relationships with local law enforcement and mental health agencies: Some threats, especially those involving possession of a firearm, require contact with local law enforcement officials. In all cases, however, a well-established relationship with the local police department and mental health agencies that allows clear and open communication regarding any threat is extremely helpful. Who will make the report, and to whom? Further information on collaboration of education, law enforcement, and mental health agencies is presented below, in the section on Crisis Intervention.

In summary, threats against students, teachers, or school property must be taken seriously. Students must know that they are safe making reports, those reports must be acted upon, and policies and procedures must be planned and communicated to all staff well in advance of threats.

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How can schools be more proactive in detecting early warning signs?
(Risk Assessment and School-Wide Screening)

When early or imminent warning signs or threats are detected, team-based procedures should be in place to assess the seriousness of those signs or threats. Guides for implementing early warning signs recommend a core consultation team that includes mental health professionals. The school psychologist or other members of the team can evaluate the seriousness of behavioral or emotional warning signs through interviews with the student, consultation with those who know the child, and standardized measures of emotional and behavioral functioning. In evaluating early warning signs, collaboration with teachers, staff, and parents is important, especially in developing appropriate intervention strategies. In the case of imminent warning signs or threats, more expedited decisions may require a smaller group of decision-makers; but even here, close communication with community mental health, child service agencies, law enforcement and parents will yield more appropriate and well-considered decisions. (Further details concerning the formation, composition, and procedures of school teams may be found in Restructuring Schools for Violence Prevention).

The sheer number of threats made against schools may also argue for a more proactive approach to the early identification of students. Commercially-available school-wide screening measures (e.g. Systematic Screening for Behavioral Disorders2) may provide schools a valuable tool for early identification of students in need, and another method for identifying at-risk students before they escalate into disruption or violence. These systems use a variety of rankings, ratings, and observation to identify students with emotional and behavioral needs who may need intervention or support.

Finally, some schools are beginning to consider using school disciplinary code violations as an index to better identify and support students in need of behavioral or emotional assistance. In this type of system, a certain number or type of disciplinary infractions might be considered a flag that would trigger a team consultation or the development of an individual plan. One major advantage of this approach is that it uses data already available at most schools. In addition, the use of documented incidents may put schools and school teams on firmer legal footing.

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How can schools intervene when a student has been identified as at-risk?
(Mentoring and Counseling)

In using early warning signs or screening procedures, identification is only half the battle; there must also be programs in place that can help reconnect students identified as at-risk for violence. Both mentoring and counseling can provide structures that allow us to rebuild important connections

In mentoring, a supportive one-to-one relationship is structured between an adult or older peer to provide support and guidance for an at-risk student. The mentor and the child typically meet one to two times a week, and engage in a variety of activities including tutoring, discussion, field trips, or community service; as important as any activity, however, is the opportunity for the at-risk student to develop a trusting relationship with an adult. The most comprehensive program of mentoring is the Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America program; national evaluations of that program have shown it to be a highly promising program for addressing issues of school violence. A number of other school- or community-based program have shown that such programs can decrease students' violent attitudes, raise self-esteem and career aspirations, and improve social skills and academic achievement3.

A number of components have been found to be key in developing an effective mentoring program. Clearly, there can be no effective mentoring without quality mentors: the selection of committed and responsible mentors must be assured, as well as training for working with students who may be difficult to work with. Mentoring requires a long-term commitment; some programs have reported that a relationship of at least a year must be in place before significant changes can be observed. Ongoing meetings among mentors can provide support and evaluation, assisting mentors in solving problems that may arise. Finally, although solely school-based mentoring programs are possible, involving both parents and the community in mentoring appears to increase the success of the program.

A closely related intervention, counseling, has been widely recommended during the national discussion on school violence. Yet the success of counseling appears to be highly variable, depending upon the type of problem being addressed. For students experiencing depression, cognitive-behavioral group counseling approaches have been shown to be quite effective over a relatively short time period. For students with acting-out or antisocial behavior, counseling is unlikely to be effective, and placing such students together in a group counseling situation may in fact make the problem worse4.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing schools in the implementation of effective counseling programs is to ensure that there are mental health professionals with sufficient time available to engage in counseling. If school psychologists are engaged primarily in assessment activities, and school counselors in guidance functions, these professionals will simply not have time to develop effective counseling relationships with at-risk students. For counseling to be an effective component in school violence prevention, additional time must be found for mental health professionals to engage in counseling. This might be accomplished either by hiring additional psychologists, counselors, or school social workers, or by re-allocating time of existing personnel so that mental health professionals are able to spend a greater proportion of their effort in developing preventive mental health programs.

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  1. 1. Dwyer, K., Osher, D., & Warger, C. (1998). Early warning, timely response: A guide to safe schools. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education; see also Dwyer, K. & Osher, D. (2000). Safeguarding our children: An action guide. Washington, D. C.: U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, American Institutes for Research.
  2. 2. Walker, H. M., & Severson, H. H. (1992). Systematic screening for behavior disorders (SSBD): User's guide and administration manual (2nd Ed.). Longmont, CA: Sopris West.
  3. 3. Mihalic, S. F., and Grotpeter, J. K. (1997). Blueprints for violence prevention: Book two-big brothers/big sisters of America. Boulder, CO: Institute of Behavioral Science. See also Lee, J., & Cramond, B. (1999). The positive effects of mentoring economically disadvantaged students. Professional School Counseling, 2(3), 172-178.
  4. 4. Reynolds, W. M. (1991). Psychological intervention for depression in children and adolescents (pp. 649-684). In G. Stoner, M. R. Shinn, & H. M. Walker (Eds.), Interventions for achievement and behavior problems. Silver Spring, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
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Last updated: Sep. 20, 2000
Comment: safeschl@indiana.edu
Copyright 2000, The Trustees of Indiana University