School Violence Prevention - It Really Does Take a Village!

05/22/2015 07:02 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2016

Dr. Jonathan Doll and his wife Laura

WATERBURY, CT -- On Thursday, May 21, 2015, at Post University, about 58 leaders and educational change agents from the great state of Connecticut met at the first annual conference series aimed at preventing tragic events of lethal school violence. The conference was titled: A Village Response: Building Resiliency in Lethal School Violence Prevention, or on Twitter: @PostUniversty #schoolviolenceprevention.

The group of conference participants were drawn from three groups:

  • Law enforcement members along with School Resource Officers (SROs)
  • Mental health professionals
  • Educators

Also, there were some spectacular future minds - Post University students - who are diligently learning about developing healthy preventative responses to acts of school violence from a criminal justice and social justice perspective regarding this national problem.

I was the group's keynote speaker, and I truly can say that the entire group of engaged professionals had a wonderful time together: learning from each other and recognizing both the important, fruitful work that is ongoing as well as what needs to come to pass. Here is a condensed summary of some of the insights from the day.

To begin with, Post University has published a couple of excellent video snapshots of the conference's aims and takeaway points for Connecticut.

These include Law Enforcement aspirations for this work by Rob Strickland of the New Haven Police Department.

Also, the Norwalk Public Schools school preparedness coordinator, Robert Killackey shared amazing insights during the day including multiple posts, reflections, and probing questions for the group.

As best as possible, I tried throughout the day to collect and focus the positive energy and enthusiasm in the room. Here is a short summary of those efforts and the collective successes of the entire group.

The conference was introduced by Post University President, Don Mroz who touched on the need for localized and broader efforts in collaboration to prevent many types of school disturbance. This not only includes making schools safer, but supporting the staff who carrying the heavy loads in schools. Kelley Hopkins-Alvarez, a Mental Health Practitioner in Ridgefield, Connecticut and also conference co-organizer, introduced the keynote through a discussion of what brings us together as a village in this ever-important topic of prevention.

To kick of the conference, there was the keynote itself: two hours dedicated to going through the latest research on preventing school tragedies. This time was interspersed with activities for the group including (a) going through the warning signs together as was also described in a recent Huffington Post article and framework, (b) spending time investigating what a strengths-based response looks like when working with distressed youth; (c) looking at potential gaps in current services together, and (d) deepening a school-based wraparound approach through Connecticut's Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) approach, of which about 2,000 police officers across the state have been trained, including over 65 officers in Waterbury Police force alone.

Along these lines, CIT aims to build bridges in the service provided by law enforcement so that when persistent mental health issues are present during a public disturbance, the goal is to support the affected individual in as many ways as possible. These efforts were discussed in a panel session led by the scholar and former police officer, David Jannetty, who is also the Academic Program Manager of the Emergency Management and Homeland Security Program at Post University.

Impressively, the effective use of CIT not only reduces the need for incarceration in many cases, but develops healthy bonds across sectors (law enforcement/SROs, mental health, and educational professionals).

The conference also dealt with some deliverables for schools in working with distressed youth. These are young people that have dealt with trauma in their lives and who may be acting out or simply may be trying to get by without worsening their experiences. One great way for working with youth is to find out what they are good at - or what they are great at - and invest in building relationships around these skills.

Multiple Intelligences
In 1983 and later updated in following years, Dr. Howard Gardner built on previous works and introduced a revolutionary model of student strengths, or universal intelligences. There are eight of these talents in all, Visual-Spatial, Bodily-kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Linguistic, Logical-Mathematical, and Naturalist. And you can find out what your own Multiple Intelligences look like as well by taking one of many free online versions of this tool for understanding intelligence.

The great thing about the theory of multiple intelligences is that everyone has levels of intelligence specific areas - no one is left out - because it is a feature of being a human being. In the context of working with distressed youth - and potentially distressed family and community systems, it is important to be able to understand and rally people around their strengths.

Strengths-Based Work
The strengths-based approach is the business community is a new look at a model that mental health professionals have been advocating diligently for years. Gallup, Inc. produced the research leading to the book, Strengths-Based Leadership by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie in 2009. This amazing book can help adults understand their multiple strengths in profound ways. There is also an online strengths finder tool that leads to understanding what drives a person in terms of their best capabilities. And Gallup's work has been extended to youth, ages 11-15 also through the Strengths Explorer, This is a cost-effective way of working with youth and helping them understand their gifts, capacities, and assets in navigating the world that they live in.

A State-Based Strengths-Based Pilot, Any Takers?
In Massachusetts, there is a House Bill that proposes a pilot study of a method for schools to employ a strengths-based approach in working to prevent bullying. I was the bill's author, and it was sponsored by Representative Paul Heroux - an outspoken advocate of educational and policy issues in his state. This bill is aimed starting an evidence-based pilot study in 15 schools that would effectively test the process of using student's strengths in reducing negative behaviors by distressed students.

Pilot studies of the strengths-based approach can be done in other states as well. Are there any takers? Contact me at, if so.

But not every student that acts out does so out of malice. A key insight that participants all day long were vocalizing was that a Village Response to preventing school violence really means connecting at the relationship level with every student in a school. Educators can do this by takings lists of their students (or yearbook pages) and making sure that each student has at least one effective relationship with a responsible adult. Who is it? Is the relationship positive and effective? How can the school come alongside to nurture and support these relationships?

Midway through the keynote was an activity aimed at helping every school stakeholder who is a leader to deal with the forms of bureaucracy and organizational slowness that can dampen any reform efforts from getting started and taking root. The activity focused around identifying troubling issues and literally making lemonade out of those lemons. After a participant-focused dialogue on steps to nurture effective organizations, the atmosphere was charged with a renewed zeal around building collaboration, trust, cooperation, communication, relationships,and a stronger sense of team in the consummate work of school violence prevention. And the large pitcher of lemonade that was made during the activity was gone within minutes!

After lunch, there were five breakout sessions which included focusing on a unified approach to school violence prevention:

Breakout Session Titles Organizer/Facilitator
1. Cultivating Resiliency and Its Effect on Lowering Violence Donna DeLuca
2. Learning to Assess and "red flag" Students who have had Catastrophic Events: How these events can propel a student toward the planning stages of lethal school violence Charlie Manos
3. How to Build Positive, and Strengths-Based, Connections with Students Joseph Arconti and Jonathan Doll, PhD
4. Coordinating Efforts among Law Enforcement, Education, and Mental Health Kelley Hopkins-Alvarez, Bonnie Rabe, and Matthew Parker
5. Law Enforcement Roundtable: Preventing School Violence (the most popular breakout***) Panel Discussion

Additional focus for the event came through Dr. Bonnie Rabe, Dean of the School of Education at Post University. She instrumentally asked myself and the group how to carry this work forward in the coming year. One method for that would be the creation of an institute, or think tank, in Connecticut to continue the study of school violence prevention. Another method, of course, would be to continue the conference series next year.

Dr. Richard Strompf, Dean of the John P. Burke School of Public Service at Post University, said it best at the tail end of the conference. Describing each of the breakout sessions during the day, he said the common themes dealt with respect, trust, mentoring protégé relationships, and relationship building. In essence, this is what a village response is all about.