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October 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 2

Coordinate to Curb Student Violence

Social-emotional learning
One major challenge to many approaches to reducing school violence is the silo effect, in which information compartmentalized within separate departments prevents a school from adopting a wider, more expansive view of data collection, analysis, and interventions. "Different domains of behavior are never linked together or synthesized to develop a comprehensive picture of the subject of concern, conduct further investigation, identify other warning behaviors, and actively risk-manage the case," as one study characterizes the problem (Meloy et al., 2011, p. 19).
One solution to this fragmentation is to develop multidisciplinary Behavioral Intervention Teams (BIT) that can provide a 360-degree view of at-risk situations and develop better informed, collaborative strategies for intervention. BITs identify, assess, and manage threats and danger in school communities. BITs are not punitive but rather preventative in their approach and are focused on connecting those at risk to resources that will move them from the pathway of violence to social integration and support. These teams typically include 5–10 individuals from counseling services, school resource officers, law enforcement, student discipline, and disability services who meet each week to develop interventions designed to mitigate risks. BITs offer something different from a "one and done" approach to threat and violence risk management by focusing on long-term, collaborative interventions that remain in place until the risk has been reduced. A BIT then works with law enforcement to conduct a violence and risk assessment, which reviews existing risk factors and assesses the likelihood of the student behaving violently in the future. This is different than a mental health assessment, which is primarily about assigning a diagnosis, assessing the level of care (does the student need to be hospitalized?), and developing a treatment plan, such as taking medications, continuing therapy, and reducing mental illness symptoms.
Based on research (Van Brunt, 2012; 2015) of more than 100 incidents of violence on high school and college campuses, we've identified 10 risk factors or warning signs in students that staff and administrators should be on the look-out for and monitor and pass to the BIT. While not an exhaustive list, this is a helpful starting place for teams to better understand the nature of more extreme violence and focus intervention resources. As a word of caution, any singular risk factor should be seen in the context of other factors. In the same way a singular puzzle piece does not show the full picture, any singular risk factor should not be taken out of overall context.
  1. Students who write or discuss planned attacks. Some attackers "leak" information about their plans beforehand in the form of overheard conversations, comments on social media postings, or a class journal, blog, webpage, or e-portfolio. Teachers and other school staff are in a unique position to "overhear" students who may be planning an attack. Particular urgency is needed when a student mentions a person, location, or time of an attack.
  2. Students with difficult school conflicts or who are dismissed or expelled. These times of separation from the resources and structure of the school environment can be a catalyst for a desperate student who sees no other way out but to kill or otherwise take revenge on those they deem responsible.
  3. Students with unrequited romantic relationships. While it is common for many students to experience emotional turmoil after a break-up, the resulting tunnel vision, passion, and hopelessness can drive some towards extreme action. These situations can trigger explosive bursts of anger or methodical and carefully detailed plots of revenge.
  4. Individuals who write manifestos or large societal messages that indicate a deeper, entrenched worldview or call to action. Many of those who plan violence do so under the rationalization of some greater cause or message they are trying to communicate. Their attacks are in some way designed to release their larger message or call others to action for their hardened point of view.
  5. Those who feel hopeless or are irrational in their logic. Many of those lost down the path toward violence fall out of connection with others who have the potential to refute their pessimistic logic and offer alternative views of the world outside of violence. Identify students who are isolated and out of meaningful contact with others, as well as those who are marginalized and discriminated against.
  6. Students who bully or are bullied. Attend specifically to bullying behavior that creates an environment in which an affected student may seethe and grow more dangerous in his or her thinking. While all those who are bullied (or who bully) are not destined to become the next school shooter, some who are bullied carry these scars and wounds with them and eventually seek revenge.
  7. Students who need mental health services but are not receiving help. While those with mental illness are not more likely to commit violence—in fact, people with mental illness are more likely to be the victim of a violent crime (Desmarais et al., 2014; Van Brunt & Pescara-Kovach, in press)—proper treatment can help reduce the potential for violence. This involves timely access to the appropriate care and sustained treatment to have an ongoing positive impact.
  8. Sociopaths and psychopaths. Although such students are rare, be concerned about individuals who take pleasure in harming others and expressing obsession-filled hate and threats of violence toward individuals or groups.
  9. Individuals who drop hints or threats of violence. Those who engage in violence rarely just snap; violence is often the end product of months (if not years) of planning.
  10. Suicidal individuals. Suicidal students may express hopelessness and desperation to escape pain, and these same feelings are often also present in many individuals who engage in extreme violence. While all suicidal people do not kill others when they attempt to kill themselves, most who engage in extreme violence end up taking their own life in the process. Many attackers feel isolated and have distorted thinking about escaping pain and, perhaps, a romanticized idea of escape from this world.
Preventing violence is about early identification, research-informed assessments with a clearly defined purpose, and building connection and increasing resiliency, social connections, and positive influences in a student's life. Behavioral Intervention Teams have been successful in this work and in preventing violence in the higher education setting. It is time to move this process more formally into the K–12 arena.

Desmarais, S. L., Van Dorn, R. A., Johnson, K. L., Grimm, K. J., Douglas, K. S., & Swartz, M. S. (2014). Community violence perpetration and victimization among adults with mental illnesses. American Journal of Public Health, 104(12), 2342–2349.

Meloy, J., Hoffmann, J., Guldimann, A., & James, D. (2011). The role of warning behaviors in threat assessment: An exploration and suggested typology. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 30(3) 256–279.

Van Brunt, B., & Pescara-Kovach, L. (in press). Debunking the myths: Mental illness and mass shootings. Journal of Violence and Gender.

Van Brunt, B. (2012). Ending campus violence: New approaches to prevention. New York: Routledge.

Van Brunt, B. (2015). Harm to others: The assessment and treatment of dangerousness. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.

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 Amy Murphy is an assistant professor at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas.

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