Planning to Prevent School Violence

In a recent community forum the focus of the discussion was school violence. The audience was enthusiastic and involved, but the discussion varied from speaker to speaker and from focus area to focus area. As the last speaker on the panel I tried to focus on a practitioner’s view of school violence by first focusing on why we have schools, and then looking at how violence affects that purpose. I used the tail wagging the dog metaphor to show how schools sometimes get caught up in an aspect of an issue and lose sight of their real goal.

At Educational Directions (Ed Directions) we emphasize that the purpose of school is to create learners who can use what they’ve learned in both academic and real-world settings. The focus is on building learners and performers. In our metaphor, this is the dog. What I tried to emphasize for the audience was that ending certain behaviors that are considered violent is a tail that sometimes wags the dog, and we sometimes accomplish our secondary goal at the expense of the first. A classic example of this is the mandate to reduce suspensions. As districts and schools get caught up in this effort they rewrite discipline codes, build alternative intervention menus, and provide de-escalation and sensitivity training for all staff. As a result, districts and schools reduce suspensions but inevitably fail to improve, and in some cases actually degrade the learning and performing environment.

We all understand there are valid academic reason for addressing violence in schools, but for Ed Directions and its turnaround work the most important reason is that violence, or the threat of violence, can make it impossible for students to learn. When students are frightened, apprehensive, or intimidated their brain secretes a substance that blocks behaviors unrelated to fight or flight. Learning and performing are not possible until this substance is cleared from the brain. In addition to blocking learning behaviors, violence or aggressive behaviors can cause alienation, withdrawal, stereotype formation, and a variety of other emotional and psychological reactions to stress. The critical element is that for students to grow as learners and performers they need to perceive their school as a safe, secure place. Secondly, they need to see school as place that welcomes them and where their presence and work is valued by adults and peers. The beginning of the development of school as an effective learning agency is the formation of a culture and climate that create a valid impression of the school as a safe, welcoming and valuing institution.


 

At Educational Directions (Ed Directions) we emphasize that the purpose of school is to create learners who can use what they’ve learned in both academic and real-world settings.


Reaching this goal requires that we not only plan to prevent violent behaviors and incidents, but that we also build confidence that we can control incidents that create fear and stress in students. Unfortunately, there are a wide variety of types of violence that can create stress and anxiety between and among students. In theory these are addressed in school safety and discipline plans, but in practice most of these plans address only the tip of the iceberg, while  failing to assess the impact of these stressful situation on learners.

Outside Stressors

Some stress causing events are outside school control. These include natural phenomena (e.g. tornado) and events that are malfunctions in systems (e.g. fires). In most states law requires that schools have a plan in place for the most common examples of this type of stressful situation, and there are requirements for a certain number of practices. In most cases school response to these mandates involve ritual publication of safety plan and minimal practices. Schools must strive to develop confidence within the student body that they can survive an event and handle any of the dangerous situations that might be connected with it. In order to do this,  schools need to have safety plans that are shared with students and staff, practiced within a variety of different variations of the event scenario, and revised with staff and student input. This will help ensure that everyone is confident that they can, recognize an event in a timely fashion, identify conditions that cause variance in their planned reaction, and that they can adapt their plan to remove themselves from danger. Without this level of confidence students, especially timid or insecure students, can develop a stress reaction to the mention of a threatening event. A classic example of this in Kentucky happened when a scientist predicted that the New Madrid fault was going to cause a massive earthquake in Kentucky in the early fall of the year. Schools were required to come up with an earthquake plan, and they scurried to make a plan. In most cases the plan said get out of the school and go to a safe place. But newspapers and scientists emphasized that the earthquake could take various forms, and that these forms could create a variety of threatening conditions. Few schools developed plans that included alternative strategies for dealing with the various ways the earthquake could impact schools. Nobody involved staff and students in practicing or developing ways to improve on the existing plan. The mandate was to have a plan, and the schools did just that, plan.

Unfortunately for the schools the earthquake appeared in news daily for almost a month, and in many schools days or even weeks went by when students were so stressed about earthquakes (especially the young students or the timid students) that real learning and high-level engagement in learning work were not possible.

Today Ed Directions emphasizes that safety plans need to address events that can cause stress, and develop a level of confidence in staff and students that they can deal with natural events or systems failures. We encourage schools to address a minimum number of events and alert staff and students to how these events can affect learning:

 

Type

Examples

Impact on learning and performing

Natural phenomenon

Earthquake

Minimal

Tornado

Intermediate

Snow/ice/flood

Intermediate

Facilities issue

Fire

Intermediate +

Electrical/water/sewage failure

Minimal

External accident or breakdown

intermediate

For Ed Directions the key to a behavior plan that helps create a safe environment for learning is to have a one  that is proactive (i.e. a behavior plan that emphasizes optimum behaviors that are connected to effective learning and performing).

If a school can develop a plan that emphasizes optimum behavior, creates rituals and routines that make optimum behavior an accepted part of the school culture, and treat miss behaviors as non-effective activities in classrooms, schools can achieve a variety of other goals.  These goals could include reduction of suspensions and a reductions in the reinforcement of stereotypes. This is not to say that dangerous behaviors have to be tolerated. ED Directions coaches will emphasize that behaviors that involve aggressive or dangerous interactions can inhibit learning not just in the participants, but in the adults and students who are observers of the interactions. Dangerous and aggressive behaviors have to be eradicated, but the eradication has to begin with the development of the expectation for optimum behavior. This will create a confidence in students that dangerous behavior is not the norm, that it can be dealt with, and we can still be learners and performers.

There are a wide variety of dangerous behaviors. Ed Directions identifies a number of dangerous or aggressive interactions that can have serious impact on learners and performers:

Type

Examples

Impact on learning and performing

Internal threats

Gang activity

Intermediate+ to maximum

Fighting

Maximum

Adult/student confrontation

intermediate to maximum

Student verbal or physical attack on adult

maximum

Verbal or physical assault on a student by a student or an adult

maximum

Student/student confrontation

intermediate to maximum

Theft or destruction of property

intermediate to maximum

Adult Rough desist/overreaction

intermediate to maximum

Bullying – physical, psychological, emotional

maximum

Aggressive sexual approach/behavior

Maximum+

Criminal behavior – theft, assault, battery

Maximum+

Aggressive or violent demonstration or assembly

maximum

Some stressful behaviors are outside school control, but involve interactions at home or in the community when the student is not in school. In a school safety plan, it is important that these types of interactions be identified, and that the school have best-practice reaction procedures in place that are known to staff and students.

Avoiding Critical Lapses

Ed Directions coaches find very few schools that not only have plans for interventions, but that are also shared with staff and students. This can cause critical lapses in school safety. First, it can reduce the reporting of these issues to school staff because students are unaware of report avenues, or that students have no confidence that staff is interested in what happens outside of school. Second, it can cause awareness of the issue to circulate amongst students, and turn a real but individual problem into a real group or even schoolwide problem that can undermine learning before staff is even aware of its existence. Ed Directions emphasizes that we must be proactive in identifying warning signs in at risk students and implementing best practice intervention procedures, or we will only be reactive and miss our opportunity to get control of a situation in time to effectively help the individuals impacted. Proactive measures also help prevent the spread of rumors and misinformation through the student “underground” communication system.

Type

Examples

Impact on learning and performing

External human threat

armed intruder on grounds

Maximum

Neighborhood violence – home, to/from school, gang activity

Maximum

Family violence – sexual, physical, emotional

Maximum+

Aggressive group or racial profiling or interaction

Maximum

Cyber misinformation or threats

Intermediate to maximum

There is one type of violence that Ed Directions has never found addressed in the school safety plan – institutional violence. Institutional violence includes the systems and procedures that the adults in the district or the school develop that create stress, raise anxiety, and create dangerous situations for students.

When Ed Directions goes into a school, one of the first things that we will do is sit down with the school leadership to review all the school and district systems to make sure that no one unintentionally creates unsafe situations for students. Although the areas most often identified as issues are busing routes and procedures, lunchroom procedures, and assembly strategies, there are a number of other institutional decisions that can put students at risk and raise the level of anxiety and students.

Ed Directions emphasizes that learning requires that students be engaged in high quality work. If students are out of school or are not provided with learning work opportunities in school it can negatively impact their learning and their performance. Research indicates that missing five days of school for whatever reason reduces performance, 10 days has a serious impact on performance, and 20 days can reduce performance as learner or test-taker to half the student potential. In one case where institutional violence reached a criminal level, the district failed to provide an at risk school with coaching support that other schools were given, and a full teaching staff of qualified teachers (some tested positions were staffed by rotating substitutes until February, and some non-tested areas lacked full-time teachers all year). While the school averaged 11 teacher absences a day, they were only provided with an average of two subs per day which meant that students had to be spread out to other classes and/or administrators had to cover students in large group situations. As a result discipline suffered. There was no instructional momentum, and student absenteeism was rampant as was tardiness and bullying.

 

Type

Examples

Impact on learning and performing

Institutional/structural threats

in adequate safety and behavior plan and procedures

intermediate to maximum

In adequate district support for schools – staffing teachers, security and substitutes

intermediate to maximum

In adequate procedures for identifying and securing safety issues in grounds and facilities

minimum to maximum

toxic climate and culture

Maximum

Aggressive and punitive discipline procedures and policies

maximum

In adequate supervision, policies and procedures

Maximum

In adequate entry and exit or transition procedures

minimum to maximum

Coercive routines and discipline procedures

Maximum

Ineffective classroom management and academic systems

Minimal to maximum plus

Lack of teacher preparation for dealing with safety plan, policies and procedures

minimum to maximum

Chronic focus on the tails and not on the dog

Intermediate to maximum plus

In Summary

Going back to the tail and dog metaphor, Ed Directions emphasizes that schools exist to educate students and to build learners who can use what they’ve learned. We need to build plans that will make it possible for us to achieve that goal for all of our students. The more our plans focus on issues that are unrelated to building our students as learners and performers the more students we will have who are at risk of never reaching their potential. To build intentional plan requires that schools begin by building to the extent possible a school that all students will see as a safe, secure environment free from incidents, activities or conditions that create danger or the perception of danger, create stress or raise the level of anxiety.