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February 1, 1995
Vol. 52
No. 5

A Guide to Violence Prevention

Nowadays no school is immune to violence, but there are practical ways to increase a school's resistance.

Recently, as part of a school safety audit, I interviewed a high school teacher who three months earlier had witnessed “an intruder shoot one of her students outside her classroom door. I asked her whether she felt prepared to deal with violence such as this. “I resent this question,” she replied, with tears in her eyes. “I did not come into this profession to be prepared to deal with violence. I am here because I love children and I love my subject, choral music.”
I then asked if the school provided her with any help in dealing with the shooting. Her response was, in effect, “Yes and no.” “When it happened,” she said, “I had no easy way to notify the office for help. Two weeks later, I lost it emotionally and was unable to teach.” She said she then took it upon herself to seek help from one of the guidance counselors so she would be able to return to the classroom.

Contributing Factors

The music teacher's experience illustrated several major problems associated with school violence and school safety—common concerns that faculty and staff in other schools where violence has occurred have voiced to me: “There are students here who should be somewhere else.”“We have had no training in what to do if something violent happens.”“This building is so accessible to everyone, and there are no procedures to deal with strangers.”“My classroom is isolated, and I do not have any easy way to call the office. There are no two-way intercoms.”
Until recently, school buildings were not designed with comprehensive safety in mind. A physically secure building was thought to be a safe building. But when hallway patterns are labyrinths and views are blocked at every corner, walkie-talkies are the major tool to overcome the design. Portable buildings often don't even have one-way intercoms. And the old public address systems are nearly useless for even the most minimal internal communications. Further, traditional classroom space is not flexible and fosters isolation.
Still, failure to overcome these limitations is unacceptable, given today's technology and rampant school violence. While communications technology may be expensive, it may also be critical to a school's capacity to protect itself from violence.

Why Schools Don't Act

Violence is only one aspect of school safety, but it has now become the barometer by which school safety is judged. Why, then, do some schools make little or no attempt to counter violence? There are several reasons.
Staff members may not know what to do. They may believe nothing will work. They may feel that making the school safer is the responsibility of the school board or of law enforcement officials. Or, they may view violence as a public relations problem. Administrators frequently tell me that school violence is not as bad as the media blow it up to be, or that the media focus on and exploit isolated incidents, giving certain schools a bad name.
When school personnel feel helpless and are unable to overcome their feeling of vulnerability, taking action to make themselves less vulnerable can improve both real and perceived safety.
  • Violent acts can occur in any school, even though they are more likely in some schools than others.
  • A proactive response is superior to a reactive response.
  • A violent act is never over when it is over: it lives on in the feelings of those affected by it.
  • There are two kinds of school safety—actual and perceived; they are related, but not necessarily the same.
  • School safety is relative; it can be thought of on a continuum from minimum safety to maximum safety.
  • School violence is a district and community problem.

Seek Consensus

The first step in improving school safety is open discussion about the need for it. A school or school district should arrange a forum that includes all interested members of the school community— parents, businesspeople and chambers of commerce, and school improvement groups.
Participants should know that school violence has many faces: it may occur in a series of small, observable incidents, or suddenly and brutally; it may arise from student conflict, community conflict, or simple criminal behavior. Whatever the nature of the problem, the discussion should focus on the fact that this is our problem and that we can and must do something about it. Schools themselves, not legislators, must identify the problems and the solutions.

Organize a Central Committee

Just as the causes and consequences of violence are complex, so, too, is the search for solutions. Coming up with solutions should not be the total responsibility of the individual school; at the outset, the district should form a districtwide safety committee. Districtwide planning processes actually produce better plans and more support for schools than do solo attempts.
Just as in the discussion stage, everyone in the school community should be involved. The committee should be composed of representatives from the schools and the community, the district office, and community agencies—especially those involved with law enforcement, fires, medical services, and services for juveniles.

Study the Problem

Acquiring security guards or better technology can be part of the solution for a school, but these measures ought to arise from a systematic, deliberate study of the problem. If a school is going to do more than simply respond to violent acts as they occur, it must consider a broad array of safety factors—technology, building design, supervisory procedures, discipline practices, conflict resolution, and other instruction built into the curriculum.
  • curriculum approaches, including conflict reduction, interpersonal skills, and personal safety;
  • policy and procedures to review documents, laws, discipline records, and other gathered safety data;
  • intervention strategies, including those for violent intruders, fire, explosions, and so on; and
  • crisis response follow-up activities to restore the school to equilibrium after a crisis.
  • all relevant state school laws that require compliance (some laws, such as the South Carolina School House Safety Alliance Act, are very specific about the process used to study violence prevention);
  • all state and district board of education regulations that affect safety, including those that assign school officials authority and responsibility for safety;
  • student discipline data from middle and high schools;
  • any school safety audits or studies for the district, including climate surveys;
  • all existing school and district safety plans;
  • model safety plans from other districts;
  • a written timeline for the safety study, with set goals and end products;
  • a plan to submit recommendations for security equipment, communications technology, training, or personnel, if necessary;
  • a list of community resources—governmental and private; and
  • descriptions of curriculum provisions for addressing violence reduction or conflict resolution.

Formulate a Plan

  • recommendations for security equipment and communications technology improvement, including two-way intercoms, walkie-talkies, alarm systems, fences where necessary, fax machines, and additional phone lines;
  • about 25 strategies for the most common school emergencies, in a ready-reference format;
  • a plan for crisis response follow-up for faculty and students, including debriefing and counseling;
  • a plan for annual training for crisis response teams and others (if the training is conducted as the plan is being developed, it is likely to lead to a higher quality plan);
  • recommendations for conflict management training for students or parents and other educational initiatives; and
  • any other policies or long-term plans that will make the school safer.

Conduct a Safety Audit

A comprehensive safety audit can be very useful to a safety committee, helping committee members make decisions about prevention, intervention, and follow-up strategies. An outside group conducts such an audit.
The auditors interview and survey parents, teachers, students, and community members, whose perceptions provide valuable insights into the safety conditions at the school. Because perceptions about the potential for violence in a school vary, an audit can determine which groups or individuals have the greatest safety concerns and why they do.
The auditors also review documents and conduct visual inspections to identify the need for communications technology—for example, video cameras to cover areas that are not easily monitored—and other equipment, such as fences and signs.

Train Crisis Response Teams

All faculty and staff should receive general safety training when they join the school. Each year thereafter, they should receive specific training in safety procedures, including supervision necessary for a safe environment.
In addition to this general training, extensive training is needed for school crisis response teams in how to work with community emergency personnel.
Our firm uses a three-day training process. On the second day, we stage a comprehensive simulation involving community agencies, fire departments, police departments, medical services, the coroner, and the media. For developing skills in planning, communications, and teamwork, nothing works as well as this type of simulation. Equally important, bringing together outside agencies and school personnel in a common endeavor promotes greater trust, understanding, respect, and collaboration.
Crisis response training shows school personnel that they must deal with the feelings of students and colleagues during and after a crisis. Activities that enable people to work through their feelings help minimize the harmful consequences of a terrible event and help people grow stronger in its aftermath. This I know all too well. In 1988, while a superintendent in South Carolina, I had the misfortune of having to deal with a mass shooting in an elementary school. Although I received a state board of education commendation for managing the crisis successfully, fewer mistakes would have resulted if we had had a well-thought out plan in place.
There is no panacea that will guarantee violence will not strike a school. But that should not deter us from taking precautions to minimize the danger. And I am convinced that comprehensive planning, with extensive community and school involvement, generates the best safeguards. It is not enough to say, as one principal put it to me: “When there is trouble, I just want to dial 911.”

Robert Watson has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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