April 26, 2022
It’s National Youth Violence Prevention Week (NYVPW), a week dedicated to focusing on effective strategies to prevent youth violence, while also celebrating and commending the ways young people take an active role in improving safety in their own schools and communities.
School districts play an especially important role in protecting and caring for our young students. With 44% of district leaders reporting an increase in threats of violence by students in 2021 compared to 2019, we’re in a crucial moment for district leaders to be taking steps against school violence.
Youth violence is tragic and can be mind-boggling, but it’s not often random. Many children who act in a violent way showcase some warning signs beforehand. The US Department of Homeland Security reports that acts of mass violence such as school shootings, “are rarely spontaneous and are almost always preceded by warning signs, thereby offering opportunities for prevention.” The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) reports that 50-75% of people who attempt suicide talk about it to some extent before they act.
This means there is hope in prevention. For district leaders, here are five preventative steps that your school district can take to help reduce school violence.
In addition to having psychologists, counselors, or social workers available for students in your district, it’s also important to provide training for faculty and staff on how to recognize warning signs of violent behavior, self-harm, and bullying, and violent behaviors.
While imminent warning signs may seem more obvious, such as physical fighting, destruction of property, or threats of violence, early warning signs can go unnoticed. Early warning signs may include things like social withdrawal, low interest in school or hobbies, uncontrolled anger, and patterns of impulsive or chronic bullying behaviors. These may indicate that a child is in need of support from a mental health professional.
Consider including a section about warning signs in your teachers’ ongoing professional development plans. When educators have the knowledge of what to look for, they can be better prepared to note changes or patterns in a student’s behavior and feelings. They can also be more in tune to each child’s needs, to build healthy relationships with their students. In fact, having a meaningful relationship with an adult, such as a teacher at school, can significantly reduce a child’s potential for violence.
Keep in mind that early warning signs should not be used to diagnose or treat an individual child as violent. These signs are varied and should only be used to refer children to a professional, such as a psychologist or counselor who can make a diagnosis.
Anonymous reporting systems and tip lines are gaining traction in schools, as a way for students to feel comfortable reporting concerns about their classmates. Many children who commit violence express their intentions to someone beforehand, and often that someone is a fellow classmate. Yet, even when it’s a threat to their safety, young students can feel too intimidated to report their peers to school administrators or the police.
To help students feel safe revealing things they’ve seen or heard, enable them to report anonymously. Give students multiple avenues for safely and privately voicing their concerns — and communicate these to them frequently — whether that’s telling a teacher or school counselor, calling a school-run tip line, or writing in through a secure message board (or physical suggestion box).
Communicate with students and parents about the use of technology for monitoring or reporting, the value these tools add, and the ways that privacy and security are addressed. Allowing parents, students, and teachers alike a chance to participate in these conversations and get answers to their questions or concerns, can reduce resistance and help them get on board with technology.
Whether you engage with an anonymous reporting system, or create your own channels within your district for students to anonymously raise concerns, give your students a voice in their own safety.
Create clear written policies and processes for the steps to take when a student is identified as potentially dangerous to themselves or others. This means educating teachers and faculty on what to do in the event that they see, hear, or are told of a potential threat. Your written process should include names and contact information for key people to reach out to, such as the district leader, school administrator, school psychologist, and other contacts.
It should also include responsibilities and answer the following questions:
Who will make the assessment about a potential threat, or a warning sign that was flagged by monitoring technology?
Who will reach out to the student’s parents if necessary? Who will speak directly with the student?
Who will speak directly with the student?
Work with your district mental health professionals to include tips for teachers and faculty (who aren’t trained in mental health protocols) on how best to respond in the moment when they witness or are told of an imminent threat. It may be that a student approaches a trusted teacher to reveal their intent to self-harm, or a staff member witnesses a child bullying another student. Remember that not all of your staff are trained in mental health crises, so it can help to give them some guidance on how to act in the moment to best support a student and reduce the risks of violence.
Keep these policies updated and posted somewhere that’s easy for your faculty and staff to access. Review them frequently in ongoing professional development sessions. Just as everyone should know who to call in a medical emergency, everyone throughout your district should know exactly who to call in an event where they feel student safety is at risk.
Monitoring technology has become imperative in the modern effort to prevent school violence. Web filtering solutions that began as tools to block inappropriate content have now evolved into sophisticated safety tools that can flag keyword phrases or other online behaviors that may indicate a student is at risk.
Your teachers and staff cannot have eyes and ears everywhere at once, and even if they did, not all children at-risk of violence will exhibit overt signs of destructive behavior. This is where monitoring technology bridges the gap, acting as eyes and ears to help educators listen for students who are crying out for support.
For example, a child may not feel comfortable sharing their feelings with adults or even fellow students, but they may privately search for content online to validate their feelings or help them carry out a harmful act.
Linewize’s student safety platform, Linewize Monitor, uses artificial intelligence to flag key terms that indicate warning signs. Then, it sends red flag safety alerts to school administrators in real-time. Administrators can involve school counselors, parents, and other professionals as needed to address the concern and get support for the student as quickly as possible. Tools like these have helped professionals intercede before a student commits an act of harm toward themselves or others.
While the best prevention methods are focused on interfering far before a violent act happens, it’s equally important to have physical safety measures in place at schools to reduce violence. Consider improving on-site safety measures across the schools in your district.
This includes managing the way you control access at building entrances and exits, upgrading locking mechanisms for classroom doors and windows, or increasing security presence at your school sites. These steps not only prepare your school to react during a violent event, but can also act as deterrents to people thinking of committing violence, by making it harder to pass through unnoticed.
Keep in mind that new security measures can come across as intimidating or scary to students. Be sure to communicate transparently with students during assemblies and school-wide drills, to prepare them for any change in security at school and to explain that these changes are positive — they’re here to help.
Set up channels where students can ask questions about on-site safety measures at school, to help remove any negative connotations around security.
With the use of technology and human awareness combined, district leaders can do a lot to help prevent youth violence. If we know how to listen and what to look for, we have powerful opportunities to intercede before violence happens, and support young people who are hurting and overwhelmed.
Topics: student safety
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