School Climate & Safety

Federal Study Stresses Warning Signs of School Violence

By Darcia Harris Bowman — December 12, 2001 3 min read
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A federal study of violent deaths in American schools found that there were warning signs—such as verbal threats, notes, or suicidal behavior—prior to many of the incidents.

Read “School-Associated Violent Deaths in the United States, 1994-1999,” from the Journal of the American Amedical Association. The study, conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the departments of Education and Justice, looked at homicides and suicides, as well as police intervention and accidental shootings that ended in death.

Over a six-year period that began with the 1994-95 school year, the study found, 253 people died in 220 school-related violent incidents, 67 percent of which occurred on school property. Nearly 70 percent of the victims and 37 percent of the perpetrators were students.

The rate of violent deaths at schools has actually dropped since 1992, according to the study.

However, the study’s authors say the deadly eruptions that occur at schools are increasingly likely to claim more than one life.

In the worst such incident, two teenage gunmen killed 12 students and one teacher before taking their own lives in the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo.

Still, federal officials say there may be steps schools can take to head off that level of violence.

“It’s become very clear ... that many of these incidents are preventable,” said William Modzeleski, the director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program and a co- author of the report.

To begin with, the report points out, taking suicide threats seriously may be one solution. Those who committed acts of deadly violence were nearly seven times more likely than their victims to have expressed some form of suicidal behavior prior to the event.

When Violence Happens

According to the study, which was published in the Dec. 5 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, most of the deadly incidents occurred during “transition times": the start of school, lunch periods, or the end of the school day.

“Efforts to reduce crowding, increase supervision, and institute plans for handling disputes during these intervals may reduce the likelihood that conflicts will occur and injuries will result when they do,” the report says.

What’s more, researchers found that in just over half the cases there were signals of impending violence in the form of notes, threats, journal entries, arguments, or physical fights. Nearly half the events were motivated by disputes, and another 24 percent were gang- related.

“School administrators, teachers, and parents need to develop mechanisms for reporting threats and other actions that may warn of a potential event,” said Mark Anderson, a CDC epidemiologist and a co-author of the study.

At the same time, the authors of the report stressed that violent deaths at schools are rare.

“Schools remain safe places for students,” Mr. Anderson said. “Of all homicides and suicides that occur among school-age children, less than 1 percent are associated with a school. The risk for violent death that a child faces while in school is less than one in a million.”

Still, the epidemiologist highlighted the finding that guns were used in three-quarters of the incidents examined in the study.

To fit the study’s definition of school-related deaths, the incidents had to occur on the campus of a public or private elementary or secondary school, or when the victim was on the way to or from school, or was attending or traveling to or from a school-sponsored event.

The information in the study was gle

aned from more than 18,000 news reports, interviews with law-enforcement and school officials, police reports, and health analyses.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2001 edition of Education Week as Federal Study Stresses Warning Signs of School Violence

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