On Monday, March 21, 2005, the United States was once again reminded of the horrific problem of violence in its schools, when 16-year-old Jeff Weise, a student at Red Lake High School in northern Minnesota, went on a killing rampage. Weise began by going to his grandfather's home armed with a .22 caliber handgun. He shot and killed his grandfather, Daryl Lussier, a sergeant on the local police force, and his grandfather's companion, Michelle Sigana. He then took his grandfather's gun belt loaded with ammunition and his grandfather's 12-gauge shotgun and .40 caliber handgun and drove to the high school. Once there, he killed a school security guard, a teacher, and 5 students before getting into a shooting confrontation with several police officers and eventually committing suicide.
A Decade of School Violence
The tragedy at Red Lake High School was the worst incident of school violence since the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999. For almost a decade, the nation has been shocked by the incidents of school violence that include the following.
Moses Lake, Washington—February 2, 1996
A 14-year-old student killed a teacher and two students, and wounded another student with a hunting rifle.
Pearl, Mississippi—October 1, 1997
A 16-year-old boy stabbed his mother, and then went to school and shot nine students, two of whom died.
West Paducah, Kentucky—December 1, 1997
A 14-year-old boy killed three students and wounded five others while they prayed in the hallway.
Jonesboro, Arkansas—March 24, 1998
Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, shot and killed four girls and a teacher and wounded ten others. The two boys activated a fire alarm, and shot their victims as they evacuated the building.
Edinboro, Pennsylvania—April 24, 1998
A 14-year-old boy killed a science teacher and wounded two classmates.
Springfield, Oregon—May 21, 1998
A 15-year-old boy killed two students and wounded 18 others.
Littleton, Colorado—April 20, 1999
Twelve students and one teacher were killed and 23 students were wounded by Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, at Columbine High School in the nation's deadliest school shooting. Harris and Klebold then killed themselves.
Conyers, Georgia—May 20, 1999
A boy upset over a broken romance shot and wounded six students, and then fell to his knees, stuck a gun in his mouth, and surrendered in tears.
Lake Worth, Florida—May 26, 2000
Nate Brazill, 13, killed a teacher with a semiautomatic pistol on the last day of classes.
Santee, California—March 5, 2001
Two students were killed and 13 wounded by Charles Andrew Williams, 15, at Santana High School.
Red Lion, Pennsylvania—April 24, 2003
The principle of Red Lion Area Junior High School was killed by James Sheets, 14, who then killed himself.
Cold Spring, Minnesota—September 24, 2003
One student was killed and another was wounded at Rocori High School by John Jason McLaughlin, 15.
When violence occurs at schools, the lives of students, staff, teachers, parents, the community, and the nation are impacted forever. The possibility of becoming a victim of school violence continues to fuel the fears of students, teachers, administrators, and parents for years afterward. The awareness of the ever-present potential for school violence, and the need to make schools safer, has led many school systems to either implement a school violence prevention program or augment the one they already had.
Schools have mobilized to design and implement strategies to ensure the safety of their students and employees. The need for increasing public awareness of the risk factors and warning signs associated with school violence has also become an integral part of an effective school violence prevention program.
School Violence Behaviors
School violence involves a broad range of troubling behaviors and emotions shown by students. These include antisocial and aggressive acts of physical, verbal, or visual violence that occur in a school setting, and are intended to harm, demean, or intimidate, any member of the school community, or are intended to destroy the physical assets of a school. These behaviors may include, but are not limited to, physical assaults, uncontrolled bouts of anger directed at others, bullying and taunting, fighting, hostile verbal expressions, stealing and vandalizing property, dealing drugs, sexual assaults, and carrying, threatening to use, or actually using guns, knives, or other types of weapons with the intent to harm others, and in some instances committing suicide or homicide.
School Violence Prevention Programs
A school is a workplace, so that many of the elements that have been part of workplace violence prevention program since the early 1990s can—and should—be part of a comprehensive school violence prevention program. The incidents of violence committed by students should not minimize the need to treat a school as a workplace. Creating a safe school environment requires focusing on the traditional elements of a workplace violence prevention program, such as developing procedures and policies to help prevent employees from harming one another as well as harming students.
Preventing violence in the workplace and schools is based on knowledge, trust, communication, and prompt action. Those involved must be willing to work together to achieve a mutual goal: the recognition of warning signs that indicate violence is likely, along with prompt, appropriate action to diffuse the situation and prevent the violence from occurring.
Relying solely on physical security—such as fences, locks, alarms, cameras, and security personnel—will not ensure violence prevention. These elements were all in place on April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Despite their presence, student assailants killed 12 classmates and a teacher, and wounded 23 others in the bloodiest school violence incident in U.S. history.
Success in preventing school violence is proactive and preemptive. Once the violence has begun, steps should be taken to minimize injuries, deaths, and damage, and then to discover who the perpetrators are, and why the violence erupted. The potential for violence and the need for a prevention program should not be downplayed or ignored because an incident has not yet occurred or because the last incident took place a long time ago. This approach could lead to a disaster.
On the other hand, no one wants to work or go to school in an oppressive, overly restrictive environment that unduly restricts personal freedom, creativity, and expression of ideas or individuality. Such an environment could make it difficult for teachers to teach and students to learn. A heavy-handed approach to physical security that causes excessive stress and resentment will not be effective in the long run.
A great deal has been written about what had been observed in Littleton prior to the disaster there. There was overwhelming evidence that violence was imminent, but there was no system in place to process and act on that intelligence so as to prevent what occurred. For a school violence prevention program to work, everyone must be involved. In the school environment, "everyone" means teachers, administrators, staff, students, parents, emergency response organizations, and the general public. Everyone has to understand:
the goals and objective of the school violence prevention program
what constitutes unacceptable behavior with regard to threats and violence
how the program will operate
the warning signs
the roles and responsibilities of each stakeholder group and key individuals
A business organization can mandate the formation of a violence prevention team. However, a school or school district that wants to develop and implement a violence prevention program will face the challenge of persuading a diverse group of people of the need for, and value of the program. This step may pose the greatest single challenge in the process, unless an incident of violence occurred recently. However, this coalescence of people into a productive working group is fundamental to success, and warrants whatever effort is necessary.
The composition of a workplace violence prevention team in a business setting typically involves members from Human Resources, Medical, Legal, Security, and other departments, supplemented by external legal and psychological resources when needed. A school violence prevention program requires skills and expertise both from within and from outside the school system. The school violence prevention team may involve members of the school superintendent's office, local government, law enforcement, and other members of the community.
Everyone has a stake in a violence prevention program, not just the students, parents, and teachers. If a severe incident were to occur, the community as a whole would be subject to scrutiny and criticism. This includes the school board, the local government, law enforcement, the clergy, community leaders, local media, business owners, and realtors. There is always enough blame and guilt to go around.
Preventing a serious act of school violence generally involves the following process: a member of one of the stakeholder groups observes behavior, material, or something that suggests the potential for threatening or violent behavior. This concern is quickly communicated to a specified point of contact. An immediate assessment is made of the situation and, if indicated, the appropriate members of the school violence prevention team are activated and begin responding to the situation. These team members have the necessary authority and expertise to deal with the situation. They follow a prescribed course of action that involves fact finding, diagnosis of the problem, and intervention to mitigate the risk of violence. The situation is monitored and managed until there is no longer a viable threat of violence.
Everyone involved must understand the need for a formal, clearly stated administrative policy forbidding threats and acts of violence, and that violations of the policy will not be tolerated. Each stakeholder should be aware of the behaviors and circumstances that serve as a warning and precede violent behavior.
Trust may be an intangible, but in its absence, a school violence prevention program will not work. All stakeholders must support the goals and objectives of the program and believe that it will work. In addition, everyone must be confident that they will not be subject to any form of reprisal or embarrassment for reporting their suspicions about impending violence.
Trust can only be earned over time through actions. General information about the program as well as more detailed training must be delivered in a very practical, straightforward manner. When the program has been implemented, all incidents must be handled tactfully and promptly. Confidential matters must be held close, and shared only as absolutely required, and on a need-to-know basis. If the program and its managers do not perform in such a way as to earn the trust of all stakeholders, it will be doomed to failure.
The preparation and delivery clear communications is critical to the success of the program. Everyone involved must understand why the program is needed and how it works. They should be reminded of the potential cost of a violent incident in terms of loss of life, injuries, property damage, lawsuits, and community reputation. It may be necessary to modify the content of the presentation as appropriate for local government and school board administrators, students and their parents, the business community, and the general public.
A cornerstone of the program will be a clear policy statement delivered at the onset from a recognized authority figure, such as the mayor, superintendent of education, or principal. The key to this communication is identification of the unacceptable behaviors that are being targeted, and an announcement that they will not be tolerated. It will also be important to develop training materials so that everyone involved will knows what his or her role is in the program.
When the program is ready to be initiated and implemented, everyone should be informed. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, including personal presentations, newspaper articles, letters to parents, and any creative ways that make sense. The widespread understanding that a violence prevention program exists, and that violent behavior will not be tolerated, can sometimes act as a deterrent.
When the program begins operation, the school violence prevention team must communicate effectively among themselves. They must be clear and concise in expressing their thoughts. Detailed records should be kept about meetings, so that if called on to do so, the team can explain the rationale for its decisions and actions. Finally, the program administrators should keep in contact with all stakeholder groups with regard to the program's progress.
Nothing will doom a program like inaction. If a stakeholder reports a suspicious behavior and that report is not promptly investigated, the system has failed. People will lose hard won confidence rapidly. In addition, if an incident should occur after a report, and prior to action, everyone involved with the violence prevention team could be liable. If this occurs, it would be better not to have a program because the stakeholders would be mistakenly depending on a process that does not work. It is absolutely imperative that all reports are investigated promptly, and incidents are managed to a successful and nonviolent conclusion as soon as possible.
A Model School Violence Prevention Program
There are many school violence prevention programs that have been developed and implemented over the past decade. Some are better than others. The best ones are comprehensive and involve a number of important components. These include security measures, disciplinary policies and procedures, strategies for responding to threats and violent situations, crisis response guidelines, a school-wide action plan, training in warning signs, risk factors, and threat assessment, and parental and community involvement.
The Seven Step Workplace Violence Prevention Program described below provides an excellent model for a comprehensive and effective school violence prevention program. A school violence prevention program should include the following.
Security Survey and Violence Vulnerability Assessment
School Violence Prevention Policy
School Violence Prevention Team
Communication Plan for Reporting Incidents and Concerns
Incident Investigation and Management Procedures
These components form the basis of a core program. However, each school system needs to develop an individually customized program that contains the elements of the core program as they relate to the particular school system. If possible, the program should be developed with the help of an experienced consultant and the input of all stakeholders including students, parents, teachers, school administrators, school employees, school board members, community leaders, and local law enforcement. The members of each of these groups should be informed as to their specific role in the school violence prevention program.
They should also receive training. At a minimum, this training should include information about the program, the names and contact numbers of the team members, the warning signs to look out for, and how and where to report concerns. The School Violence Prevention team should be trained on how to identify potential perpetrators of violence, whether they be students, faculty, administrators, or school employees. The Team should also be trained on the warnings signs of potential violence, and how to conduct an investigation, perform a threat and risk assessment, and develop a plan to manage each incident to a safe conclusion.
A Final Word
The model prevention program presented above contains many of the components that have been successfully used in the workplace violence prevention programs over the past 15 years by many business and organizations in the corporate world. These components have proven to be successful in dealing with the problem of workplace violence. One of the most critical elements of a successful workplace violence prevention program is to identify the behaviors and warning signs that frequently precede violent incidents.
This is particularly critical in school violence prevention programs since almost without exception, the students that ultimately commit the violence exhibit behaviors and warning signs before becoming violent. In many instances they will tell a number of their fellow students about what they are planning to do. At Red Lake High School, it appears that at least 20 students knew about what Jeff Weise was planning to do. At Columbine High School, the perpetrators Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did the following before they went on their rampage:
discussed plans with other students
kept a detailed diary for over a year
acquired firearms and explosives
gained technical knowledge of bombs and bomb-making devices
made over 30 bombs
obtained school blueprint plans
covertly copied school keys
created a website that threatened other students
made a video for a class project that involved shooting students at the school
Had a comprehensive school violence prevention program such as the one described in this article been in place at Red Lake or Columbine, it is possible the homicides there could have been prevented. As more and more schools develop violence prevention programs, there is the hope that the tragic incidents of violence in the nation's schools will eventually become a thing of the past.
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