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Preventing and Responding to Violent School Crises

Preventing and Responding to Violent School Crises


Although less than one percent of all violent deaths of children occur on school grounds - indeed, a child is far more likely to be killed in the community or at home - no school can guarantee complete safety for its students and staff. School districts should and must take effective steps to 1) prevent violent school crises from occurring, and in the worst case scenario, 2) respond swiftly to minimize injury and loss of life and provide recovery support for surviving members of the school-community.

This document provides a brief checklist which school-communities may use to determine their readiness to prevent and respond to violent school crises in four areas: primary prevention, early intervention, crisis response, and aftermath support. Primary prevention and early intervention are designed to prevent school violence, while crisis response and aftermath support occur in the event of a violent tragedy. In addition, the document provides examples of straightforward, first steps to improve school safety.

Actions to Prevent a Crisis

Primary Prevention

Primary prevention of school violence is those activities, programs and strategies which help ensure students have the knowledge, skills, support and organizational protection (physical and emotional) to be and feel safe while at school and school-sponsored activities and while traveling to and from school. Primary prevention is available and provided to all students and helps young people avoid involvement in a wide range of unhealthy risk behaviors, e.g., violence, alcohol and other drugs, sexual activity.

Provide classroom instruction on the topics of safety, harassment, diversity, conflict mediation, emotional and mental health, social skills, and character education?





Have fair policies and procedures to prevent violence and harassment developed by a broad representation of the school-community and endorsed by the school board? Do they clearly define expected behavior and consequences for misbehavior? Are these policies and procedures widely publicized to students and parents using non-technical language and practical examples? Are they part of the school code of conduct?





Sponsor programs for peer educators, leaders, and mediators to increase student involvement and commitment to a safe school?





Provide advisor-advisee programs or other ways to ensure all students feel connected to an adult in school?





Sponsor family support and education programs to increase parent involvement in your school and support their efforts to raise their children the best they can?





Provide a welcoming environment for students, visitors and staff?





Have connections to the greater community to ensure families and community officials are making efforts to limit access to weapons?





Use adult hall monitors?





Have surveillance cameras in hallways?





Have a police-school liaison officer?





Have staff who treat all students with equal respect and model the behaviors expected of students? Do staff monitor their own speech and conduct?





Provide before- and after-school programs?





Provide support and encouragement for students as they transition from school to adult life and the workplace?





Encourage staff to (on an ongoing basis) bring identified concerns about or ideas to improve safety to the principal or some other designated staff member or group?





Provide professional development opportunities so staff understand their roles and responsibilities in school safety promotion?





Early Intervention

Research tells us most children who become violent toward self or others feel rejected and psychologically victimized. They are often victims of harassment and intimidation. Early intervention is necessary when students demonstrate signs that may indicate future violent acts. These strategies and procedures are necessary to maintain a safe, school environment and ensure students receive the appropriate services and consequences, based upon their actions.

Systematically follow up on rumors of violence and violent intents?  





Provide student support groups dealing with anger management and impulse control?





Have policies and procedures designed to promote school safety that are uniformly enforced for all students without regard to what "group" they belong, e.g., race, athletes, gender, socioeconomic status, academically gifted, and "fringe" students?





Encourage students and parents to speak out about harassment and intimidation? Do they know who to talk to?





When responding to complaints of harassment, make the complainant aware of the complaint resolution process and carefully follow the complaint resolution procedure?





Provide individual counseling with pupil services staff?






Sponsor peer helpers who represent all segments of the student population and whose training includes early warning signs of possible acts of violence?





Have cooperative agreements with local and county law enforcement agencies to ensure prompt responses to behaviors that, while not violent, may still be illegal?





Take steps to ensure all students have at least one responsible adult within the school they feel comfortable confiding in?





Have a building consultation team to screen, assess, and recommend services, if necessary, for students who demonstrate early warning signs?





Make referrals to community mental health providers, when appropriate and with parental permission?





Work with families, law enforcement officials, judges, and community mental health providers to ensure that violent youth are provided sanctions and services to change their behavior?





Actions to Respond to a Crisis

Crisis Response

Crisis response includes the immediate actions taken in a crisis. Staff will be able to respond more effectively if there is a well-conceived plan and everyone understands what to do and whom to ask for instructions.

Have a comprehensive crisis plan that features involvement of community agencies, evacuation procedures, a crisis communication system, and a process for securing immediate support from law enforcement and other appropriate agencies? Is staff development provided to ensure everybody understands their roles in a crisis? Are staff provided a written manual or flip chart detailing all procedures?





Provide regular opportunities to practice school-wide responses to crisis, similar to fire and tornado drills?





Have a school-community team to oversee the preparation and implementation of the prevention and response plan made up of the principal, teachers, pupil services staff, parents, community mental health providers and a police-school liaison officer?





Aftermath Support

Aftermath support is provided in the hours, days and weeks directly following a violent tragedy. Students, staff and parents may experience a range of emotions including anger, grief, and fear about returning to school. These emotions can make learning, teaching and parenting very difficult until they are resolved. Resolving may help prevent further violence.

Have a crisis response team available to be mobilized composed of pupil services staff, community-based mental health professionals, clergy and physicians?





In the event of a violent tragedy, would your school . . .





Help parents understand adolescents' reactions to violence?





Provide short-term mental health counseling for students and staff?





Provide assistance to victims and family members to re-enter the school environment?





Refer students and staff to community-based mental health professionals, if necessary, for counseling?





First Steps to Improve School Safety

Review of this checklist may prompt you to determine your school can do some additional things to improve school safety and decrease the likelihood a violent tragedy will occur. Some first steps you may want to consider are:

  • Organize a school-community team to oversee violence prevention and crisis response activities.
  • Conduct a building safety audit in conjunction with local law enforcement officials.
  • Improve connections to community-based organizations to coordinate "wrap around" services for students with severe and chronic problems.
  • Conduct a "connection assessment" where all staff list the students with whom each has a personal relationship, i.e., he/she knows the student and feels the student would confide in him/her. This list is then used to determine which students are not connected to a school-based adult. Efforts can be made to involve those students through a variety of means, e.g., extracurricular activities, support groups.
  • Review your existing crisis response plan to ensure it addresses all necessary areas and has been communicated effectively to all staff.
  • Strengthen school policies and practices about intervening in fights, harassment, and related behaviors.


Prevention of a violent school tragedy is much more than ensuring the physical safety of a school. Schools need to ensure students are also emotionally safe and free from harassment that can foment extreme acts of violence. A well-prepared school will have multiple strategies in place to prevent and respond to school violence, including primary prevention, early intervention, crisis response, and aftermath support.

Nic Dibble, Consultant for School Social Work Services at the Department of Public Instruction, prepared this paper. A document published in August, 1998 by the U. S. Department of Education entitled, Early Warning Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools, and previously mailed to all Wisconsin school districts, was utilized extensively. Additional copies can be obtained electronically at the U. S. Department of Education's home page at Another resource available from the U. S. Department of Education is Protecting Students from Harassment and Hate Crimes: A Guide for Schools. For a free copy, call (800) 872-5327 or visit the U. S. Department of Education’s web site.