For the most part, the great majority of our nation’s children will complete their school years without ever being touched by a violent incident. But, how realistic is this way of thinking in this time and age? Recent school attacks such as Columbine and even those in our city of Miami have shaken our view of safety in schools. An alarming figure researched by the U.S. Department of Education (2000) showed that violence in schools occurred in 37 communities across the U.S. from 1974 to 2010 (U.S. Department of Education, 2010). It might not seem a large figure, but the cost attributed to the violence felt by those affected is significant enough to raise concern.
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Types of Crisis in Schools
All districts and schools need a crisis team. One of the key functions of this team is to identify the types of crises that may occur in the district and schools and define what events would activate the plan. The team may consider many factors such as the school’s ability to handle a situation with internal resources and its experience in responding to past events. Natural disasters (earthquake, tornado, hurricane, flood) (James, 2008). The types of crisis that may occur in schools include severe weather, fires, chemical or hazardous material spills, bus crashes, school shootings, bomb threats, medical emergencies, student or staff deaths (suicide, homicide, unintentional, or natural), acts of terror or war, and outbreaks of disease or infections (James, 2008).
School Environment and Safety
Threat assessment in schools reveals that strategies used to foster a culture of respect, connection and safety are integral parts of a safety plan in schools (Kerr, 2008). The main objective of school violence prevention is to create cultures and climates of safety, respect, and connection among students and staff. Students who feel respected, heard, and connect with staff and faculty feel safer in their environment. A supportive environment emphasizes bonding, communication, and respect. If schools emphasize personal contact and connections, students feel safer approaching someone with their problems.
In a climate of safety, communication is key. In this type of environment, information flows freely and does not remain secret until it is too late. If students can turn to a trusted employee, they may be making a positive difference in the overall safety of the campus.
Crisis Worker Responsibilities
In any crisis intervention in schools, an assessment of patient-related factors is needed. It is needed to conduct a plan to assess the suicidal and homicidal risk of students, needs for medical attention, drug and alcohol use, and negative coping strategies. It is important also to assess factors such as family and other support networks that the patient has outside the school. It is important to make psychological contact and establish rapport before and after the implementation of a crisis plan in schools. By conveying a safe environment of respect and open communication, the interventionist develops a solid foundation with the client
Patient-related factors are identified by assessing patients of any issues and challenges they may have in their lives such as poverty, homelessness, drug use, underage drinking, domestic violence, divorce in the family, mental illness, bullying, and access to guns among many other risk factors (Helen, 2007).
It is important to understand, based on research, that although some individuals who threaten harm may pose a real threat, many do not. Research shows that the great majority of attackers did not communicate their threat directly to their target; instead, they communicated intent and/or plans to others before the attack (U.S. Department of Education, 2000). With this in mind, interventionists and schools should look into individuals who engage in behavior that indicates the capacity to commit a violent act rather than just voicing a possible threat.
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There are generally three kinds of information about a patient/student who exhibits potential for a threat that should be gathered to assess for a threat in schools and institutions: identifiers, background information, and information about the patient’s/student’s current life situation. The identifiers are general information such as name, physical description, date of birth, student ID number, and gender.
Background information entails information about the residential address, family and home situation, academic records, social networks, history of conflict at home, school, and other areas, history of bullying, attitudes toward violence, juvenile delinquency, mental health, and substance abuse history, access to weapons, and history of grievances. Current life information includes present living arrangements, nature and quality of relationships, recent losses and grief, perception of being treated differently or unfairly, coping issues, known suicide attempts or ideations, and behavioral issues (Fein, 2008).
It is vital to mention how a crisis worker should act during a possible crisis. There should be a response plan that includes guidelines and protocols for response teams, as well as their roles. The primary issues for consideration are students’ safety, accurate and timely dissemination of information about a crime or offense, and the elimination of potential psychological and physical outcomes of the crisis.
To respond to a possible crisis or offense, crisis workers should first eliminate the potential risks for students. Then, it is vital to investigate the cause of the incident as well as indicate the individuals responsible for it. When an offender is found, crisis workers should establish the reasons for delinquent behavior, such as drug abuse, poor relationships with parents, or diminished mental health. Finally, it is vital to refer the student to a respective healthcare institution, medical professional, or legal representative to avoid similar incidents in the future.
Characteristics and Behaviors of Juvenile Offender
There are several personal characteristics and psychological symptoms that crisis workers should consider while identifying potential juvenile offenders. One of the primary risk factors that may lead to criminality is gender, as offenses are usually committed by males (Kauser & Pinquart, 2016). The reason for it is that boys may be more likely to show aggressive behaviors than girls; moreover, they may be less supervised by parents than females.
Other risk factors include a low intelligence quotient (IQ) and a history of general offenses. Shader (n.d.) notes that behaviors of potential juvenile offenders may differ depending on the age group. For example, children between 6 and 11 years old may show poor performance in class; they may be antisocial and unwilling to make friends, be late for classes, and argue with a teacher. Moreover, hyperactivity, dishonesty, and poor relationships with parents may lead to offenses among individuals of this age group. For adolescents between 12 and 14 years old, the risk factors may include academic failures, gang membership, inability to develop strong ties and close relationships with classmates, as well as delinquent peers (Shader, n.d.).
In schools, crisis workers have a good opportunity to identify potential juvenile delinquents as there are many factors that they may analyze. For example, if a young person reportedly shows no commitment to classes and lacks educational aspirations, it may be the first signs to consider. When the mentioned factors are present, it is necessary to observe social factors that may negatively affect the individuals’ behavior in the future.
Potential offenders may have close relationships with people that have shown aggressive and delinquent behaviors, or, conversely, be left out of their classmates’ group. Moreover, they may experience violence from other peers and show signs of emotional or physical harassment. It is also vital to pay attention to the psychological symptoms that a child or an adolescent shows. For example, individuals may have signs of depression, suicidal behavior, and being overstressed. Moreover, as an outcome of these conditions, they may show an aggressive attitude towards teachers or peers, as well as be seen upset and crying regularly.
Screening for Potential Offenders
The primary goal of a school assessment plan is to prevent a crisis and/or attack. Some of the precipitating factors to consider regarding the system of schools and institutions are things that make those institutions unsafe, vulnerable, or sometimes culpable for incidences that occur inside. Assessing these factors will undoubtedly help in the prevention and intervention of many violent acts.
Schools and institutions may sometimes find themselves being culpable in the growth and development of many factors that lead to violence and crisis in schools such as bullying, gangs, suicide, and violence. Because of great budget cuts around the nation, many school programs are closing down. These programs were once the outlet for many in preventing truancy and delinquency in youth. One way to entice youth to participate in extra-curricular activities is to take an active role in the implementation of volunteer-run programs that allow many more students to participate (III, Charles, 2007).
Safety and security are also of concern when it comes to system-related factors in schools and institutions. Many institutions might lack the operating budget to install the proper equipment to monitor customer and staff activity. The lack of surveillance poses many risks for the institution. Another factor is the lack of training of staff in regards to workplace violence, safety, and security. Downsizing of staff also plays an important factor in opening the doors for violent opportunities to arise. A lack of staff prevents the hold-down of situations that could have been contained if more force was available (James, 2008).
Several methods can be used to perform the screening process for potential offenders. They may include protocols that involve comprehensive, psychological, and risk assessment, as well as drug testing. The screening process may also involve the use of questionnaires, personal interviews with students, as well as the collection of information from individuals’ parents, and other people familiar with the juvenile.
During interviews, it is vital to discuss the person’s attitude towards their peers, as well as their relationships with family members, and recent recurrent thoughts and feelings. Paying attention to details, such as body language, is also important as they may indicate individuals’ attitudes and contradict their words. An interviewer must consider the factors that may lead to untrue answers, which include poor mental health state, the lack of motivation to discuss problematic issues, fear, anxiety, and intoxication. Providing a safe and comfortable environment for the assessment is a significant aspect that should be considered.
Intervention and Prevention Programs
A needs assessment is crucial in preventing school and institution crises. Assessments determine what the schools need in regards to training, infrastructure, and knowledge about various incidences. After the assessment, quality assurance should be processed to provide all constituents and participants a clear system for dealing with a major school crisis. This should provide a clear understanding of what is going to happen during the implementation stages of the plan, when it is going to happen, who will be responsible for each part of the plan, how reporting should be completed, who will complete the report, and follow-up action of the plan (Kerr, 2008).
A School Crisis Response Team (SCRT) helps have manpower at the disposal of the school or institution in matters of potential violent acts. The SCRT should be composed of a diverse group of people, including school officials, police enforcement, first responders, parents, teachers, community leaders, and psychologists to name a few. A Crisis Response Coordinator is the first individual to be placed in a position to make decisions based on knowledge and motivation on completing the task. The CRC is responsible for coordinating, implementing, and evaluating the crisis response plan (James, 2008).
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The implementation of the crisis plan in schools and institutions should be composed of various factors. There should be physical requirements that meet the needs of the institution such as counseling locations, operations and communication centers, information centers, logistics, building plans, exit and escape routes, medical centers to include first aid, and security enforcement center (James, 2008).
It is also vital to implement prevention programs to eliminate the risks of potential offenses. To do so, it is crucial to address all of the concerns discussed above, such as personal can behavioral factors and the role of the family. For example, school authorities may implement activities aimed to address psychological problems among students that may lead to delinquent behavior. They may include free counseling sessions with psychologists and psychiatrists, small discussion groups that will allow individuals to share their concerns, as well as educational training. These measures may improve the relationships between individuals and school authorities, as well as encourage communication among students.
Moreover, educational institutions may establish counseling sessions for parents to discuss the possible problematic issues and develop a plan for their elimination. By improving students’ relationships with their family members, schools can reduce one of the primary causes of juvenile delinquency and other offenses, as well as improve individuals’ academic performance.
The need to develop a strategy or plan to prevent and respond to potential violent acts in schools and institutions is the responsibility of all of us as a community. Though the task is challenging, complex, and may require funding from very limited sources, it is not impossible to implement. There is no single plan that will be completely effective in preventing any future violent acts but having a plan in place is crucial.
Any plan to be developed should note that each act of violence or threat should be assessed individually as no single plan fits all situations the same. All situations or violent acts should be individually assessed, studied, and analyzed to provide learning experiences that will help the team prevent future acts. Regular simulations and mock activities should be made frequently and consistently to reinforce what was learned and what is expected of everyone.
Fein, R. & Vossekuil, B. Protective Intelligence and Threat Assessment Investigations: A Guide for State and Local Law Enforcement Officials. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice: Washington, D.C. (2008).
Helen, Sharp (2007). School Crisis Case Studies: Solutions to Crucial Problems Facing Educators. Rowman and Littlefield.
III, Charles M. Jaksec (2007). Toward Successful School Crisis Intervention: 9 Key Issues. Corwin Press.
James, R. K. (2008). Crisis Intervention Strategies. Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole. Print.
Kauser, R., & Pinquart, M. (2016). Gender differences in the associations between perceived parenting styles and juvenile delinquency in Pakistan. Pakistan Journal of Psychological Research, 31(2), 549-568.
Kerr, Mary M. (2008). School Crisis Prevention and Intervention. Prentice Hall. 216 pp.
McGlauflin, Helene (2008). Helping children grieve at school. Professional School Counseling. Jun. 1 (5): p. 46-49
Shader, M. (n.d.). Risk factors for delinquency: An overview. Web.
U.S. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics (2010). Digest of Education Statistics 2000. Washington, D.C.: Authors.