SAFE SCHOOLS: Preventing School Violence NYS Mandatory Training

Reducing School Violence

Overview of the Concept of Violence

Statistics Related to School Violence

Reducing School Violence

Specifics of New York State SAVE Legislation




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Since violence is so insidious in our culture, it is difficult to examine the topic, particularly how to prevent violence, in a manner that is systematic and productive. There has been much in the literature about violence prevention; however there is limited research in the area. Multiple perspectives exist, including violence prevention models. In the models there is significant overlap in approach. Covered in this course are: The Public Health Model for Violence Prevention, The Ecological Model and the New York State SAVE Legislation Model.

The Public Health Model for Violence Prevention

The focus of public health is on the health, safety and well-being of entire populations. A unique aspect of the field is that it strives to provide the maximum benefit for the largest number of people (CDC, 2015a).

Public health draws on a science base that is multi-disciplinary. It relies on knowledge from a broad range of disciplines including medicine, epidemiology, sociology, psychology, criminology, education, and economics. This broad knowledge base has allowed the field of public health to respond successfully to a range of health conditions across the globe (CDC, 2015a). 

The field also emphasizes input from diverse sectors including health, education, social services, justice, policy and the private sector. Collective action on the part of these stakeholders can help in addressing problems like violence (CDC, 2015a).
The public health perspective asks the foundational questions: Where does the problem begin? How could we prevent it from occurring in the first place? To answer these questions, public health uses a systematic, scientific approach for understanding and preventing violence.

The public health approach is a four-step process that is rooted in the scientific method.  It can be applied to violence and other health problems that affect populations (CDC, 2015a; CDC, 2016). Many people, organizations, and systems are involved at each step along the way.

Figure 1. The Public Health Model


STEP 1: Define the Problem

The first step in preventing violence is to understand it. Grasping the magnitude of the problem involves analyzing data such as the number of violence-related behaviors, injuries, and deaths. Data can demonstrate how frequently violence occurs, where it occurs, trends, and who the victims and perpetrators are. These data can be obtained from a variety of sources. In the community, police reports, medical examiner files, vital records, hospital charts, registries, population-based surveys, and other sources can be used to obtain data.

It is important that data be collected in a systematic and unbiased manner with uniform definitions and uniform reporting methods. Without such standardization, it is difficult to make use of the data. One teacher, with a higher tolerance for activity and noise from students, may not identify bullying behavior and may see it as a playful interaction among peers. Another teacher may have a lower tolerance for noise and activity, or a greater awareness of what constitutes bullying. Obtaining information from these two teachers would yield significantly different information. What one agency defines as "violent behavior", another may define as an "assault". Clearly without uniform definitions and reporting methods, it is difficult to utilize the data and even more difficult to generalize any information from such data.

The federal government requires that states establish a uniform management and reporting system to collect information on school safety and drug use among young people. The states must include incident reports by school officials and anonymous student and teacher surveys in the data they collect. This information is to be publicly reported so that parents, school officials and others who are interested have information about any violence and drug use at their schools. They can then assess the problems at their schools and work toward finding solutions. Continual monitoring and reports will track progress over time.

New York State has uniform reporting procedures as well. These will be covered during the specifics related to the SAVE legislation.

STEP 2: Identify Risk and Protective Factors

It is not enough to know the magnitude of a public health problem. It is important to understand what factors protect people or put them at risk for experiencing or perpetrating violence. Why are risk and protective factors useful? They help identify where prevention efforts need to be focused.

Risk Factor

Characteristic that increases the likelihood of a person becoming a victim or perpetrator of violence.

Protective Factor

Characteristic that decreases the likelihood of a person becoming a victim or perpetrator of violence because it provides a buffer against risk.

There is a growing understanding of how trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) not only affect the brain and learning, but can lead to numerous behavior challenges, including aggression and impulse control (Felitti, et al., 1998). The ACE study relates to the 1998 CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, a groundbreaking public health study that discovered that childhood trauma impacts children’s developing brains profoundly and leads to the later or adult onset of chronic diseases, depression and other mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence. The ACE Study has published about 70 research papers since 1998. Hundreds of additional research papers based on the ACE Study have also been published.

In the landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study (1998) and successive research since then, it was identified that childhood experiences, both positive and negative, have a tremendous impact on future violence victimization and perpetration, and lifelong health and opportunity. As such, early experiences are an important public health issue. Much of the foundational research in this area has been referred to as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).  Some examples of these adverse experiences include emotional, physical, sexual abuse, emotional and physical neglect, mother treated violently, household substance abuse, household mental illness, parental separation/divorce, incarcerated household member.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study referred to previously also determined that these adverse experiences have been linked to:

  • risky health behaviors (for example, tobacco smoking, drug use, alcohol use, unsafe sexual behavior, etc.),
  • chronic health conditions (for example, obesity, diabetes, depression, suicide, sexually transmitted diseases, heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, broken bones, etc.),
  • low life potential (for example, impact on high school graduation rates, academic performance and achievement, poor occupational options, unemployment, lost time from work, etc.) , and
  • early death.

As the number of ACEs increases, so does the risk for these outcomes.
Not all children who witness violence or who are victims of abusive or neglectful behavior will experience long-term consequences. Outcomes of individual cases vary widely and are affected by a combination of factors, including (CDC, 2016):

  • The child's age and developmental status when witnessing or experiencing the abuse or neglect;
  • The type of abuse (physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, etc.) witnessed or experienced;
  • Frequency, duration, and severity of abuse;
  • Relationship between the child, victim, and the abuser.

It is not always possible to predict behavior that will lead to violence. However, educators and parents, and sometimes students, can recognize certain early warning signs. In some situations and for some youth, different combinations of events, behaviors, and emotions may lead to aggressive rage or violent behavior toward self or others. A good rule of thumb is to assume that these warning signs, especially when they are presented in combination, indicate a need for further analysis to determine an appropriate intervention (CDC, 2016; NYSCSS, 2001).

We know from research that most children who become violent toward self or others feel rejected and psychologically victimized. In most cases, children exhibit aggressive behavior early in life and, if not provided support, will continue a progressive developmental pattern toward severe aggression or violence. However, research also shows that when children have a positive, meaningful connection to an adult, whether it be at home, in school, or in the community, the potential for violence is reduced significantly (CDC, 2016; NYSCSS, 2001).

The following early warning signs are risk factors. They are presented with the following qualifications: They are not equally significant and they are not presented in order of seriousness (CDC, 2016b).

  • Social withdrawal. In some situations, gradual and eventually complete withdrawal from social contacts can be an important indicator of a troubled child. The withdrawal often stems from feelings of depression, rejection, persecution, unworthiness, and lack of confidence.
  • Excessive feelings of isolation and being alone. Research has shown that the majority of children who are isolated and appear to be friendless are not violent. In fact, these feelings are sometimes characteristic of children and youth who may be troubled, withdrawn, or have internal issues that hinder development of social affiliations. However, research also has shown that in some cases feelings of isolation and not having friends are associated with children who behave aggressively and violently.
  • Excessive feelings of rejection. In the process of growing up, and in the course of adolescent development, many young people experience emotionally painful rejection. Children who are troubled often are isolated from their mentally healthy peers. Their responses to rejection will depend on many background factors. Without support, they may be at risk of expressing their emotional distress in negative ways, including violence. Some aggressive children who are rejected by non-aggressive peers seek out aggressive friends who, in turn, reinforce their violent tendencies.
  • Being a victim of violence. Children who are victims of violence including physical or sexual abuse in the community, at school, or at home are sometimes at risk themselves of becoming violent toward themselves or others.
  • Feelings of being picked on and persecuted. The youth who feels constantly picked on, teased, bullied, singled out for ridicule, and humiliated at home or at school may initially withdraw socially. If not given adequate support in addressing these feelings, some children may vent them in inappropriate ways including possible aggression or violence.
  • Low school interest and poor academic performance. Poor school achievement can be the result of many factors. It is important to consider whether there is a drastic change in performance and/or poor performance becomes a chronic condition that limits the child's capacity to learn. In some situations.such as when the low achiever feels frustrated, unworthy, chastised, and/or denigrated, acting out and aggressive behaviors may occur. It is important to assess the emotional and cognitive reasons for the academic performance change to determine the true nature of the problem.
  • Expression of violence in writings and drawings. Children and youth often express their thoughts, feelings, desires, and intentions in their drawings and in stories, poetry, and other written expressive forms. Many children produce work about violent themes that for the most part is harmless when taken in context. However, an overrepresentation of violence in writings and drawings that is directed at specific individuals (family members, peers, other adults) consistently over time, may signal emotional problems and the potential for violence. Because there is a real danger in misdiagnosing such a sign, it is important to seek the guidance of a qualified professional such as a school psychologist, counselor, or other mental health specialist.
  • Uncontrolled anger. Everyone gets angry; anger is a natural emotion. However, anger that is expressed frequently and intensely in response to minor irritants may signal potential violent behavior toward self or others.
  • Patterns of impulsive and chronic hitting, intimidating, and bullying behaviors. Children often engage in acts of shoving and mild aggression. However, some mildly aggressive behaviors such as constant hitting and bullying of others that occur early in children's lives, if left unattended, might later escalate into more serious behaviors.
  • History of discipline problems. Chronic behavior and disciplinary problems both in school and at home may suggest that underlying emotional needs are not being met. These unmet needs may be manifested in acting out and aggressive behaviors. These problems may set the stage for the child to violate norms and rules, defy authority, disengage from school, and engage in aggressive behaviors with other children and adults.
  • Past history of violent and aggressive behavior. Unless provided with support and counseling, a youth who has a history of aggressive or violent behavior is likely to repeat those behaviors. Aggressive and violent acts may be directed toward other individuals, be expressed in cruelty to animals, or include fire setting. Youth who show an early pattern of antisocial behavior frequently and across multiple settings are particularly at risk for future aggressive and antisocial behavior. Similarly, youth who engage in overt behaviors such as bullying, generalized aggression and defiance, and covert behaviors such as stealing, vandalism, lying, cheating, and fire setting also are at risk for more serious aggressive behavior. Research suggests that age of onset may be a key factor in interpreting early warning signs. For example, children who engage in aggression and drug abuse at an early age (before age 12) are more likely to show violence later on than are children who begin such behavior at an older age. In the presence of such signs it is important to review the child's history with behavioral experts and seek parents' observations and insights.
  • Intolerance for differences and prejudicial attitudes. All children have likes and dislikes. However, an intense prejudice toward others based on racial, ethnic, religious, language, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and physical appearance, when coupled with other factors, may lead to violent assaults against those who are perceived to be different. Membership in hate groups or the willingness to victimize individuals with disabilities or health problems also should be treated as early warning signs.
  • Drug use and alcohol use. Apart from being unhealthy behaviors, drug use and alcohol use reduces self-control and exposes children and youth to violence, either as perpetrators, as victims, or both.
  • Affiliation with gangs. Gangs that support anti-social values and behaviors, including extortion, intimidation, and acts of violence toward other students, cause fear and stress among other students. Youth who are influenced by these groups, those who emulate and copy their behavior, as well as those who become affiliated with them may adopt these values and act in violent or aggressive ways in certain situations. Gang-related violence and turf battles are common occurrences tied to the use of drugs that often result in injury and/or death.
  • Inappropriate access to, possession of, and use of firearms. Children and youth who inappropriately possess or have access to firearms can have an increased risk for violence. Research shows that such youngsters also have a higher probability of becoming victims. Families can reduce inappropriate access and use by restricting, monitoring, and supervising children's access to firearms and other weapons. Children who have a history of aggression, impulsiveness, or other emotional problems should not have access to firearms and other weapons.
  • Serious threats of violence. Idle threats are a common response to frustration. Alternatively, one of the most reliable indicators that a youth is likely to commit a dangerous act toward self or others is a detailed and specific threat to use violence. Recent incidents across the country clearly indicate that threats to commit violence against oneself or others should be taken very seriously. Steps must be taken to understand the nature of these threats and to prevent them from being carried out.

Research on youth violence has increased our understanding of factors that make some populations more vulnerable to victimization and perpetration. Risk factors increase the likelihood that a young person will become violent. However, risk factors are not direct causes of youth violence; instead, risk factors contribute to youth violence.  Risk factors as well as protective factors (described below) can be conceptualized as pertaining to the individual, to the family, to social and peer groups and the broader community (CDC, 2016b).

Individual Risk Factors

  • History of violent victimization;
  • Attention deficits, hyperactivity, or learning disorders;
  • History of early aggressive behavior;
  • Involvement with drugs, alcohol, or tobacco;
  • Low IQ;
  • Poor behavioral control;
  • Deficits in social cognitive or information-processing abilities;
  • High emotional distress;
  • History of treatment for emotional problems;
  • Antisocial beliefs and attitudes;
  • Exposure to violence and conflict in the family.

Family Risk Factors

  • Authoritarian childrearing attitudes;
  • Harsh, lax, or inconsistent disciplinary practices;
  • Low parental involvement;
  • Low emotional attachment of parents or caregivers;
  • Low parental education and income;
  • Parental substance abuse or criminality;
  • Poor family functioning;
  • Poor monitoring and supervision of children.

Peer/School Risk Factors

  • Association with delinquent peers;
  • Involvement in gangs;
  • Social rejection by peers;
  • Lack of involvement in conventional activities;
  • Poor academic performance;
  • Low commitment to school and school failure.

Community Risk Factors

  • Diminished economic opportunities;
  • High concentrations of poor residents;
  • High level of transiency;
  • High level of family disruption;
  • Low levels of community participation;
  • Socially disorganized neighborhoods.

Protective Factors buffer young people from risks of becoming violent. These factors exist at various levels. Protective factors serve to mediate the negative impact of risk factors that are associated with violence. To date, protective factors have not been studied as extensively or rigorously as risk factors. However, identifying and understanding protective factors are equally as important as researching risk factors (CDC, 2016b).

Individual Protective Factors

  • Intolerant attitude toward deviance;
  • High IQ
  • High grade point average (as indicator of high academic achievement);
  • Positive social orientation;
  • Highly developed social skills/competencies;
  • Highly developed skills for realistic planning;
  • Religiosity;

Family Protective Factors

  • Connectedness to family or adults outside of the family;
  • Ability to discuss problems with parents;
  • Perceived parental expectations about school performance are high;
  • Frequent shared activities with parents;
  • Consistent presence of parent during at least one of the following: when awakening, when arriving home from school, at evening mealtime, and when going to bed;"
  • Involvement in social activities.
  • Parental/family use of constructive strategies for coping with problems (provision of models of constructive coping).

Peer/School Protective Factors

  • Possession of effective relationships with those at school that are strong, close, and prosocially oriented;
  • Commitment to school (an investment in school and in doing well at school);
  • Close relationships with non-deviant peers;
  • Membership in peer groups that do not condone antisocial behavior;
  • Involvement in prosocial activities;
  • Exposure to school climates that characterized by:
    • Intensive supervision
    • Clear behavior rules
    • Consistent negative reinforcement of aggression
    • Engagement of parents and teachers.

Characteristics of Youth Who Have Caused School-Associated Violent Deaths

The National Safe School Center studied school-associated violent deaths in the United States during the 1990s. They identified common characteristics of youth who have caused such deaths. The following list identifies behaviors, which could indicate a youth's potential for harming him/herself or others. While there is no guarantee that these characteristics and behaviors identifying potentially dangerous students who may harm themselves and/or others, they are clearly red flags that should be further considered (NSSC, 1998).

In the review of such violent incidents, in most cases, a troubled youth has demonstrated these behaviors or has talked to others about problems with bullying and feelings of isolation, anger, depression and frustration.  These characteristics should serve to alert school administrators, teachers and support staff to address needs of troubled students through meetings with parents, provision of school counseling, guidance and mentoring services, as well as referrals to appropriate community health/social services and law enforcement personnel. Further, such behavior should also provide an early warning signal that safe school plans and crisis prevention/intervention procedures must be in place to protect the health and safety of all school students and staff members so that schools remain safe havens for learning (NSSC, 1998).

  • Has a history of tantrums and uncontrollable angry outbursts.
  • Characteristically resorts to name calling, cursing or abusive language.
  • Habitually makes violent threats when angry.
  • Has previously brought a weapon to school.
  • Has a background of serious disciplinary problems at school and in the community.
  • Has a background of drug, alcohol or other substance abuse or dependency.
  • Is on the fringe of his/her peer group with few or no close friends.
  • Is preoccupied with weapons, explosives or other incendiary devices.
  • Has previously been truant, suspended or expelled from school.
  • Displays cruelty to animals.
  • Has little or no supervision and support from parents or a caring adult.
  • Has witnessed or been a victim of abuse or neglect in the home.
  • Has been bullied and/or bullies or intimidates peers or younger children.
  • Tends to blame others for difficulties and problems s/he caused her/himself.
  • Consistently prefers TV shows, movies or music expressing violent themes and acts.
  • Prefers reading materials dealing with violent themes, rituals and abuse.
  • Reflects anger, frustration and the dark side of life in school essays or writing projects.
  • Is involved with a gang or an antisocial group on the fringe of peer acceptance.
  • Is often depressed and/or has significant mood swings.
  • Has threatened or attempted suicide.

STEP 3: Develop and Test Prevention Strategies

Research data and findings from needs assessments, community surveys, stakeholder interviews, and focus groups are useful for designing prevention programs. Using these data and findings is known as an evidence-based approach to program planning. Once programs are implemented, they are evaluated rigorously to determine their effectiveness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Center for Injury Prevention and Control (CDC-NCIP) developed Best Practices of Youth Violence Prevention: A Sourcebook for Community Action (2002). The goal of this document, which expanded on the earlier 1993 version, was to share the experience of those who have successfully intervened in preventing youth violence. It serves as a blueprint for communities, and the various agencies and organizations serving the community, including schools. The strategies outlined in this document include:

Parent and family based strategies. These are designed to improve family relationships. There is growing evidence that these interventions, especially those that start early and recognize all the factors that influence a family, can have substantial, longterm effects in reducing violent behavior by children. Parent and family-based interventions combine training in parenting skills, education about child development and the factors that predispose children to violent behavior, and exercises to help parents develop skills for communicating with their children and for resolving conflict in nonviolent ways. This type of intervention is ideal for families with very young children and for at-risk parents with a child on the way.

Home visiting strategy. Many European countries provide home visits to all families, regardless of risk status. Some advocates have argued that this service should be made available to all families in the United States, as well. But home-visiting interventions are resource intensive, and few communities have the financial and human resources needed to carry out an effective program on such a large scale. Therefore, targeting select groups for home-visiting services is typically most appropriate. A needs assessment conducted with input from the community will help identify families who could benefit most from a home-visiting intervention. Community leaders should play a key role in this decision, as they are often in a position to direct the allocation of resources.

Social Cognitive strategy. Researchers have linked a lack of social problem-solving skills to youth violence. When children and adolescents are faced with social situations for which they are unprepared emotionally and cognitively, they may respond with aggression or violence. Many assert that we can improve children's ability to avoid violent situations and solve problems nonviolently by enhancing their social relationships with peers, teaching them how to interpret behavioral cues, and improving their conflict-resolution skills. Social-cognitive interventions strive to equip children with the skills they need to deal effectively with difficult social situations, such as being teased or being the last one picked to join a team. They build on Albert Bandura's Social-Cognitive Theory, which posits that children learn social skills by observing and interacting with parents, adult relatives and friends, teachers, peers, and others in the environment, including media role models (Bandura, 1986). Social-cognitive interventions incorporate didactic teaching, modeling, and role-playing to enhance positive social interactions, teach nonviolent methods for resolving conflict, and establish or strengthen nonviolent beliefs in young people.

Mentoring Strategy. Research has shown that the presence of a positive adult role model to supervise and guide a child's behavior is a key protective factor against violence. The absence of such a role model-whether a parent or other individual-has been linked to a child's risk for drug and alcohol use, sexual promiscuity, aggressive or violent behavior, and inability to maintain stable employment later in life. Mentoring is the pairing of a young person with a volunteer who acts as a supportive, nonjudgmental role model. It has been touted by many as an excellent means of providing a child or adolescent with a positive adult influence when such an influence does not otherwise exist. Evidence has shown that mentoring can significantly improve school attendance and performance, reduce violent behavior, decrease the likelihood of drug use, and improve relationships with friends and parents.

In 2007, the CDC published the Task Force on Community Preventative Services' systematic review of universal school-based violence prevention programs. Programs were identified as "universal" because they were administered to all children in classrooms regardless of individual risk, not only to those who already manifested violent or aggressive behavior or those who had risk factors for these behaviors. The Task force concluded (CDC, 2007, p. 1):

"The results of this review provided strong evidence that universal school-based programs decrease rates of violence and aggressive behavior among school-aged children. Program effects were demonstrated at all grade levels. An independent meta-analysis of school-based programs confirmed and supplemented these findings. On the basis of strong evidence of effectiveness, the Task Force recommends the use of universal school-based programs to prevent or reduce violent behavior."

No plan will make a school immune to violence. However, schools can plan for, and execute, violence prevention strategies as well as effective responses when prevention efforts are not effective. A violence prevention and response plan in place reduces the likelihood of violence and helps schools respond quickly and effectively to violent incidents that may occur. Just as the causes of violence in our society, as well as in our schools, are multi-dimensional, so are the interventions to reduce or eliminate violence.

Additionally, school violence occurs in a unique context in every school, making a one-size-fits-all approach ineffective. No one particular plan for school safety will address the issues in all schools or for every child. The issues related to safety in schools is addressed through multiple levels, including the federal and state governments, the school district, the specific school, the classroom and individual teachers and students.

The Task Force (CDC, 2007) found additional benefits of such violence prevention programs:

  • Reduced truancy;
  • Improvements in school achievement;
  • Reduction in "problem behavior";
  • Reduced activity levels;
  • decreased attention problems;
  • Improved social skills;
  • Decreased internalization of problems (e.g., anxiety and depression).

According to the New York State Center for School Safety (2001), educational strategies that are promising in reducing or preventing violence include:

  • Mentoring;
  • Social skills development;
  • Conflict resolution skills;
  • Peer mediation;
  • Parental involvement.

STEP 4: Assure Widespread Adoption

Once prevention programs have proven effective, they must be disseminated. Communities are encouraged to adapt programs to meet their own needs and to evaluate the program's success. Dissemination techniques to promote widespread adoption include training (such as this course you are now completing), technical assistance, and process evaluation.

A critical method for insuring adoption is to enact laws governing dissemination of information. The 2000 New York State SAVE legislation is one such method for insuring adoption of violence prevention strategies. The SAVE legislation mandated this course as well as the specific violence prevention strategies that will be covered later in this course.

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