3 Factors that Keep Students Safe and Prevent School Violence
Schools are meant to be safe spaces where children can learn and grow without worrying about their physical or emotional safety. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case; recent school shootings have left school leaders wondering what more they can do to keep students safe. Whether you are a principal or district leader, you can promote school safety so students have the best learning environment possible.
Preventing School Violence
School violence is multifaceted – including bullying, fights, gangs, and general misbehavior – and there is no single cause for any of them. That’s why the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) created a comprehensive framework in 2020 that targets three areas that impact school violence: physical safety, school climate, and student behavior. These factors work together like “cogs in a well-oiled machine” to maximize school safety; as you improve student behavior, you create a more positive school climate, which prevents threats to students’ security.
So how can your school community further develop these three areas? Here are some practical guidelines from NIJ and other trusted sources:
1. Physical Safety at School
Protecting students from physical harm requires taking steps to prevent a wide range of possible dangers, from natural disasters to active shooters. The NIJ strongly recommends you:
Have an Emergency Operations Plan
You get a call telling you the school building is on fire. What do you do?
This is where having an emergency operations plan (EOP) keeps everyone safe. It outlines what teachers and students will do in case of an emergency.
Having an emergency operations plan (EOP) isn’t just important; it is required by law in over 30 states. But regardless of whether you have to, creating and regularly updating the EOP for your school or district is worth saving students’ lives.
NIJ experts recommend you collaborate with law enforcement and first responders to set up your EOP and train your school staff on it regularly to make sure everyone knows their roles and responsibilities. Knowing what to do if an emergency happens will not only keep students safe but help them feel safer at school.
When talking to students about safety, avoid causing unnecessary fears. Asking them what they would do if there was an active shooter on campus could scare them and create anxiety. Instead, focus on what school leaders can do to keep students safe. That way, you prevent making students feel fearful or vulnerable in situations where they don’t need to be.
Set Up a Threat Assessment System
According to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), most students who plan to act violently will say so; they may tell their friends, write it down in a journal, draw it out on paper, or post it on social media. This gives you a chance to intervene before students carry out their plans, but only if you find out about them in time.
To prevent tragedy from striking your campus, set up a threat assessment procedure where anyone can notify a team of trained professionals (including school counselors, administrators, and local law enforcement officers) of potential danger. The team evaluates each threat to determine how serious it is and how to respond.
When researcher Dewey Cornell looked at how Virginia public schools used threat assessment, he found having an online program made students feel more willing to report threats. Consider using technology to make it quick and easy for students and teachers to report someone who has threatened to harm a person or property.
Use CPTED Principles
Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) is setting up spaces in ways that deter crimes. One of its most prominent tools is natural surveillance, which involves strategically placing areas where students can see one another with limited places for criminals to hide.
Another strategy is territorial reinforcement, which encourages students to take ownership of their school community. This may include using school colors, displaying student art, or hanging motivational signs around campus.
Lastly, CPTED uses environmental barriers like walls or gates around school properties (and even doors within schools) as protective measures against any outside threats.
The CDC reports: “Communities applying CPTED activities reported decreases in gun violence, youth homicide, disorderly conduct, and violent crime. Communities also reported positive impacts on residents’ stress, community pride, and physical health.”
The NIJ recommends you have security personnel work with construction workers to make sure they follow CPTED strategies when building or renovating school campuses.
Increase School Security
One of the most important ways to keep students safe is to increase school security. Investing in safety equipment and paying for security guards can help improve physical safety. Security cameras, access control, communication and identification technology are also super helpful.
School reinforcement officers (SROs) can be instrumental in giving schools extra protection. However, the NIJ says school districts should clearly define SROs’ roles and responsibilities and NEVER have SROs resolve regular behavioral problems as this can traumatize students.
While it may not be feasible or cost-effective for every school district, if you can use these tools, they will certainly increase student safety and reduce school violence.
2. Building a Positive School Climate
A school’s climate, including how safe students feel at school, is an important factor in preventing school violence. When you have a positive school climate, students are less motivated to join gangs or other antisocial groups that sometimes use violence to achieve their goals. A 2020 study shows a positive school climate also decreases bullying and weapon use.
Here are a few ideas on how to improve your school’s climate to reduce safety risks:
Measure School Climate Regularly
A great place to start changing a school’s climate is to find out what it is. Use data tools to measure how safe students feel at school, whether they have positive relationships, and if the school offers enough support. Once you have the data, you’ll know what areas you need to improve.
Each new student, teacher, and staff member impacts how people feel on campus, so continue to measure school climate once or twice a year. This NASP guide gives detailed instructions on how to evaluate school climate:
Promote Positive Teacher-Student Relationships
If there’s one thing all educators can agree on, it’s that a positive student-teacher relationship makes a big difference. Students are more likely to want to succeed in school when they feel connected with their teachers. And at its core, that’s what safety is all about: feeling safe enough to be vulnerable and to grow.
Foster strong student-teacher relationships by offering PD training on how to connect with students – especially those who are difficult to manage. The more you support your teachers, the better they can support their students.
And why stop there? Plan birthday celebrations, field trips, and schoolwide activities where students and teachers can interact in a fun, stress-free environment and get to know each other on a different level.
Use Appropriate Discipline
Today, discipline is often seen as punishment. But if students don’t understand why they’re being disciplined and what they can do to improve their behavior, their learning environment becomes more like a prison than a school. When students feel this way, they may decide to take their anger out of teachers or each other.
To keep students safe, make sure all disciplinary procedures are fair and clearly communicated to students.
Many schools use restorative justice — an approach that brings together everyone involved in an incident (including victims and offenders) to talk about what happened and how to prevent it from happening again. This approach helps students feel supported by teachers and administrators instead of threatened.
The NIJ says: “Students report that school climate improves when teachers use fewer exclusionary discipline strategies and more positive behavioral strategies, and when there is consistent enforcement of rules.”
As you use discipline procedures that put student well-being first, you’ll see fewer behavioral problems overall.
You don’t have to look hard to find incidents where bullying causes severe depression and eventually suicide. Sadly, bullying often goes unnoticed as teachers do their best to fulfill all their responsibilities.
Help your faculty get better at detecting, preventing, and responding to bullying by offering a teacher coaching intervention called Bullying Classroom Check-Up, similar to what’s used in this 2015 study. The earlier teachers intervene, the more they will reduce school violence.
Stopbullying.gov recommends training all school staff on what bullying is, the school’s anti-bullying policies and rules, and how to enforce them.
While an effective anti-bullying policy alone won’t eliminate these issues — it’s important to create an environment where bullying is less likely to occur.
(See stopbullying.gov for more anti-bullying strategies.)
3. Improving Student Behavior
While the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, sparked a national debate on how to prevent students from committing school violence, it also highlighted the need for educators to help students manage the stress they face on a daily basis. Studies show that supporting mental health improves student behavior and decreases school violence.
Here are ideas for supporting students’ mental and emotional needs:
Consistency is key when it comes to improving student behavior. Some students with behavioral issues benefit from a structured environment where they know what is expected of them. By providing clear expectations and boundaries, you can make sure students feel safe while still learning how to be responsible members of society.
Communication is crucial in any relationship, including between students and school leaders. Encourage open dialogue by creating spaces where students feel comfortable approaching you about problems or concerns. By doing so, you’ll be able to intervene before things escalate into larger issues that negatively impact everyone involved — students included!
Identify the Root Cause
When students misbehave, correct them in ways that won’t harm their self-esteem or further exacerbate problems. Often, negative student behavior stems from underlying issues. Maybe a child acts out because they feel excluded or arrives late to class because of family problems. Trying to pin down what exactly is causing the misbehavior can help you understand how best to respond.
Teach Coping Skills
Disruptive or violent behavior may stem from a lack of coping skills, especially when students grow up in homes where violence is considered acceptable. The key to keeping your schools safe is to teach students how to deal with stressors like bullying or peer pressure. Developing their coping skills will not only reduce behavioral problems but also lead to improved overall academic performance.
Implement a Student Wellness Program
Programs like Studies Weekly Well-Being may help decrease school violence by teaching students how to know what they are feeling, see situations from someone else’s perspective, and handle conflict in a healthy way. With a wellness curriculum in place, you reduce risks to students’ safety.
These strategies will help decrease school violence by meeting students’ emotional, social, and physical needs. When you make students feel welcomed, physically safe, and emotionally supported at school, you create lasting positive behavioral change in your community.