Keeping Our Students Safe

How to Prepare for and Prevent Violent Situations at School

Violence is, sadly, a reality on thousands of K-12 campuses today in America. Once seen as an outpost for learning and safety, an alarming number of violent acts have been committed on grounds ranging small rural schools to large metropolitan campuses. The National Center for Education Statistics found that, during the 2013-2014 school year alone, 65 percent of all public schools reported at least one act of violence had been committed, cumulating in approximately 757,000 incidents throughout the country.

Violent acts can run the gamut from shoving to mass shootings, but often these early signs of aggression lead to more powerful incidents. While these statistics may seem overwhelming, there are many things that can be done to help troubled students and create a safer learning environment for all. The following guide provides insight from school safety and mental health experts, as well as concrete and practical advice for educators, administrators, parents and students.

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How Does Violence Affect Schools?

Though the types of school violence most often covered in local and national news typically involve the use of weapons, many other types of violence can exist on school campuses. It’s important for teachers, administrators, parents and students alike to be aware of the different forms violence can take, as well as the telltale signs of unacceptable behavior. Examples of school violence include:

Bullying Bullying occurs when a student continually acts aggressively toward another student or group of students in a way that creates a power imbalance. Bullying doesn’t always take on the form of physical violence; perpetrators can also use embarrassing information or life details to control people. According to the governmental group Stop Bullying, approximately 28 percent of students in grades 6-12 have been bullied at least once.
Cyberbullying Cyberbullying is a form of bullying that involves unwanted aggressive attacks, but unlike traditional bullying it takes place online. Cyberbullies use text messages, emails, apps, social media platforms, forums and gaming portals to share embarrassing, mean or damaging content about others.
Fighting Physical fighting includes punching, scratching, pushing and other types of physical abuse perpetrated by one student or a group of students against another. When left unchecked, physical fights can quickly escalate and lead to serious injury and even death. The Centers for Disease Control found that 8 percent of all students had fought on school property in the previous 12 months.
Gang Violence Gang violence is perpetrated by a group of students who work together to intimidate or harm others – often without cause. Some gangs may have hazing rituals that require new members to harm others for initiation, while other violence could stem from issues over drugs, alcohol, rivalries or breach of territories. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that approximately 45 percent of high school students say there are gangs or gang members on their campuses.
Use of Weapons A study by Child Trends found that approximately 25 percent of male high school students stated they had carried a gun, knife or club at least once in the previous 30 days – including on school days. Separately, since the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, more than 150,000 students enrolled in at least 170 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting on campus, according to a Washington Post analysis.

What Causes School-Related Violence?

Pinpointing reasons for school-related violence is difficult because there is no one single cause, or even a few easily distinguished causes. School-related violence is a multifaceted issue requiring a thoughtful and nuanced approach.

Brian Moore, an expert on school climate and discipline with the Delaware Department of Education, suggests that the most commonly reported issues may not be fully getting to the heart of the problem. “While media sources often refer to issues such as bullying, studies by the U.S. Secret Service into mass school shootings do not reveal as much of a connection as some believe,” he says.

Rather than looking at the symptoms, Moore suggests digging into the roots to understand the cause of school violence. “Some factors include mental illness as well as social and emotional disconnection.” He continues, “Some of these young people reflect the experiences of grown ‘reasonable’ adults who commit mass shootings: They lack the coping mechanisms to survive negative social or emotional traumas.” Meanwhile, mental health clinician Tara McShane Pandarinath suggests that students don’t feel connected. “When youth feel disconnected from one another, from adults and/or from the school, that can sometimes manifest as violence.”

When discussing school-related violence, another question frequently asked is whether there are telltale signs that administrators, teachers and students can be sensitive to in relation to problematic students. While every learner is different and it would be unwise to solely rely on stereotypical behavior to assess every child, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list a range of risk factors. Some of these include:

  • History of aggressive behavior
  • Learning disorders such as ADHD
  • Inability to control behavior
  • Antisocial behaviors and attitudes
  • Inability to process information or emotions properly
  • Use of drugs, alcohol or tobacco
  • High levels of emotional distress
  • Emotional problems
  • History of violence or trauma in their family life

In addition to these risk behaviors, Moore offers advice for staying vigilant. “Signs that a student could be considering such an event could include sudden withdrawal from normal activities or a fixation on violence and historic reference to previous school shootings – in one case a shooter wanted to do ‘better’ than the two Columbine shooters,” he says.

It’s also important to consider the day and age in which we live. “Another consideration in this environment is the self-radicalization of young people,” Moore notes. “We are well aware of terror groups who use social media to encourage mass shootings and acts of violence.”

School Shootings

While the names of early school shootings are still firmly planted in the minds of those who remember them happening – such as Columbine, Jonesboro and Virginia Tech – sadly they’ve become so numerous in recent years that some go forgotten in the country’s collective conscious.

Aside from death and injury, however, this wave of school shootings has also forever altered everyday life for students. Lockdown drills, which require students and their teachers to simulate how to behave in the case of an active shooter, are now common place and some parents have even purchased bulletproof panels to insert in their children’s backpacks. Once seen as a refuge for some children from problems at home or the dangers of their neighborhoods, schools are now on high alert for possible shootings.

“We used to see schools as ‘open’ buildings where parents were encouraged to come in and interact with students,” Moore says. “Often schools had no access control mechanisms, front doors were often open for anyone to come in and the front office was easily accessible, but visitors were not funneled physically into them.” All of that has changed now. “In many schools, visitors now must be ‘buzzed’ into the school and main office before being given access to the students.” He continues, “staff members are more aware of visitors who are out of place and schools are being built to defend against attacks instead of being a welcoming, open environment.”

Some of the shootings that have taken place since Sandy Hook include:

Umpqua Community College – Roseburg, Oregon

A 26-year-old student opened fire in Snyder Hall on the school’s campus. After killing an English professor, the student killed eight others before turning the gun on himself. An additional eight people were injured.

University of California – Los Angeles

A 38-year-old Ph.D. student killed his former professor in an engineering building on the school’s campus before killing himself.

Townville Elementary School – Townville, South Carolina

A 14-year-old student opened fire on a school’s playground and killed one student. The gunman’s father was also found dead at their home.

Aztec High School – Aztec, New Mexico

A 21-year-old former student snuck into the school while pretending to be a pupil. He murdered two students in a hallway before killing himself.

Marshall County High School – Marshall County, Kentucky

A 15-year-old student walked into the lobby of the school before classes started, opening fire on a group of people. He injured 15 people and killed two 15-year-old students.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School – Parkland, Florida

A 19-year-old former student opened fire inside the Parkland, Florida, school shortly before classes were scheduled to end for the day. Authorities say he killed 14 students and three teachers.

Active Shooters on School Grounds

As active shooters become more commonplace on school grounds and college campuses, many educational institutions have developed plans for how to handle them. Different schools of thought exist in terms of best practice: some have lockdown procedures in place while others favor evacuation plans. Some schools have even discussed providing teachers with guns. Regardless of whether the school in question serves K-12 or college students, protocol is typically similar.

While the goal of any safety plan to deal with an active shooter works to keep both faculty and staff, along with students, out of harm’s way, each group has specific roles to play.

Faculty/Staff

According to Brian Moore, numerous experts in the field of school safety support what is known as the Run, Hide or Fight method of response:

  • Run: “If one has contact with a shooter, if possible run away and flee the building. Use an outside exit to get away from the intruder if at all possible.”
  • Hide: “Hide does not refer to the old days of turning out the lights and praying. This means barricading the door and blocking the suspect’s access to you. Remember, these events are usually over in a few minutes and history shows us that if the shooter encounters a blocked or locked door, they will most likely move on to easier targets.”
  • Fight: “This is the last possible option, and for good reason. This method includes using anything in your surroundings from books or fire extinguishers to attack the person until they are no longer able to harm you or your students so that you can all escape.”

Other ways for faculty and staff to feel better prepared or more confident in their safety measures in the case of an active shooter include:

  • Ensuring you have a thorough understanding of how your school is laid out and where the closest exit is in relation to your classroom.
  • Rather than having an open pathway from your door into the classroom, using bookshelves or other items to create a walkway.
  • Having a plan in place for how to best barricade your specific classroom door in case of an emergency.
  • Making sure that if there are windows in your classroom you know how to operate them.
  • Thinking about keeping your classroom door locked at all times when students are present.

Students

If possible, students should follow the same protocol as teachers in the Run, Hide or Fight method, Moore suggests. Here are other suggestions for keeping safe and getting help:

  • Call 911. Don’t assume they’ve already been called; it’s best to let authorities know as soon as possible and provide as much information as you can.
  • If you see behavior that seems suspect, tell your teacher or an administrator. Better safe than sorry.
  • Make sure you’ve read up on school protocol for active shooters and understand what needs to be done.
  • If you can run, don’t move in a straight line. Moving targets are harder to aim for, so run in a zig-zag or irregular pattern.
  • Try to avoid hiding in spaces that have only one way in and one way out, such as a bathroom.

Schools and Gun Control

Based on expert insights from Brian Moore of the Delaware Department of Education and our background research, we’ve developed a handful of questions and answers to provide more information about gun control efforts in the K-12 environment.

What strides have been made to curb gun violence in educational settings? Moore Many schools have adopted the push for more acceptance of all student populations and focus on acceptance and tolerance of different ideas. In K-12 schools that includes clubs that support LGBT students or increased mental health workers to address individual student needs for support.
How can students, educators and administrators work within the political process to advocate for better gun control measures in their schools?

There are a number of safe school initiatives which advocate for proactive gun safety laws, such as stronger mental health record-keeping and waiting periods. It’s also important to show support for organizations with a strong voice but that could use educational institutions to support their advocacy. An example is the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which has a strong agenda for reducing access to high power, high yield firearms. Also reach out to state and local political leaders; they are far more accessible than federal legislators to advocate for stronger local safety measures and funding for safe school initiatives.

Multiple states are now allowing students at public K-12 schools and universities to carry guns on campus provided they have a permit. What is your expert opinion on these laws? Moore My personal opinion on this topic is to disagree with the concept. I have several reasons for my belief. First and foremost is the preparedness factor. In many cases an active shooter has fantasized about this act for some time period and is using muscle memory and repetitive action to indiscriminately carry out their attack. They are ready to engage any target that presents itself. They are equipped with long guns and generally a significant amount of ammunition. In simple terms, you would be outgunned and out-prepared. School personnel have a responsibility to protect their students; if they get themselves shot, they are unable to protect their students. Lastly, when law enforcement does arrive, they are trained to find a target with a firearm and neutralize that threat. If they encounter a staff member with a loaded firearm, it may be too late before one of the parties determines that the other is not a threat. There is high potential for an accidental shooting by either the teacher of a police officer or by the police officer against the armed teacher.
There's an argument that says individuals and communities should blame the person who pulls the trigger rather than the gun itself. What would you say to those with these feelings? Moore There is merit in both arguments. There are advocates out there for firearms which realistically have no value in home protection or in sport shooting, such as armor-piercing bullets or high capacity magazines. That being said, the focus must be on the person who pulls the trigger. When it comes to acts of violence, unfortunately humans are very creative when causing harm to others. Most of the people who become shooters have some signs that they are experiencing something – some trigger that is causing the desire to commit these acts. By advocating for better mental health laws and expanding the ability of educators to recognize and address these signs, we may be able to help these subjects before they commit the most unspeakable acts upon others, and normally upon themselves as well. Here in Delaware there is proposed legislation that would support a process for allowing providers to contact police, and a process for holding a hearing in court to determine if a person may represent a risk to the health and safety of others and allow the court to act on removing firearms. Better mental health laws also means increasing access to mental health services so that people who have the need can receive services. So many young people today have experienced different levels of trauma and don’t have the support, coping mechanisms or the ability to self-regulate which occasionally creates a sense of helplessness or anger, which may lead to these types of tragic events. I have often said that everyone involved in a school shooting is a victim, often including the person who pulled the trigger.
What gun control-related legislation (if any) has been signed into law over the last few years?

In 2016, a report by CBS News found that none of the more than 100 proposed pieces on gun control have passed Congress since 2011. While the federal legislature has been lax in passing measures designed to curb gun violence, state houses have been more active – and successful – in this arena. A 2016 study by Harvard Business School found that more than 20,000 bills related to gun control have been proposed in the last 25 years and, of those bills, more than 3,000 have become law.

Is there any forthcoming legislation that readers should be made aware of?

While studies have shown that mass shootings (including those at schools) cause the number of gun-related bills – and passage of such bills – to rise, the nature of the bill (e.g. whether it is pro- or anti-gun) is mostly divided down party lines. Republicans tend to focus on expanding the rights of gun owners, while Democrats look for ways to mitigate violence caused by senseless gun violence. Due to the current political dynamics, numerous pieces of legislation have been proposed but no significant laws have been passed.

Anti-Violence Messaging for Students

It’s no secret that opinions about gun control are starkly divided throughout the country – a fact that has become even more pronounced in an increasingly polarized political landscape and a social media-centric society. As K-12 schools, universities and nonprofit organizations work to implement anti-violence campaigns and messaging, the central question at many of these places is how to effectively rise above the noise and communicate a message that is both effective and accepted.

In speaking about this topic with our experts, both Tara Pandarinath and Brian Moore had specific ideas about how to best go about reaching this goal. According to Pandarinath, it starts with providing a positive example: “Many public schools have appropriately thorough processes to hear from parents and the community before they bring evidence-based practices to students,” she says. “We know that children are much more likely to learn what they should do with a positive example (do this) than a negative example (don’t do this), so it’s up to schools and organizations to find messaging that resonates.”

According to Moore, it’s all about creating open and inclusive environments. “These spaces foster a climate that attempts to prevent students with social or emotional issues from feeling alone when struggling to achieve success and acceptance from their peers.” He continues, “Judgment-free zones are hard to find, but schools that implement a culture that doesn’t allow for sheep to wander away from the care of the flock are often successful.”

To implement these spaces, schools have focused highly on training. “They encourage staff members to recognize students in emotional crisis and instead of ignoring the signs, they care enough to approach students as a team and make sure they are there to meet that student’s needs, even in cases where the family cannot or will not help.”

In addition to schools working diligently to implement anti-violence messaging, the organizations below are also great models of what can be done to promote communication and peace on school campuses.

Anti-Violence Project

The AVP is a national advocacy program that organizes community programs, fights against violence and champions those who are frequently the target of violence.

The National Center for Victims of Crime

In addition to providing support services and help for victims of crime, the NCVC offers a range of training programs to help reduce acts of violence.

National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs

An offshoot of the Anti-Violence Project, the NCAVP is specifically focused on developing anti-violence programming to protect and support students who identify as members of the LGBTQ community.

Schools Promoting Violence Prevention

Becoming A Man - Chicago Public Schools In partnership with Youth Guidance and World Sport Chicago, approximately 800 male high schools in 18 Chicago Public Schools have participated in this program. Combining male mentoring, youth engagement activities, and clinical counseling, BAM saw violent crime arrests of at-risk participants decrease by 44 percent and school engagement increase dramatically.
Bullying Prevention – Seminole County Public Schools Recognizing the growing need for anti-bullying programs, SCPS responded with a comprehensive program to educate and support students, teachers, administrators and parents alike. Some of the tools implemented since its inception include staff/administrator training, a school-wide curriculum, holistic policies, awareness activities, community partnerships and parent involvement. The schools also have created classroom-level prevention strategies to ensure every teacher is properly trained on methods for identifying and curtailing bullying activities.
KiVa Anti-Bullying Program A study by UCLA identified this Finland-based program as the most effective in bettering the mental health of bullied students, reducing depression and improving self-esteem. The program incorporates role-playing to instill empathy in bystanders and digital simulations to help them think about how to intervene. Rates of depression in bullied sixth graders dropped by 4 percent during the program.
Speak UP – Cumberland County Schools After reviewing research showing that students frequently know about threats from weapons before teachers and administrators, but often don’t speak up due to fears of retaliation or social ostracism, North Carolina’s Cumberland County Schools introduced Speak UP. Rather than being able to trace the alert back to an individual learner, students can anonymously call or text a hotline to alert supervisors when they see a gun, knife or other weapon.
Violence Prevention Program – Milwaukee Public Schools MPS’s violence prevention programming has been in place for 30 years and combines the work of teachers, counselors, social workers and psychologists in supporting students and staff. In addition to making counseling services available to all students, the system has implemented a range of restorative practices, such as alternatives to suspensions, as a way to rehabilitate students rather than penalize them. The system also has Second Step, a social and emotional curriculum for kindergarten through eighth-grade learners.
Violence Prevention Program – St. Charles Parish Public Schools In its effort to provide a safe and supportive learning environment, SCPPS introduced this program to reduce the number of fights and other incidents of school violence. In addition to addressing the causes of violence at the root rather than the incident itself, the program also offers a student diversionary program that teaches conflict resolution methods, problem-solving and communication. Parents can also take part in support groups to help them better address and diffuse their child’s anger issues. Most recent data show that violence in middle and high schools has dropped by 83 percent.

Encouraging Peaceful Protests Among Students

Every U.S. citizen has the right to protest or join with others in peaceful assembly, and these forms of healthy dialogue can help improve communication between students, faculty and staff as a means of diffusing emotions that can lead to violence. “Teaching students how to talk to each other, how to build healthy relationships and how to resolve conflict can have a dramatic effect on our culture,” says clinician Tara Pandarinath.

Brian Moore echoes Pandarinath’s seniments: “The best way to avoid these issues is to create an opening and welcoming environment that fosters communication and caring between every sector of the campus – from parents to staff to students.” He goes on to say that peaceful protests can help facilitate that communication. “It encourages people with concerns to share them before a crisis becomes a shooting.”

When the Supreme Court ruled in the Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District case of 1969, the ruling stated students (and teachers) don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Though many schools have rules in place to guide student behavior, these fundamental rights are protected. When deciding to protest at school or campus, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Keep it peaceful. While the Constitution protects the rights of every person in America to share their beliefs publicly, they don’t have the right to cause disruptions, incite violence or engage in the harming of any person or building. To ensure your message gets through, stick to peaceful protests.
  • Get a permit. Depending on when and where your group wants to protest, the school or city may require a permit. Check with authorities to find out if this is the case and, if so, how to get one.
  • Monitor volume. This rule varies by college, but generally students can use a bullhorn or other sound amplification device but only to ensure their message is heard. These devices can’t be used as a means of disturbing the peace.
  • Bring a recording device. In case any violence does ensue, you want to be able to prove you and your group behaved peacefully.

School Violence Prevention Resources

Creating an inclusive school environment and educating students on how to express their emotions is key to decreasing violent incidents, Pandarinath says. “If children know they will be listened to and taken seriously by teachers, faculty, staff and other students, they’re much more likely to talk to someone when things in their lives are not going well,” she notes. “We can build a culture of prevention so no child has to feel that violence is the answer.”

The resources below are designed to help school employees and students alike prevent violence:

Center for Safer Schools

Although this program is specific to North Carolina, it provides an excellent guide for other schools or school systems that want to implement support services, training and education surrounding school violence.

Committee for Children

This worldwide group focuses on eliminating violence by teaching children how to better understand and communicate their emotions as a means of diffusing anger and violencdata-targete. The group’s social-emotional learning programs have been successfully implemented in many school settings.

End to Cyberbullying

This innovative organization provides specific strategies for teens, parents and educators on how to prevent cyberbullying and what to do if they or someone they love has been cyberbullied. It also helps parents of those who are cyberbullies to address the behavior.

Gang Prevention: An Overview of Research and Programs

Youth.gov offers this exhaustive guide on the best strategies for dealing with gang violence and how various programs throughout America are combating violence on K-12 campuses throughout the nation.

Guardly

This helpful app allows students to instantly connect with security, local authorities and safety teams whenever they sense danger. In addition to offering two-way communication, the app also provides GPS information so help can find them quickly.

National Crime Prevention Council

The NCPC collaborates with the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the U.S. Department of Justice to provide the Be Safe and Sound in School program. Known as B3S, the program educates students on school safety while also working with administrators, parents, students, law enforcement and other stakeholders to create a strategic plan for school safety.

National School Safety Center

The NSSC’s mission is to advocate for safe and peaceful educational environments for students across the world. In addition to providing site assessments, leadership training and presentations, the group also has a range of available media resources, products and networks.

No School Violence

Putting a technological spin on this issue, NSV uses big data to look for patterns or behaviors that may otherwise go unnoticed in school violence research.

PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center

Aside from providing resources for administrators, educators, students and parents, the NBPC also educates individuals on what constitutes bullying and hosts the National Bullying Prevention Month.

Sandy Hook Promise

This national nonprofit was created after the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and works to train school communities on violence prevention tactics and encourage mental health and wellness programs.

Stomp Out Bullying

In addition to all the usual educational resources, Stomp Out provides a confidential chat service for students who are currently being bullied or who have been bullied to seek support.

Students Against Violence Everywhere Promise Club

SAVE is a national group of thousands of students working together to use leadership, passion and creativity to protect their schools. The group has clubs in K-12 schools throughout America.

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