School leaders can discern concerning behaviors and protect students against real threats of school violence

4 major components of school violence prevention

School leaders can discern concerning behaviors and protect students against real threats of school violence

December 2021 saw the latest TikTok challenge encouraging students to make threats of shootings, bomb threats, and violence against schools. Some schools enhanced security protocols while others canceled classes entirely. Many of the threats were ultimately unverified, but even rumors of potential school violence were enough to incite major panic for parents and put school leaders across the country on high alert.

Though many students see social media challenges as a rite of passage or a way to fit in with their peers, what they may not realize is that students caught participating in challenges to make threats of violence or engage in destructive behaviors face severe consequences—including criminal charges in some cases.

It’s clear that schools must work with parents to inform students of the consequences associated with participating in these dangerous viral challenges. And with the spike in school violence over the last year, every threat should be taken seriously. So, what can schools do now to ensure their students and colleagues remain safe?

Early prevention

First off, schools should monitor social media posts to understand and anticipate which ones may be relevant to them. Additionally, parents should monitor their student’s social media activity on a regular basis. Not only are parents generally unaware of social media trends in a broader sense, but they are also often unaware of what their own child is participating in.

Next, teachers and school personnel need to be hyper-vigilant in observing student behavior. They need to take note of students who are quicker to get angry and need to understand what their triggers are in order to avoid pushing them past their breaking point. We also need to understand that although it may be necessary under certain circumstances, the purpose of threat assessment is not to punish students or send them to jail, but rather provide them with assistance—like mental health support—and prevent situations from escalating.

Furthermore, mental health is a reality and concern for many students today. It takes a lot of people and moving parts to aid the kids that need it. For example, in the wake of a catastrophic event, everyone says, ‘I knew that kid was going to do that.’ Therefore, it’s critical that these observations are shared before it gets to that point.

Analyzing future threats and long-term prevention planning

In an analysis of targeted acts of school violence, the U.S. Secret Service found that plotters showed six common concerning behaviors in the months—sometimes years—prior to acting on their plan. Those six behaviors are as follows:

  • Threats indicating intent to attack
  • Interest in violence or topics associated with violence
  • Weapons-related behaviors
  • Harassing or threatening others
  • Exhibiting a concerning mental status
  • Extreme changes in behavior

It’s important that every student has at least one adult within the school that they trust and feel safe disclosing information to. These existing relationships are necessary for students who observe dangerous behavior in their classmates, as well as those displaying the signs. 

Oftentimes, one of the main catalysts for violent student behavior is a poor home life. School personnel should focus on identifying these students and simply letting them know they care—making sure they aren’t eating lunch alone or playing alone, as well as keeping in communication with parents/guardians to monitor the situation and intervene if necessary. Ensuring ample communication between school officials and police can help identify which students and parents need resources or support, which can dissipate future issues.

Another important part of prevention is cultivating relationships between the school and the community—this is a case where schools can use social media to their advantage. If the community is involved in the school and aware of positive news, they’ll be less apt to believe unverified rumors or be overly critical of school policy (which can be a hindrance during the emergency response process).

In order to prevent surges in concerning behaviors, school personnel must understand common circumstances that lead to increases in violent threats, such as the days leading up to a break or school holiday. These breaks are strategically placed at times when students—and staff—are apt to need a mental recess. Classroom structure often becomes more relaxed before a break as well, meaning that concerning or destructive student behavior is likely to be overlooked. Teachers and staff members need to remain especially organized and vigilant in observing student behavior during these times.

Strategies and Tips for Coordinated School Emergency Response

  • School emergency operations plan (EOP)
    A school emergency operations plan (EOP) is a multi-hazard plan that is intended to be used for all emergency events. The plan should include details for prevention, response, and recovery. An EOP needs to be dynamic–tested through regular drills and exercises and revised as needed. Emergency situations are fluid, and you can never truly plan for every contingency, but if you have a basic plan that has been practiced, the intent is that it can be easily modified as needed to fit the given situation.  
  • Crisis communication plan
    Crisis communication plans are needed for both internal and external communication. A key piece of this plan is identifying a designated spokesperson, typically—but not always—the school principal. Information needs to be released strategically, presenting only necessary facts without bias or speculation. There is a fine line between being transparent and providing too much information that becomes counterproductive and can escalate the crisis situation.
  • Tools for coordinated response/recovery
    Schools need to utilize technology and rapid-communication tools to streamline emergency response and recovery procedures. A key advantage for response teams is a mobile panic button that seamlessly integrates with their existing emergency management system and alerts essential school personnel to initiate the response plan.

Multi-disciplinary Approach

Finally, with these key behavioral identifiers and prevention strategies in mind, school personnel should consider a multi-disciplinary approach, which is incredibly beneficial in terms of offering multiple perspectives when assessing or responding to a threat. This team should include personnel such as the principal, assistant principal, school resource officer (or other law enforcement), and the school’s mental health professional/guidance counselor. Each member of the team has a unique perspective on the threat itself and has specific priorities when responding. For example, the mental health professional will focus on working with the student to understand their behavior while the law enforcement officer will focus on investigating the situation.

As communities and schools work together to support students, it’s important that staff have the right tools and emergency plans in place to respond to student crises or increased violence. Preparedness is key and will be critical into 2022 and beyond.

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