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With the growing media focus on school-based violence, today’s students and teachers are growing more concerned about their safety. This can have negative impacts on these individuals, filling them with fear and anxiety. Though the risk of school shootings and school-based violence is low, the reality is that it is still a very real risk. Schools must prepare for and address this risk to keep their staff and students safe. Many schools have found themselves faced with dangerous circumstances, with some resulting in loss of life and serious injuries. Assessing threats to student bodies and having a clear plan in place to mitigate these risks is of the utmost importance. In the best case, a school will never need to use its plans. In the worst case, students and staff will be better prepared to act when faced with these threats.

Assessing Threats in Schools

When assessing the threats to our schools, we must acknowledge the different areas that these threats can come from. There are the risks that might come from within the school itself, the risks that come from people associated with the school, and the risks that come from external or unexpected sources. Identifying and assessing threats is something that schools must play an active part in, especially when those threats come from within the halls of the school. While some external threats can be impossible to predict, internal threats can be identified with help from staff, students, and parents. External threat assessment can be carried out by keeping an eye on the entry points of a property. Though the school might not know that the threat is coming well in advance, a system that keeps an eye on the grounds of the school can help to see a threat upon arrival, saving lives.To assess threats, schools will want to have a clear assessment strategy. This strategy must be shared with staff and even students if it is appropriate. The more people that can assess the situation, the more likely a school is to mitigate these risks and avoid any attacks.An assessment strategy should include encouraging students to speak up if they see something suspicious, encouraging staff to look out for and identify concerning behavior, and ensuring that all potential entry points on the campus are accounted for.

Creating a Safe and Welcoming School Culture

When addressing risks from students or staff, the culture of a school can play a very large role. Several internal threats have come from students who are having problems at home and at school. A school culture can help to create a space where students feel comfortable speaking up before they make a life-altering decision that will ruin their lives and put their peers at risk.A school’s primary culture for both students and teachers should be built on empathy, respect, and mutual understanding. This means taking the time to model good behavior for students and addressing instances where students are not treating others with respect. Ensuring that mutual respect can help to make a space safer, not just from threats, but for students and teachers in general.Empathy should be a key focus on all campuses. Students and teachers alike must know how to empathize with one another. This means being open, kind, and understanding of the fact that we all come from unique backgrounds. People who are empathetic understand the difficulties and challenges that others face, and they are also less likely to intentionally act with the intent to harm another person.Staff should always be on the lookout for instances where these elements are not present within their culture. Students should be encouraged to listen and consider other people in situations where it is relevant. There must also be a distinct focus on identifying instances of bullying or isolation that might be impacting a student for the worst. In addition to ensuring that students are all safe and cared for mentally and emotionally, staff should work to create a safe environment where students feel comfortable speaking up if they see something concerning. Students can see red flags that might be missed by adult staff. Active steps towards creating this culture must be taken by making it easy for students to share what they know without fear of repercussion. It is often said that hindsight is 20/20, and we have seen this time and time again with these attacks. Students have come forward after terrible events to say that they knew that the person was dangerous–some have even reported it. With external and unexpected threats, we can often see a history of violent and concerning actions taken against women. When these threats are seen and not reported or are reported and dismissed, the problem is allowed to grow. It is crucial to build a culture and system where speaking up is encouraged and reports are treated with the level of seriousness that they deserve.

Taking Steps to Assess and Address Potential Threats

  • Threat assessment is a strategy for avoiding future violence. When a situation is assessed for risks of violence, it becomes possible to address these threats. When we address these threats, we can save lives and stop terrible situations before they come to fruition.Assessing a threat does not just mean looking into distinct instances where a threat has been clearly identified. The best assessments should identify future potential threats, giving you plenty of time to address the situation and respond to it in an effective way. With the right steps, schools can look out for the contributing factors that might lead up to a potential act of violence, recognizing students that pose a threat prior to the threat presenting itself. Some Considerations for Student Threats Include:
  • Withdrawing from peers and staff
  • A clear focus on violence (drawings, papers, writings, etc.)
  • Instances of bullying or being cast out from the student body
  • Trouble at home
  • Severe behavioral problems
  • Negative reactions to authority
  • Hate speech pertaining to race, sexuality, gender, or any other protected group
  • A clear culture of disrespectWhen a potential threat is identified, all schools should have a plan in place to address these threats. While recognizing the signs is important, acting in the face of a threat is the action that will save lives. The steps that school administrators and staff will take might vary depending on the threats, but rest assured that early intervention is very important. Though it can be tempting to keep an eye on the situation, this allows moments to pass where the situation might worsen. Not only does this put staff and students at an increased level of risk, but it also places the school district at risk.The likelihood of an attack at a school is small, but it is significant enough that there is an expectation that schools will address these concerns. Schools that fail to take active steps to predict, identify, and address these threats will have more to contend with than the loss of life. The time to act is now.

Acting When Faced with a Threat

Threats will always be present, and this is why it is so important for schools to actively look for signs of them. If your staff identifies concerning behavior, it is important to take action immediately, effectively mitigating the risks before they become a bigger problem.The first step that any school can take toward protecting staff and students is to have a clear response strategy that can be implemented in the event of an attack. The use of drills in response to potential risks is very common by this point, and this is something that all schools should be doing. These plans should be made to ensure that staff and students know exactly where to go when something dangerous happens, be it an active shooter or a student with a knife. It is imperative that every school has a plan for these instances and actively trains students on it.Though a plan is important, it is also important to remember that these responses can often be most effective against external threats. Internal threats can be more difficult to navigate since the threat, be they student or teacher, will have a complete understanding of the inner workings of these plans. This knowledge can make a plan somewhat less effective in very specific instances, but the plan as a whole can still be effective for the majority of staff and students, even if the threat is internal.A prepared student body is one that will be able to act more quickly, though the strategy that you use might vary due to factors that are specific to your campus. Having a clear plan in place and ensuring that this plan has been practiced so it can be put into action is essential. These actions keep students safe.A crucial part of the plan is to connect with law enforcement immediately in the event that a threat is detected. If a student says they saw someone with a weapon outside, everyone should go into lockdown, and the authorities should be contacted immediately to help manage the situation more effectively. Though students and staff can take life-saving actions, having law enforcement or an equivalent on-site can help to bring a terrifying situation to a close with minimal damage in many cases.

Steps to Take to Protect Schools

Every school and student body is unique, but there are certain general steps that can be taken to provide favorable outcomes. Before a school can protect its students, it must have the right policies and procedures in place.

1. Identifying Threats

Building a culture that can actively identify threats can stop threats before they become too dangerous. Threats can be identified by students or staff, which means that accommodations must be made to support this. Ensuring that staff is trained to recognize potential threats and that students have a clear place where they can submit tips can make a huge difference. Students might notice if someone is being bullied, researching a concerning topic, or saying anything threatening that might allude to future acts of violence.

2. Assessing Threats

After a potential threat has been identified, school staff will want to assess the situation for its validity. If students have an open platform to submit tips, some will be submitted as a prank, and that is just a fact. School staff should have a clear policy regarding how to investigate and approach these potential threats that is both thorough and efficient. Threat assessment is just one step in the right direction.

3. Take Threats Seriously

Even though some students do threaten violence as a prank, it is important to take every potential threat seriously. If the school administration receives an email promising an attack, the threat should be considered credible until it is proven to be a hoax. If one student makes accusations against another student, the situation should be taken seriously and investigated just to be safe. Sometimes these warnings can come from family, friends, and law enforcement as well, leaving a clear trail that a threat is imminent.

3. Identify Targets

While some acts of violence are entirely random, some of these threatening individuals walk in with a clear plan in place. During previous shootings, some attackers have had a clear target in mind, often placing anyone near that target at risk. Targets might include specific individuals in the school (bullies, ex-girlfriends or boyfriends, relatives, etc.) or even entire target areas just because the individual knows they can access a certain location where students will be.

4. Have a Plan

No schools expect to find an active shooter in their halls, but these instances do happen. Having a clearly communicated plan that students and staff can lean on in the event of a threat is very important. School shootings can be significantly worse if there is not a clear plan for school safety. Effective student and staff response is a top priority, and the best approach to school security efforts is to run drills and have a plan that everyone can follow.

5. Work with Law Enforcement or Security Experts

School administrators and their staff are professionally trained to educate, so certain security practices might not be the most comfortable or intuitive for them. Working directly with law enforcement or experts in security can place potential risks and security mitigation in the hands of professionals who are trained in threat assessment and educated on school shootings. A school resource officer can also be a valuable asset. These experts can help you to create a valid school safety plan or even provide on-site security to help keep students safe in the face of a threat.

The Takeaway

The world is changing, and these changes are not always for the better. To provide staff, students, and local families peace of mind, schools must be prepared for these kinds of risks. Your school may never need to use its plans or procedures, but it is still important to have them if a threat arises. Planning, prevention, and dedicated action can save lives and keep your student body safe.