When school violence became a more serious consideration for schools following the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, many schools responded by increasing their security, employing more security officers, and installing more cameras. 

Another common trend was the use of “zero-tolerance” policies, meaning a student was automatically expelled for bringing a firearm to school or for making a threat. However, these zero-tolerance policies have since become largely criticized for being ineffective in contributing to school safety. Rather, they lead to a variety of negative outcomes for students and are seen as contributing to disproportionality in disciplinary practices for several groups of students, including minority students and special education students.

Seriousness of Threat

Zero-tolerance policies also do not account for the seriousness of the threat or the level of risk, and they fail to focus on preventative factors. Additionally, merely focusing on security measures or rewriting policy does not take into consideration the importance of psychological “buy-in” from both staff and students. It is essential for prevention strategies to account for both physical and psychological elements. 

The use of security personnel, key-card access, identification badges, and locked doors are all part of the physical strategies. However, the psychological strategies-ensuring that all school personnel are actively maintaining a safe school by wearing their badges, ensuring doors remain locked, and reporting behavioral concerns or threats to the proper administrators for immediate intervention-are just as critical. 

The student “code of silence” is seen as a strong psychological factor leading to decreased reporting. While students (and even parents and teachers, for that matter) may recognize a concerning behavior, they often minimize it by saying “he’s just having a bad day” or “she was just upset” and do nothing with the information they have. People are often more worried about how people will view them for reporting a concern than with the potential consequences of not reporting. 

This is related to the bystander effect, duly named because when a behavior occurs in a large group, people assume that someone else will report the behavior if it’s really that concerning, and no one wants to act differently than the group (therefore, they react first to what everyone else appears to be doing). If no one else is expressing concern, the assumption becomes that the behavior must not really be concerning after all. 

Members of the school community must be provided information about the potentially devastating consequences of underreporting threats and must be encouraged to report any concerns, even if they do so anonymously.

Violence Prevention Programs

We have responded to a number of school violence incidents and have worked with districts across the county to develop violence prevention programming. Many school districts, along with school safety experts, routinely employ these recommendations related to prevention efforts:

Develop a district-level school safety team or threat assessment team. This team should serve as a communication center for all reports of behavioral concerns or threats. This group helps to ensure all data pertaining to a potential risk is being reviewed through one acting body with specialized knowledge of behavioral assessment and intervention. This should help to assess an individual’s level of threat.

  1. Provide timely and appropriate interventions and countermeasures following an incident.
  2. Assist in returning students to the school environment following a threat assessment, once they are deemed to no longer represent a threat.
  3. Coordinate services for the student if a threat is determined to be credible.

Provide specialized training in school violence prevention. These efforts should include training for school administrators, staff, and teachers that would enable them to better detect, report, and confront concerning behaviors.

  1. Present a general overview of both behavioral and psychological aspects of disruption and risk factors that a school could face.
  2. Identify what specific behaviors should immediately be reported to the communication center and how to document these concerns appropriately.
  3. Develop, implement, and evaluate counter­measures/intervention strategies.

Collaborate among mental health support staff, administrative staff, and disciplinary staff to provide integrated efforts from professionals with differing expertise.

Consult with school safety experts to conduct routine audits of their threat assessment process and documentation procedures to ensure consistency and effectiveness of their practices.

Effective school leaders must be proactive in their approach to preventing school violence. Too often, schools have had to acknowledge critical deficits in their violence prevention efforts after a tragedy has occurred. We encourage school leaders to consult with experts who are able to work with a district’s current threat assessment team (or help to establish one) and review current policies and procedures related to violence prevention. Experts can also make recommendations for improvements related to both physical and psychological security efforts. 

Sara Garrido, PhD, specializes in crisis intervention, policy review, conducting violence risk assessments, and peer support supervision for Nicoletti-Flater Associates. in Lakewood, CO. John Nicoletti, PhD, ABPP, is the co-founder of Nicoletti-Flater Associates.