School Safety Is Everyone’s Responsibility
by Jenny Williams, SCSBC Director of Educational Support Services ◊
Last November in Abbotsford, we were shocked and saddened by the loss of a beautiful young high school student and the injury of her friend in a senseless act of violence. The nature of this attack is incomprehensible and extremely rare. In most situations, violence is not random, and there are often clues that could provide some forewarning.
The past year has been one of the most violent for Canadian schools. What are we doing to monitor risk potential and prevent violence in our schools and communities? Are there effective ways to respond to violence and intervene early?
What has led to the increase in violence in schools?
The potential for serious violence is increasing in our communities throughout British Columbia. Four of the factors that have contributed towards an increase in violence are:
Changing patterns of family and community life
Children are more isolated from parents; divorce, abuse, poverty, drugs and other forces are disrupting families and with this comes some loss of socialization skills.
Redefining violence as normal and acceptable
Exposure to violence has become commonplace through media and technology. It causes us to become immune to some levels of violence and impacts socialization and development of empathy. Viewing violence in television, movies and video games, and listening to music about violence impacts the development of empathy in youth. The promotion of drugs and violence as an acceptable lifestyle in film and media is growing.
Greater access to drugs and weapons than ever before
A rise in substance use, and the combination of access to weapons and drugs has resulted in much of the current violence. Alcohol and drug misuse leads to the loss of self-control and violent acts.
Increasing exposure to negative influences on the internet and social media
Widespread instant messaging and social media can contribute to psychological trauma and impaired impulse control. They can escalate the speed of communication, facilitate the planning of threats and cyberbullying, and spread false information or circulate details that increase the impact of trauma.
Are there any warning signs?
The path to serious violence is usually an evolutionary process often beginning with worrisome behaviour that evolves into a more serious threat. A threat is defined as an expression of intent to do harm or act out violently against someone or something. Threats may be verbal, written, drawn, posted on the internet, or made by gesture.
- Most students who pose a substantive threat indicate their intentions ahead of time in some way. Examples of threats to school communities include statements made to friends, creating or sharing hit-lists, conspiring and planning attacks, social media postings that threaten harm, or talking extensively about violence, death, and weapons.
- Bullying is one precursor of more extreme forms of hostility, and is a stage on the way to more violent behaviour.
- Risk enhancers that increase the likelihood that a threat is more serious include:
- Personality and behaviour: coping with conflict, dealing with anger, resilience, lack of empathy, low frustration tolerance, depression, narcissism, absenteeism
- Family dynamics: parent-child interaction, lack of limits
- School dynamics: attachment to school, perceived lack of status at school, perception of inequitable discipline, code of silence
- Social dynamics: failed relationships, choice of friends, drug and alcohol use
What can schools do to help prevent violence?
- Have key staff leaders participate in levels 1-3 ERASE Bullying training which introduces the Violence Threat Risk Assessment (VTRA). Threat assessment is a violence prevention strategy that involves:
- determining if a student poses a threat of violence
- ascertaining the seriousness of the threat, and
- developing intervention plans that protect potential victims and address the underlying problem or conflict that stimulated the threatening behaviour
- Conduct staff training about worrisome behaviours, and put in place a system for communication with administration about these behaviours and effective intervention for dealing with worrisome behaviours.
- Encourage students to take responsibility for their part in maintaining safe school environments by reporting worrisome behaviour through an anonymous reporting tool or confiding in a trusted adult. Educate students on breaking the code of silence and reporting potential threats in a confidential way – if you “See Something, Say Something.”
- Build a positive school climate. School climate is defined as the quality of the relationships within the community. One of the best violence prevention strategies is the promotion of a climate that fosters trusting, respectful relationships among students, staff and families. Students who feel respected and connected tend to be healthier and display less acting-out behaviour.
- Locking the school’s door will not solve all the problems associated with violence. The best defense is human detectors. So, what are the factors that will likely make the greatest difference?
- Social media can be monitored by creating a geofence which automatically audits local social media content relating to student and staff safety. It allows for proactive intervention by identifying sources of potential risks or threats in real time.
- Provide training for students and parents related to digital citizenship and the appropriate use of the internet and social media. Safer Schools Together provides workshops on Social Media Awareness, Digital Citizenship and Cyberbullying for students, parents and school staff.
- Control access to the school building (designated entrance with all other access points locked from the exterior), strengthen security around the access points and monitor school guests.
- Supervise school parking lots and common areas such as hallways, cafeterias, and playing fields with supervisors who interact positively with students while handling rule violations quickly and consistently. An effective supervisor facilitates improved student citizenship and contributes to a positive school climate.
What can schools do to intervene when there is a threat of violence?
Threat assessment is the process of bringing together data that helps to determine if someone is moving towards serious violence before the violent act occurs. Schools have multi-disciplinary Violence Threat Risk Assessment (VTRA) teams that help to determine the level of risk as well as the appropriate intervention response. ERASE Training levels 2-3 provide specialized training in the VTRA process. A quick summary of the stages is provided below as an overview.
- Stage 1 VTRA:
The school principal (and/or designate), a clinician such as a psychologist, counsellor or social worker, police and others as needed, collect and assess data including contextual information, risk factors, and information provided by family to determine the level of risk of harm is low, medium or high. When the seriousness of the threat is determined, a plan for implementing risk-reducing interventions is implemented, so that an appropriate response may be made. Interventions include providing support and guidance to aid the student who is at risk for violence in dealing with his or her problems in an appropriate and adaptive manner. Help potential offenders overcome the underlying sources of their anger, hopelessness, or despair. Many VTRA cases are resolved at a Stage 1 level.
- Stage 2 VTRA:
In Stage II a multi-disciplinary risk evaluation is completed and often included, policy, mental health, child protection, youth probation, psychology, and hospitals. Further data collection is gathered in collaboration with the Stage 1 Team. It is a more formal and comprehensive evaluation of risk enhancing and risk reducing factors and is conducted by professionals with advanced threat/risk assessment knowledge and experience. Among the other potential student risks that can be identified and prevented are suicide, alcohol and drug use, physical abuse, dropping out, and criminal activity. During this process determines the more long-term interventions and treatment goals for the individual. It is critical that independent schools are included as part of the local school district Community Protocols for Violence Threat Risk Assessment, and have established connections and communication channels with the various community agencies that schools may reach out to during a threat.
- Have a proactive approach with the news media to mitigate the impact of intrusion, which can increase the trauma for family and others. It can also be a trigger for those who have been recent victims of trauma. Extensive coverage of high profile cases creates justification for those with thoughts of engaging in this behaviour and can lead to copycat situations.
School safety is everyone’s responsibility and includes vigilance on the part of administrators, staff, students, parents, community agencies and the public as a whole. We all have a significant role to play in making our schools caring and safe places where students are protected and supported.
Basic Threat & Risk Assessment Training Guide – Level Two.
8th Edition. 2015, Province of British Columbia.
Emergency Management Planning Guide for Schools, Districts and Authorities. 2015, Province of British Columbia.
Social Media and School Crises: Brief Facts and Tips. School Safety and Crisis. National Association of School Psychologists. www.nasponline.org.