Promoting Safe Schools

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has taught and written various law courses.

Studies show that the most effective interventions in reducing violence in schools require changing the environment of the entire school. This lesson provides an overview of staff members' responsibilities in promoting safe schools.

Violence in Schools

Twenty children and six staff members were killed in the December 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. In the following 18 months, there were at least 74 additional instances of shots fired on school grounds.

Teachers, staff, parents and students consider violence in our schools to be a chief educational concern. In many school districts, more students and staff report feeling unsafe at school in recent years than ever before. Education professionals know that a safe school environment is vital to an effective educational environment. Studies show that children learn best in familiar, peaceful and comfortable surroundings. Therefore, if students feel their school is unsafe, it presents a serious challenge for teachers.

Causes of Violence

In order to promote safe schools, educators must first understand what causes violence in schools. There are several different types of school violence. One of the most prevalent types involves students attacking school staff and other students; an example is the deadly Columbine High School shootings that killed 13 people in 1999.

Research shows that several factors play a part in school violence perpetrated by students. Schools are more likely to be victimized by violence if:

  • The school is overcrowded
  • School space is poorly designed and used
  • There is a lack of school disciplinary procedures
  • There is an environment of multi-cultural insensitivity

Meanwhile, students who are at higher risk to commit violent acts tend to exhibit the following traits:

  • Rejection by peers
  • Social withdrawal and/or isolation
  • Lower school interest and performance

Experts advise school staff to be alert for students who show patterns of bullying behavior, uncontrollable anger or feelings of victimization. In particular, the American Psychological Association suggests teachers and staff watch for four accelerating factors that can indicate a particular student's risk of violence. They are:

  • Early involvement with drugs and/or alcohol
  • Easy access to weapons, especially handguns
  • Association with antisocial, deviant peer-groups
  • Pervasive exposure to media violence

Response of Schools

Keep in mind, though, that it's not enough to simply know the causes of violence - schools must respond and intervene. In particular, there are certain circumstances that require urgent intervention by school authorities, and possibly law enforcement. For example, the federal Gun-Free Schools Act required every state to pass a zero-tolerance law prohibiting weapons in and around schools or risk losing federal funding. Under the Act, a school is required to expel a student for at least one year if that student knowingly brings a loaded firearm to school.

But sometimes a student shows signs of trouble before bringing a weapon to school. The Departments of Education and Justice have identified imminent warning signs in students, which require an immediate, proactive school response:

  • Serious physical fighting with peers or family members
  • Serious destruction of property
  • Rage for seemingly minor reasons
  • Detailed threats of lethal violence
  • Self-injurious behavior or threats of suicide.

Approaches Toward School Safety

Notably, effective and safe schools tend to have zero-tolerance policies not just for the possession of weapons, but also for alcohol and illegal drugs. That movement largely stems from the Federal Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, or DFSCA. The DFSCA provides federal grant money to fund school programs shown to prevent violence and illegal substance use in and around schools; involve parents and communities; and foster a safe and drug-free learning environment that promotes student academic achievement.

The most effective school communities are known for using a three-pronged approach for creating a safe environment. This type of approach should be universal, meaning the plan addresses the culture of the entire school and incorporates policies that apply school-wide. The approach should be targeted, meaning the plan incorporates specific strategies for individuals identified to be at-risk students. And the approach should be intensive, meaning the plan is detailed, thorough and clear so that each staff member can easily discern his or her role in the plan and complete those duties.

Similarly, many schools choose to use the Positive Behavior Supports, or 'PBS' approach. PBS allows school staff to understand and resolve problem behaviors in students before those behaviors escalate into violence. PBS strives to define, teach and enforce constructive school behaviors. PBS can be used with individual students or school-wide. When used school-wide, this prevention approach also uses three tiers. Primary preventions are used school-wide, while secondary preventions are used specifically with at-risk students and tertiary preventions are used exclusively with high risk students.

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