Leadership Symposium Early Bird Deadline Approaching | Join K-12 leaders nationwide for three days of empowering strategies, networking, and inspiration! Discounted pricing ends March 1. Register today.
School Climate & Safety

Preventing Student Violence: 3 Key Takeaways

By Evie Blad — May 19, 2022 3 min read
Crosses and flowers hang on a fence outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, near Parkland, Fla., in memory of the 17 people killed in a school shooting there in 2018.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

While efforts to prevent student violence are most often promoted following high-profile school shootings, they can also be a critical tool for promoting safety in the larger community, school safety experts say.

That’s because schools are often uniquely positioned to recognize warning signs of violent behavior—or a need for emotional support and resources—in students before they are driven to act, inside or outside the school walls.

But, as Education Week reported this week, strategies like threat assessment and crisis response can pose major challenges for schools.

Those concerns are in sharp focus amid police revelations that an 18-year-old gunman who is suspected of killing 10 people in a Buffalo, N.Y., grocery store was previously referred to police when he made an unspecified threat, telling a teacher last year he was interested in committing a “murder-suicide.”

Police referred that student to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. But because he didn’t make a specific, targeted threat, he was released a day and a half later without being listed under the state’s red-flag law, which would have restricted his ability to buy firearms.

What, if anything, can schools do to intervene before violence occurs?

Here are some key takeaways from experts on school-based threat assessment:

Know the research on threat assessment

Educators and policymakers have applied the term “threat assessment” to widely varying policies and practices, some of which aren’t evidence-based, said Dewey Cornell, the director of the Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia.

Cornell’s work focuses on a model of threat assessment, through which teams of school personnel evaluate and respond to concerns that a student may be isolated, in need of help, or may pose a threat to themselves or others.

Beyond direct threats of harm, those teams can respond to concerns about bullying and other behaviors.

The most serious threats may require a safety plan to ensure a student doesn’t act, but more “transient threats” could call for counseling or other supportive services to help protect their mental health and emotional well-being, whether or not they have the resources or plan to carry out violent behavior.

Learn more about the specifics of Cornell’s model in this 2019 Education Week story.

See Also

A computer screen displays an excerpt from the threat-assessment program developed by Dewey G. Cornell, an education professor at the University of Virginia.
A computer screen displays an excerpt from the threat-assessment program developed by Dewey G. Cornell, an education professor at the University of Virginia.
Cat McGrath for Education Week

Be mindful of student civil rights

After past high-profile school shootings, civil rights groups have sounded the alarm that efforts to prevent violence could lead to overly harsh school discipline practices.

If schools only focus their intervention efforts on the most direct, specific threats of violence, they may miss a chance to help a student who needs access to counseling or other support, whether or not they are capable of carrying out an attack, Cornell said.

But if educators cast too wide a net in identifying students who may harm themselves or others—or if they respond with an overly punitive approach—they risk further alienating students or violating their civil rights, advocates caution.

Two troubling examples:

  • A 2018 investigation by the Portland Oregonian newspaper detailed a family’s frustrating experience after their son, who is on the autism spectrum, was flagged as a potential threat at school.
  • A 2019 investigation by Education Week’s Benjamin Herold detailed how schools are using extensive digital surveillance systems to track students’ online behavior, often flagging innocent social media posts made on home computers, phones, and other devices as warning signs of potential harm.

Focus on support, not discipline

Assessing student behavior can be difficult, said Jillian Peterson, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University.

In her own work, Peterson and her fellow researchers have found variation in how trained law-enforcement officers even respond to hypothetical situations, like a student drawing of a violent act.

That’s why Peterson favors a “slight rebrand” of threat assessment, preferring to call it “crisis management” instead.

A student may be in an emotional or mental health crisis, or they may face difficult life circumstances, like the death of a parent or social rejection. Those crises warrant a response, even if they aren’t attached to an imminent threat, Peterson said.

But that response shouldn’t be disciplinary, she said. Rather, schools should focus on addressing students’ needs through counseling, interventions, and connection to community services.

This is a big challenge in many schools, however, where there are not enough counselors and psychologists.

“They’re barely keeping their head above water as it is,” Peterson said.

Related Tags:


Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Science of Reading: Emphasis on Language Comprehension
Dive into language comprehension through a breakdown of the Science of Reading with an interactive demonstration.
Content provided by Be GLAD
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Are School Buses Safe? An Expert Explains
A perennial concern is getting new attention.
4 min read
Photo of rescue workers and turned over school bus.
Brandy Taylor / iStock / Getty Images Plus
School Climate & Safety Jury Finds Michigan School Shooter’s Mother Guilty of Manslaughter
Jennifer Crumbley was accused of failing to secure a gun and ammunition at home and failing to get help for her son's mental health.
2 min read
Jennifer Crumbley arrives in court on Feb. 5, 2024 in Pontiac, Mich.
Jennifer Crumbley arrives in court on Feb. 5, 2024 in Pontiac, Mich.
Carlos Osorio/AP
School Climate & Safety A School Removed Bathroom Mirrors to Keep Students From Making TikToks. Will It Work?
The desperate strategy for keeping students in class illuminates the challenge schools face in competing with social media.
5 min read
Empty blue school bathroom showing the bathroom sinks without mirrors.
School Climate & Safety Researchers Analyzed Years of Reports to a School Safety Tipline. Here's What They Learned
More than a third of gun-related tips in one state outlined possible school attacks, a new analysis finds.
4 min read
Illustration of a cellphone with a red exclamation mark inside of a word bubble.