How to stop school violence

Components of a comprehensive program

08/21/2013  |  By BRUCE T. BLYTHE
School Security
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One of the most pressing questions in schools today is, “How can we stop school violence?” We know from experience that violence in the workplace can be drastically minimized. How about schools? While, violence in schools cannot be 100 percent prevented, there is one approach that has been astonishingly successful that can be emulated in school settings.

Comprehensive School Violence Prevention Program

Successful abatement in organizational violence started, not in schools, but with the “poster child” of workplace violence. Over two decades ago, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) experienced the horror of repeated mass shootings in their workplace. In response, USPS implemented a comprehensive workplace violence program throughout their organization. As a result, with over 700,000 employees, USPS went over eight years without an employee shooting. Crisis Management International helped develop and implement the USPS program and offers schools a variation of the USPS program as a template to assess your violence prevention program.

School Violence Policy

The foundation of a comprehensive program is a reasonable policy that defines school violence and consequences for violation. It contains verbiage that will support administrators who must confront potentially violent individuals. Content is periodically updated to address new issues and emerging laws, e.g., concealed weapons, gun possession in vehicles, domestic violence into the workplace, bullying, hate crimes, etc.

We recommend a statement in the policy that prohibits, “Any behavior that creates a reasonable fear or intimidation response in others.” This avoids arguments about if a threat was intended. Instead, it’s about the reaction created in others. It also helps to avoid administration’s unreasonable overreactions.

Threat Notification System

Threats can’t be managed that you don’t know about. How to report threatening individuals and situations to the school should be clearly communicated to all stakeholders, including parents. It must be monitored 24/7 since violent intent can start in the evenings at home, such as spousal violence spilling into the school.

Often, informants are afraid to notify. Confidentiality of informants must be addressed. Will the identity of informants be protected and who will know? What will be done when threat notifications are provided? Is anonymous reporting allowed?

Position the threat notification system as a part of the school safety program. Remind all stakeholders that they are “eyes and ears” for each other. Remind persons who may be resistant to notify, “You wouldn’t want someone to be hurt or killed when you knew about the situation and didn’t report it.” Like annual reminders to change batteries in your smoke alarm, the threat notification system must be marketed on a regular basis to remain viable.

Threat Response Team

When threats arise, a multidisciplinary team should respond that is trained and exercised in handling threatening situations. This is not a time for impromptu guesswork. Team representation should include, at a minimum, school administration, security or law enforcement, legal and a threat-experienced mental health professional. They should assess threatening individuals in each of the following areas: behavioral, biological, social, environmental, psychological and contextual realms.

The team should have previously established relationships with local law enforcement, a threat-experienced attorney, a mental health threat specialist (not a generalist) with ability to assess and defuse threatening individuals/situations, judges with jurisdiction over domestic violence and injunctive relief, and guard services. The team should have resources at their disposal — for hire, if needed — in surveillance, undercover, investigations, personal protection, dispute resolution, anger and hostility management, linguistic analysis, IT forensics, polygraph testing and outplacement services.

Threat Response Team Manual

Effective and defensible threat response comes from a structured system that follows a consistent methodology. Clear and actionable guidelines for managing threats should be organized into a vetted manual, including sections for immediate actions, investigations, assessment, defusing, follow-up, purposeful disengagement and legally compliant documentation.

Pre-employment and Pre-Enrollment Reference Checking/Criminal Background Checks

Faculty, staff, and students with violent propensities often get transferred. Previous employers/schools typically take an “if they don’t ask, don’t tell” stance. Within legal guidelines, conduct reference checks and ask, “So I can document my file, do we have any reason to be concerned about this individual from a violence standpoint?” Contractors should also screen their personnel. Remember, criminals gravitate toward schools that don’t conduct criminal background checks.

Hostility Management Training

Take-and-use methods to calm hostile individuals and situations are important life skills. Violent responses often can be defused early when students, staff, and faculty are trained in hostility management.

School Security Program

(Physical and IT Security):

The best school security personnel are those who establish relationships with students, staff and faculty. Beyond guards, guns and locks, security professionals that establish “intelligence channels” throughout the school will help to stop violence and sabotage in earliest stages.

Physical Security Audit

Assessment of facilities, property, and security systems will identify weaknesses and other methods for preventing breaches and potential violence. They are best conducted under attorney client privilege, when possible.

Tracking of Threatening Situations

A system that identifies and compiles data regarding the occurrences of threats — toward people, the school, reputation, and/or property — can provide useful information for establishing abatement controls. Risks may be related to location of school(s) within the community, local crime rates, student population, industry incidents, previous school incidents and near misses. Tracking of motives is helpful. Motives could be related to conflicts with faculty or administration, student-on-student, domestic violence into the school, drugs and alcohol, crime/robberies, toxic faculty or staff member, hostile parent, activist groups, lone wolf, bullied student, mentally disturbed, or others.

Other Components of a Comprehensive School Violence Prevention Program

Character-Based Pre-Employment Interview Questions: Interviews designed to identify individuals with violent history, character problems, entitlement issues, anger and sociopathic tendencies. Example: “We all have to bend the rules to get the job done. Tell me about a time you creatively bent the rules to get the job done.”

Expulsions/Terminations Protocol: Special guidelines for disciplinary meetings, terminations, and expulsions when hostility and potential violence are a concern.

Supervisory Training: Training regarding caring and compassionate supervision of people, with recognition and response to potential violence or aggression.

School Counseling Program: Counselors trained in anger management, “duty-to-warn” protocol, and boundary issues regarding when to bring in outside resources, e.g., school administration, threat response team, law enforcement, and threat specialists.

Domestic Violence Program: Guidelines and assistance for faculty and staff who are subjected to, or notice evidence of, domestic violence that can come into the school.

Faculty, Staff, Parent and Student Surveys: Inclusion of violence issues.

Alternative Dispute Resolution Program: Methods to address situations that may include hostilities and potential violence, e.g., coaching, facilitated communications, negotiation, mediation, and arbitration.

Emergency and Post-Crisis Response System: Training and exercises on evacuation, shelter in place, active shooter, lock down, floor warden system, safe rooms, etc.

These guidelines are listed as a generic template to help you evaluate your present School Violence Program. A comprehensive program may not include each of these components and it may include other elements that are not listed here. This checklist is to be used with prudent judgment in designing a School Violence Program that best fits the school’s time, budget, culture and risk tolerance.

If implementation of these components saves serious injury or the life of even one individual, then the effort will have been well worthwhile.

Internationally acclaimed crisis management and workplace violence expert, Bruce Blythe is chairman of three companies that provide a continuum of crisis preparedness, crisis response, and employee return-to-work services. They have provided hundreds of school and workplace violence preparedness programs and threat of violence consultations, as well as on-site organizational crisis responses 1000 times per month. Blythe is the author of “Blindsided: A Manager’s Guide to Catastrophic Incidents in the Workplace.”
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