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A Framework for Preventing Lethal School Violence: Part 2 (of 2)

04/13/2015 07:32 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2015
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Understanding that Leads to Prevention.

In order to prevent lethal school violence, we need to be able to talk about it. And as was stated in Part 1 of this series, this is a difficult topic to talk about.

If we truly want a national dialogue on lethal school violence prevention, then we quickly might find ourselves at a crossroads. The following diagram depicts the potential stalemate.

The text on each of the opposite sides of the stop sign at the right illustrate ways that our national dialogue on prevention can stall. At the same time, each of these potentially opposing ideas need to be heard - also, the conflict (real or perceived) can provide added motivation for all stakeholders to engage in prevention, collaboratively.

For example, when we talk about the extensive safety of the vast majority of schools, there are those that disagree and use a fear-based model to try to say the opposite. Or if we promote diverse trainings for schools (such as threat assessment, school-based bullying prevention, or even strengths-based methodology for distressed kids), then we may quickly find out that the tandem needs for resources and time are called into question.

Also, if we aim for advocacy for all distressed youth, there may be people and policies in the equation that work against this. For example, Zero Tolerance policies (a questionable Columbine-era structure aimed at using scripted punishments to promote school safety), add a layer of inefficiency to school safety. They also promote a heavy-handed approach using quick and final punishments that often leads to inequity for minority students. Now that Zero Tolerance policies are losing their hold, the U.S. Department of Education (without yet repealing the old) recommends a much better approach - that schools, districts, and states should ensure that they are using alternatives to suspension and expulsion wherever possible. In that way, guidance to prevent disproportionalities among discipline rates for specific ethnicities has also been provided.

So, to get through the stop sign, we need to engage in what psychologist and author, Jared Scherz refers to as the Gestalt paradigm. This refers to accepting the motivations behind each perspective in prevention and then building on the common goal. Only then can we move forward with an understanding of the whole system. But how can we do that effectively?

First and foremost, though, any realist admits that we're not going to succeed in 'stopping' school violence because doing so is too high of an expectation. However, if prevention, awareness, and effective threat assessment in schools are integral parts of our dialogue, then we might be as close as we can get to cessation. We won't succeed everywhere, but anywhere that this broad type of prevention works is a part of the journey towards success.

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And so, with the many different sides to the dialogue about a common goal of making schools safer, we all need to move forward. Through the efforts of a tireless nationwide force of dedicated teachers and administrators, and prudent state leaders, the work of school safety is carefully being nurtured.

However, three challenges lay in wait for us to resolve as we move forward. They are also adaptive in the sense that each one needs to be continually refocused for new students, new challenges, new staff, and perhaps even new constraints.

Challenge 1 - The Boy Code

Dr. William Pollack explains the many obstacles that boys face in his book, Real Boys. In a nutshell, many boys grow up engaging in a code of silence, playing out a tough-guy bravado while isolating themselves (or being isolated) from relationships and supports that might help encourage their centeredness and maturity. This code of silence is also called the Boy Code, or even a Gender Straitjacket because of the strong societal forces that Dr. Pollack posits as instrumental in keeping boys the way they are.

The Boy Code is also a way to understand why males have much more trouble positively expressing feelings and networking with others as compared to females. Perhaps in an indirect way, this adds to the rationale for why males commit so many more crimes than females, as was discussed previously. Pollack does not provide a single answer to the question of male maturity, but rather a framework with which to understand the complexities in boys as they mature. If adults males commit so many more crimes than females (80 percent of violent crime is committed by males, according to the FBI's most recent year of analysis), then the precursor is poor choices during the schooling years. But how do schools break the 'Boy Code?'

Once again, there is not a single answer, but rather a collaborative understanding that school leaders, staff, and teachers are pivotal in nurturing awareness and affirmation of the different behavioral styles of boys versus girls. By doing so with all school stakeholders, and male students also, they can help avoid simply reinforcing the pipeline to prison by always giving out punishments with growing severity as boys grow older. Overall, we have to think long and hard on different ways to work with boys - one that challenges the inequities of school discipline while also bridging observed differences of boys in social and emotional maturity.

The question that captures this need for all schools, districts, and states is as follows. (7) How is your school supporting the diverse needs of males to help them not become the recipients of a majority of school consequences?

(* Author's note: questions 1-6 in the Lethal School Violence Prevention framework are from Part 1 of this series.)

Challenge 2 - The School Code and the Benefit of Effective Threat Assessment

There is a school code that school systems might unknowingly play by called the status quo. Everything is done the way it has always been done because stasis is viewed as one of three things: consistency, control, and not challenging 'the system'. This can happen for beneficial reasons too, and many school systems have a lot of fine-tuned mechanisms that need to be continued in their present form. However, among certain policies, programs, or practices, the idea of beneficial change is harder to come by. When that bottleneck in decision-making occurs, the 'status quo' rules the turf.

School safety and the idea of a status quo are not necessarily aligned together. Remember that President Obama instructed at the time of Sandy Hook that in order to make schools safer, we would all need to change. That is not an admission that schools are unsafe - by no means. Instead, the President explained that we all need to grow in working collaboratively towards solutions. This also means having a more well-developed understanding of how to work with males and a stronger focus on using restorative practices rather than just more punishments.

This is where each school having an effective threat assessment team comes into play. And what is a threat assessment team? It is a defined group in a school consisting of educational stakeholders (including school leaders, counselors, teachers, and others) to evaluate risk behaviors that are exhibited by students. These can be anything from threats of fighting to promises to hurt themselves, someone else, to worse. Risks among students have been cogently explained by FBI (O'Toole, M, FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit, 2000). The purpose of the threat assessment team is to evaluate each risk is to determine whether or not it poses an imminent threat to students.

The Sandy Hook Advisory Commission recommended (Final Report, p. 25) that threat assessment teams (the Commission called them School Security and Safety Committees) should also include other staff members in schools - like custodians - as these staff members often have firsthand knowledge of the challenges students face each day. Moreover, the Commission added that such teams should also include first responders and mental health professionals and even parents so that the safety needs of the whole child are supported.

The state of Virginia has an exemplary answer to the question of how to implement threat assessment teams in schools. Simply put, this state requires all of its public schools to set up threat assessment teams. In addition, the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services has a model policy to guide school systems in how to set up this important feature of school safety. No other state nationwide has this important requirement for all of its schools.

Moreover, one of the threat assessment program guidelines that Virginia schools can choose from has been distinguished as the only evidence-based threat assessment model across the nation. It is called the Student Threat Assessment Guidelines, or VSTAG for short. The VSTAG was created under the direction of Dr. Dewey Cornell, a forensic clinical psychologist and professor of education at the Curry School of Education of the University of Virginia.

The VSTAG model has been tested in a series of controlled studies in hundreds of schools. This includes a randomized controlled study which showed that students who make threats of violence in schools using this model are 4 times more likely to receive counseling services and only 1/3 as likely to receive a long-term suspension and only 1/8 as likely to be transferred to another school.

Overall, school-level threat assessment needs to be understood as a set of actions amidst a backdrop of violence prevention across many levels in society - not just in schools. And since it is hard to foresee having interventions for every place that violent crime exists (restaurants, bus stations, sporting events, and so forth), we must align our understanding with how threat assessment is used outside of education. For instance, large organizations and businesses including the U.S. Postal Service have threat assessment teams (See USPS Pub. 108) to provide support to their employees/constituency.

In that context, schools and students stand to gain a lot through effective threat assessments efforts, and this can help accomplish a broader mission of reaching communities and families. According to Dr. Cornell (Our Schools Are Safe: Challenging the Misperception that Schools are Dangerous Places, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, in press), if violent crime in our society is seen as a flood that negatively impacts each community, we cannot effectively deal with the crisis at hand by simply building flood walls around all schools. Instead, healthy community-wide prevention should be likened to building levies that can protect everyone. In this way, school and district violence prevention is only a small, but necessary part of a larger system.

Two questions capture this need for all schools, districts, and states. (8) How is your school listening to the voices of all staff in understanding student risks? (9) For states: Are all schools required to have threat assessment teams to help deal consistently with student risk behaviors?

Challenge 3 - The Family Code

Once we've built a tested system in a school that is able to adapt to new types of students, new faculty, new challenges, and even new constraints, then we need to go deeper with families. A code that runs deep in Americana is another type of homeostasis: the institution of the family.

Here is how it goes in simplest terms. Even though many families have different structures and histories, inside each of them is often the belief at least in some areas (if not many) that things are going pretty well. Also, families do not like to be told they are wrong, and so a code of silence goes up about student behavior. Families might not want to look bad and so schools do not always hear the depth of needs that students have. And so, how do we break through that family code?

I spoke about this with Missy Jenkins Smith, a school shooting survivor and author who now trains schools in the work of prevention. When she was 15 years old, she was injured in the Heath High School shooting in 1997 in West Paducah, Kentucky.

Missy explained that we all need to make a habit of entering into the lives of students. We cannot assume that everything is okay with them just because kids look okay. We can never know the power of our positive words, positive praise, and positive actions that touch the lives of students. In front of audience after audience, Missy reminds students and teachers that the way to have victory and to persevere is through focusing on the positives.

So let's not just add that to our bucket list in terms of making schools even safer. Instead, let's all get started today. Having an impact means not being a inactive bystander to events that concern us. By reaching in and reaching out, we can all find a way to make an impact.

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One final question captures this need for all schools, districts, and states. (10) How is your school, district, and state building a positive family and community impact into its footprint of school safety?

As we close this discussion of a framework of understanding lethal school violence, it is integral to remember that each step of understanding leads us one step closer to prevention. With that, we now have the final document (pdf version), A Framework for the Prevention of Lethal School Violence, as is shown below.

The author is deeply indebted to the following people for their collaborative assistance with this article: Dr. Jared Scherz (Founder of TeacherCoach.com), Dr. Dewey Cornell (Director of the Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia), and Missy Jenkins Smith (Author of I Choose to be Happy).