Six Steps For Schools to End School Violence

Six Steps For Schools to End School Violence

Picture of Meri Wallace
Meri Wallace

Meri Wallace, LCSW, a parenting expert and child and family therapist for over thirty years, grew up in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Meri completed her Masters degree in Social Work at NYU, specializing in child development. Meri writes a blog for “Psychology Today”, and is the author of “Birth Order Blues” (Henry Holt and Co.) and “Keys to Parenting Your Four Year Old” (Barron's Educational Series.) She has been a columnist for Sesame Street Parents, New York Family Magazine,and Brooklyn Parent and has been a consultant to Children’s Television Workshop. She is frequently interviewed by national publications including Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, and Parents Magazine.

What causes a child to walk into a school with an intent to harm

It is back to school again, and this year parents, children, and school officials are feeling tremendous anxiety. Will there be another onslaught of school violence?

There is a rush of activity to put in place the best kind of security system each school can devise. Some are hiring more security officers, others are creating training programs for students. Not only will this advanced preparation potentially cut down on harm to students, but it gives students, teachers and parents a feeling of control. Something is being done.

At the same time, student survivors of school violence are renewing their campaign for greater gun control. Preventing children from access to guns can surely make a huge difference. But it’s important to be aware that studies have shown that in gunless cultures, children use knives to attack other students. The message seems to be that even if we seal up the school’s windows and doors this violence will continue. The enemy is within.

What causes a child to walk into his or her school with an intent to harm the students and adults? Rage, a sense of powerlessness and despair. Therefore, the key to ending school violence is to provide children with emotional help. Though I believe school violence is a societal issue, and we all share some responsibility in the cause and it’s solution, schools are at the forefront of the crisis, so they must step up and take the major responsibility for now.

Here are some steps that schools can take to help end school violence. The programs I have described are based upon my experience as a school consultant for over 30 years, They are doable and they work.

1. Schools must identify children with problems who are at risk for committing school violence:

As students file into the schools this year, educators must focus on students who have a particular emotional profile. If you review prior cases, you will find that a child who commits this violence, is often one who is being bullied, is a loner (or he may spend time with another child with similar problems) is depressed, angry and isolated. Sometimes a child who turns to violence is a child who characteristically acts out aggressively at school. He might bully others, or respond in a volatile fashion to students and teachers.There’s usually a confluence of factors stemming from home, school and social issues upsetting the child that propels him in this direction.

It is essential to identify these children as early as possible. As a school consultant, I have worked with three year olds who walk into preschool, and from day one exhibit rage. These tiny children constantly harm other children and even the teachers. As they grow, their teachers and the administration have a hard time controlling their behavior, and often respond harshly. As a result, the child slowly builds up feelings of rage and resentment towards the school and administration and could become vengeful. Identifying these problems early on, and giving children the help they need, can change the course of events in a child’s life and aid in preventing acts of violence in schools.

2. Schools must have mental health professionals on their staff: A trained counselor, social worker, or psychologist understands children and is skilled in intervening in their problems. They can help children before it’s too late. This is a necessity, not a luxury. And there needs to be sufficient coverage for the size of the student body. The children returning to school this year are frightened and these professionals can provide them with support. They can help identify children at risk for school violence, and educate the teachers and children on how to be alert for warning signs. Professionals can observe the children each day in their classes, the lunchroom and the halls to monitor the children’s emotional status.

Once a child is identified with emotional or social problems, the professionals can counsel the children, find out the source of their distress, and help them find solutions. Or they might refer the child to an outside source, when needed. The teachers, professionals and administration must work as a team sharing information and making decisions, and can contact the authorities if a child is an imminent threat to the school.

As part of the assessment process and the cure, it is crucial that the professional meet with the parents to discuss a child’s problems and explore any possible causes for a child’s distress within the family environment. For instance, maybe someone is bullying the child at home, so he tends to bully others, or ends up as the victim in relationships. Parents have the most information about a child. What does the child talk about at home? What posts is he making online? What does he complain about? Is his behavior at home very aggressive? If problems are overcome within the family, a child’s rage and unhappiness generally dissipates.

If you read news stories about a shooter’s history, even though neighbors describe the family as typical and not having any problems, there usually are deeper forces at play. A professional can uncover the underlying issues that are disturbing a child, undetected by the family.

Sometimes parents are resistant to be involved because they worry that a child’s problem is their fault.

The goal is not to blame parents, but to teach the parents techniques to help their children feel better and function in life. It would be helpful for schools to address the parents at the beginning of the year about the importance of their involvement if their child is having problems.

3. Schools must educate and support their teachers: Teachers are under tremendous stress each day. In the event of an attack, they know they must handle the situation alone, and make quick decisions that will greatly impact upon the children’s welfare. They need to learn skills for handling these emergencies.

Teachers also need training sessions on how to work with problem children; how to intervene effectively in bullying and how to communicate positively with children. There should be weekly team meetings with the teachers and professionals to discuss children with problems and develop strategies for handling challenging situations.

4. Schools must provide emotional support for the students: Today’s schools must reframe their mission. They can no longer be focused only on educating children from the neck up, and producing children with high grades. Schools must concentrate on the whole child and attend to the emotional and social needs of the students. There should be weekly group discussions with the children to talk about their emotions and any social problems they are experiencing. The children should learn skills for expressing their emotions positively, and strategies for solving conflicts. When a problematic issue comes up in these discussions, the child can then receive follow up help from a staff professional.

There should be workshops to raise the children’s sensitivity to each other. For instance, there might be a presentation about bullying with a series of short plays in which children act out different roles such as the bully, the bully’s supporter and the victim.T his exercise will heighten the children’s awareness to each child’s experience and give them insight into their own behavior.

The school can end children’s social isolation by establishing a buddy system whereby each child has a partner or is a member of a small group, for support. A teacher might be in charge of this group and monitor each the children’s emotional well-being. A child who is not alone with his problems is less likely to act out negatively.

5. Schools must create policies that foster a nurturing, caring environment: They should stress positive values with the students such as inclusion, positive communication and respect, and a group responsibility for each child’s welfare.

If children feel cared for and valued, they will build a positive attachment to the school, and feel less alienated and angry. There might be posters in the hallways with messages such as: “We care about every student” or “We care about our school.” Each student can be involved in school and community service projects. The old model of education of punishment/reward should be replaced by positive communication and emotional support.

Every school should have an established system for communicating about children who express wishes to harm others or themselves. For example, there can be an “alert box” where kids can anonymously place the name of another child that worries them, report bullying incidents, or talk about their own distress.There should be specific staff members the children can report to, as well.

There should be a 0 tolerance policy towards bullying in the school with specific known consequences, such as the loss of privileges. But the approach should also include counseling, meetings with parents, service to the school, and educational tasks to raise the child’s awareness. Schools must change the message that a child who is bullied has to deal with it alone.

6. Schools must educate and support parents: The school must view the parent as having a major role in ending school violence.

Parents are extremely upset about school violence. School professionals should provide them with emotional support, include them in devising plans for keeping their children safe, and give them guidance on how to talk to their kids about the problem.

There should be workshops for parents to alert them to the key elements involved in the profile of a shooter, so parents can identify these signs in their children, and inform the school. There should be discussions about how parents can monitor their children’s computer usage, and restrict their access to negative materials. Parents can also become involved in protecting the children at school. They can monitor the hallway during class times or patrol the area around the school in cars during class time.

The schools should provide parents with educational workshops. Parenting is one of the hardest jobs in the world. Parents need to gain an understanding of their children and learn positive communication skills. They need tools for coping with children’s angerdepression and social problems. Parents should have the opportunity to meet with the professionals on staff to learn how to handle difficult situations at home as they arise. Positive parenting based upon understanding, love and support, creates children who feel good about themselves.They will not cause harm to others.

The burden of school violence lies ultimately upon everyone’s shoulders. There needs to be an understanding of the urgency of providing adequate federal and state funding for mental health services in schools. This is where children spend at least twelve years growing up and their futures are being fashioned.

Along with heightened gun control, there must be greater supervision of the films, video games and television shows available to children. Our children are being spoon fed a tolerance for violence. They literally spend hours shooting the characters in violent video games. Even the most benign sitcoms on TV contain phrases and behaviors that promote a harshness in relationships.

The societal bar on how people should treat one another has been lowered to such an extent, that bullying is increasing, as well as violent crimes. Our social and political environment must become one that dissuades individuals from bullying one another and promotes the highest regard for human life. If not, these episodes of school violence will not go away.

The societal view of children must improve, as well . We must cherish children, treat them with utmost respect, and constantly search for more positive ways of communicating with them. They must not be treated as second class citizens because they are small and lack power.

We must also recognize that every harsh word that adults say to a child, not only harms a child’s self-esteem, but may end up creating an angry, unhappy child, who strikes out and harms others.