Keeping Our Students Safe How to Prepare for and Prevent Violent Situations at School

Reviewed By: Dr. Steven Schlozman, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School
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This content has been reviewed by:

Dr. Steven Schlozman

Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School

Steve Schlozman is assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He has authored more than 45 publications, often focusing on the relationship of the humanities and popular culture to medical education and practice. Currently, Steve is the associate director at The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital. He blogs for U.S. News and World Report, The Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and the WBUR CommonHealth website, and he has written articles for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Psychology Today, Southwest Airlines’ magazine, Newsweek and The Guardian.

Meet the Experts

Tara McShane Pandarinath

Mental Health Clinician

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Brian Moore

Program Manager, School Climate and Discipline, Delaware Dept. of Education

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Written by…

Katy McWhirter Read bio

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.

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:

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.

QWhat 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.

QHow can students, educators and administrators work within the political process to advocate for better gun control measures in their schools?
Moore

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.

QMultiple 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. 

QThere’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.

QWhat gun control-related legislation (if any) has been signed into law over the last few years?

AIn 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.

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

AWhile 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

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:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.