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Early Warning, Timely Response
A Guide to Safe Schools


Executive Summary

1.  A Guide to Safe Schools

2.  Characteristics of a School That Is Safe and Responsive to All Children

3.  Early Warning Signs

4.  Intervention: Getting Help for Troubled Children

5.  Developing a Prevention and Response Plan

6.  Responding to Crisis

7.  Conclusion

8.  Methodology, Contributors, and Research Support

























"Partnerships with local community agencies have created a safer school and community."

Sally Baas, Educator, Coon Rapids, MN


Section 4: What To Do

Intervention: Getting Help for Troubled Children

Prevention approaches have proved effective in enabling school communities to decrease the frequency and intensity of behavior problems. However, prevention programs alone cannot eliminate the problems of all students. Some 5 to 10 percent of students will need more intensive interventions to decrease their high-risk behaviors, although the percentage can vary among schools and communities.

What happens when we recognize early warning signs in a child?

The message is clear: It's okay to be concerned when you notice warning signs in a child — and it's even more appropriate to do something about those concerns. School communities that encourage staff, families, and students to raise concerns about observed warning signs — and that have in place a process for getting help to troubled children once they are identified — are more likely to have effective schools with reduced disruption, bullying, fighting, and other forms of aggression.

Principles Underlying Intervention

Violence prevention and response plans should consider both prevention and intervention. Plans also should provide all staff with easy access to a team of specialists trained in evaluating serious behavioral and academic concerns. Eligible students should have access to special education services, and classroom teachers should be able to consult school psychologists, other mental health specialists, counselors, reading specialists, and special educators.

Effective practices for improving the behavior of troubled children are well documented in the research literature. Research has shown that effective interventions are culturally appropriate, family-supported, individualized, coordinated, and monitored. Further, interventions are more effective when they are designed and implemented consistently over time with input from the child, the family, and appropriate professionals. Schools also can draw upon the resources of their community to strengthen and enhance intervention planning.

When drafting a violence prevention and response plan, it is helpful to consider certain principles that research or expert-based experience show have a significant impact on success. The principles include:

Share responsibility by establishing a partnership with the child, school, home, and community. Coordinated service systems should be available for children who are at risk for violent behavior. Effective schools reach out to include families and the entire community in the education of children. In addition, effective schools coordinate and collaborate with child and family service agencies, law enforcement and juvenile justice systems, mental health agencies, businesses, faith and ethnic leaders, and other community agencies.

Inform parents and listen to them when early warning signs are observed. Parents should be involved as soon as possible. Effective and safe schools make persistent efforts to involve parents by: informing them routinely about school discipline policies, procedures, and rules, and about their children's behavior (both good and bad); involving them in making decisions concerning schoolwide disciplinary policies and procedures; and encouraging them to participate in prevention programs, intervention programs, and crisis planning. Parents need to know what school-based interventions are being used with their children and how they can support their success.

Maintain confidentiality and parents' rights to privacy. Parental involvement and consent is required before personally identifiable information is shared with other agencies, except in the case of emergencies or suspicion of abuse. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a federal law that addresses the privacy of education records, must be observed in all referrals to or sharing of information with other community agencies. Furthermore, parent-approved interagency communication must be kept confidential. FERPA does not prevent disclosure of personally identifiable information to appropriate parties-such as law enforcement officials, trained medical personnel, and other emergency personnel-when responsible personnel determine there is an acute emergency (imminent danger).

Develop the capacity of staff, students, and families to intervene. Many school staff members are afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing when faced with a potentially violent student. Effective schools provide the entire school community-teachers, students, parents, support staff-with training and support in responding to imminent warning signs, preventing violence, and intervening safely and effectively. Interventions must be monitored by professionals who are competent in the approach. According to researchers, programs do not succeed without the ongoing support of administrators, parents, and community leaders.

Support students in being responsible for their actions. Effective school communities encourage students to see themselves as responsible for their actions, and actively engage them in planning, implementing, and evaluating violence prevention initiatives.

Simplify staff requests for urgent assistance. Many school systems and community agencies have complex legalistic referral systems with timelines and waiting lists. Children who are at risk of endangering themselves or others cannot be placed on waiting lists.

"Tips for Parents"

Make interventions available as early as possible. Too frequently, interventions are not made available until the student becomes violent or is adjudicated as a youthful offender. Interventions for children who have reached this stage are both costly, restrictive, and relatively inefficient. Effective schools build mechanisms into their intervention processes to ensure that referrals are addressed promptly, and that feedback is provided to the referring individual.

Use sustained, multiple, coordinated interventions. It is rare that children are violent or disruptive only in school. Thus, interventions that are most successful are comprehensive, sustained, and properly implemented. They help families and staff work together to help the child. Coordinated efforts draw resources from community agencies that are respectful of and responsive to the needs of families. Isolated, inconsistent, short-term, and fragmented interventions will not be successful-and may actually do harm.

Analyze the contexts in which violent behavior occurs. School communities can enhance their effectiveness by conducting a functional analysis of the factors that set off violence and problem behaviors. In determining an appropriate course of action, consider the child's age, cultural background, and family experiences and values. Decisions about interventions should be measured against a standard of reasonableness to ensure the likelihood that they will be implemented effectively.

Build upon and coordinate internal school resources. In developing and implementing violence prevention and response plans, effective schools draw upon the resources of various school-based programs and staff-such as special education, safe and drug free school programs, pupil services, and Title I.

Violent behavior is a problem for everyone. It is a normal response to become angry or even frightened in the presence of a violent child. But, it is essential that these emotional reactions be controlled. The goal must always be to ensure safety and seek help for the child.

Intervening Early with Students Who Are at Risk for Behavioral Problems

The incidence of violent acts against students or staff is low. However, pre-violent behaviors-such as threats, bullying, and classroom disruptions-are common. Thus, early responses to warning signs are most effective in preventing problems from escalating.

Intervention programs that reduce behavior problems and related school violence typically are multifaceted, long-term, and broad reaching. They also are rigorously implemented. Effective early intervention efforts include working with small groups or individual students to provide direct support, as well as linking children and their families to necessary community services and/or providing these services in the school.

"Action Steps For Students"

Examples of early intervention components that work include:

• Providing training and support to staff, students, and families in understanding factors that can set off and/or exacerbate aggressive outbursts.

• Teaching the child alternative, socially appropriate replacement responses-such as problem solving and anger control skills.

• Providing skill training, therapeutic assistance, and other support to the family through community-based services.

• Encouraging the family to make sure that firearms are out of the child's immediate reach. Law enforcement officers can provide families with information about safe firearm storage as well as guidelines for addressing children's access to and possession of firearms.

In some cases, more comprehensive early interventions are called for to address the needs of troubled children. Focused, coordinated, proven interventions reduce violent behavior. Following are several comprehensive approaches that effective schools are using to provide early intervention to students who are at risk of becoming violent toward themselves or others.

Intervention Tactic: Teaching Positive Interaction Skills

Although most schools do teach positive social interaction skills indirectly, some have adopted social skills programs specifically designed to prevent or reduce antisocial behavior in troubled children. In fact, the direct teaching of social problem solving and social decision making is now a standard feature of most effective drug and violence prevention programs. Children who are at risk of becoming violent toward themselves or others need additional support. They often need to learn interpersonal, problem solving, and conflict resolution skills at home and in school. They also may need more intensive assistance in learning how to stop and think before they react, and to listen effectively.

Intervention Tactic: Providing Comprehensive Services

In some cases, the early intervention may involve getting services to families. The violence prevention and response team together with the child and family designs a comprehensive intervention plan that focuses on reducing aggressive behaviors and supporting responsible behaviors at school, in the home, and in the community. When multiple services are required there also must be psychological counseling and ongoing consultation with classroom teachers, school staff, and the family to ensure intended results occur. All services-including community services-must be coordinated and progress must be monitored and evaluated carefully.

Intervention Tactic: Referring the Child for Special Education Evaluation

If there is evidence of persistent problem behavior or poor academic achievement, it may be appropriate to conduct a formal assessment to determine if the child is disabled and eligible for special education and related services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). If a multidisciplinary team determines that the child is eligible for services under the IDEA, an individualized educational program (IEP) should be developed by a team that includes a parent, a regular educator, a special educator, an evaluator, a representative of the local school district, the child (if appropriate), and others as appropriate. This team will identify the support necessary to enable the child to learn-including the strategies and support systems necessary to address any behavior that may impede the child's learning or the learning of his or her peers.

Providing Intensive, Individualized Interventions for Students with Severe Behavioral Problems

Children who show dangerous patterns and a potential for more serious violence usually require more intensive interventions that involve multiple agencies, community-based service providers, and intense family support. By working with families and community services, schools can comprehensively and effectively intervene.

Effective individualized interventions provide a range of services for students. Multiple, intensive, focused approaches used over time can reduce the chances for continued offenses and the potential for violence. The child, his or her family, and appropriate school staff should be involved in developing and monitoring the interventions.

Nontraditional schooling in an alternative school or therapeutic facility may be required in severe cases where the safety of students and staff remains a concern, or when the complexity of the intervention plan warrants it. Research has shown that effective alternative programs can have long-term positive results by reducing expulsions and court referrals. Effective alternative programs support students in meeting high academic and behavioral standards. They provide anger and impulse control training, psychological counseling, effective academic and remedial instruction, and vocational training as appropriate. Such programs also make provisions for active family involvement. Moreover, they offer guidance and staff support when the child returns to his or her regular school.

Providing a Foundation To Prevent and Reduce Violent Behavior

Schoolwide strategies create a foundation that is more responsive to children in general — one that makes interventions for individual children more effective and efficient.

Effective and safe schools are places where there is strong leadership, caring faculty, parent and community involvement — including law enforcement officials — and student participation in the design of programs and policies. Effective and safe schools also are places where prevention and intervention programs are based upon careful assessment of student problems, where community members help set measurable goals and objectives, where research-based prevention and intervention approaches are used, and where evaluations are conducted regularly to ensure that the programs are meeting stated goals. Effective and safe schools are also places where teachers and staff have access to qualified consultants who can help them address behavioral and academic barriers to learning.

Effective schools ensure that the physical environment of the school is safe, and that schoolwide policies are in place to support responsible behaviors.

Characteristics of a Safe Physical Environment

Prevention starts by making sure the school campus is a safe and caring place. Effective and safe schools communicate a strong sense of security. Experts suggest that school officials can enhance physical safety by:

• Supervising access to the building and grounds.

• Reducing class size and school size.

• Adjusting scheduling to minimize time in the hallways or in potentially dangerous locations. Traffic flow patterns can be modified to limit potential for conflicts or altercations.

• Conducting a building safety audit in consultation with school security personnel and/or law enforcement experts. Effective schools adhere to federal, state, and local nondiscrimination and public safety laws, and use guidelines set by the state department of education.

• Closing school campuses during lunch periods.

• Adopting a school policy on uniforms.

• Arranging supervision at critical times (for example, in hallways between classes) and having a plan to deploy supervisory staff to areas where incidents are likely to occur.

• Prohibiting students from congregating in areas where they are likely to engage in rule-breaking or intimidating and aggressive behaviors.

• Having adults visibly present throughout the school building. This includes encouraging parents to visit the school.

• Staggering dismissal times and lunch periods.

• Monitoring the surrounding school grounds — including landscaping, parking lots, and bus stops.

• Coordinating with local police to ensure that there are safe routes to and from school.

In addition to targeting areas for increased safety measures, schools also should identify safe areas where staff and children should go in the event of a crisis.

The physical condition of the school building also has an impact on student attitude, behavior, and motivation to achieve. Typically, there tend to be more incidents of fighting and violence in school buildings that are dirty, too cold or too hot, filled with graffiti, in need of repair, or unsanitary.

Characteristics of Schoolwide Policies that Support Responsible Behavior

The opportunities for inappropriate behaviors that precipitate violence are greater in a disorderly and undisciplined school climate. A growing number of schools are discovering that the most effective way to reduce suspensions, expulsions, office referrals, and other similar actions — strategies that do not result in making schools safer-is to emphasize a proactive approach to discipline.

Effective schools are implementing schoolwide campaigns that establish high expectations and provide support for socially appropriate behavior. They reinforce positive behavior and highlight sanctions against aggressive behavior. All staff, parents, students, and community members are informed about problem behavior, what they can do to counteract it, and how they can reinforce and reward positive behavior. In turn, the entire school community makes a commitment to behaving responsibly.

Effective and safe schools develop and consistently enforce schoolwide rules that are clear, broad-based, and fair. Rules and disciplinary procedures are developed collaboratively by representatives of the total educational community. They are communicated clearly to all parties — but most important, they are followed consistently by everyone.

School communities that have undertaken schoolwide approaches do the following things:

• Develop a schoolwide disciplinary policy that includes a code of conduct, specific rules and consequences that can accommodate student differences on a case-by-case basis when necessary. (If one already exists, review and modify it if necessary.) Be sure to include a description of school anti-harassment and anti-violence policies and due process rights.

• Ensure that the cultural values and educational goals of the community are reflected in the rules. These values should be expressed in a statement that precedes the schoolwide disciplinary policy.

• Include school staff, students, and families in the development, discussion, and implementation of fair rules. Provide schoolwide and classroom support to implement these rules. Strategies that have been found to support students include class discussions, schoolwide assemblies, student government, and participation on discipline teams. In addition, peer mediation and conflict resolution have been implemented widely in schools to promote a climate of nonviolence.

• Be sure consequences are commensurate with the offense, and that rules are written and applied in a nondiscriminatory manner and accommodate cultural diversity.

• Make sure that if a negative consequence (such as withdrawing privileges) is used, it is combined with positive strategies for teaching socially appropriate behaviors and with strategies that address any external factors that might have caused the behavior.

• Include a zero tolerance statement for illegal possession of weapons, alcohol, or drugs. Provide services and support for students who have been suspended and/or expelled.

Recognizing the warning signs and responding with comprehensive interventions allows us to help children eliminate negative behaviors and replace them with positive ones. Active sharing of information and a quick, effective response by the school community will ensure that the school is safer and the child is less troubled and can learn. 

"Students should feel a sense of responsibility to inform someone if they're made aware of an individual who may perform a violent act. They should not feel like they are tattle telling, but more in the sense of saving someone's life. Students should have a role on the school's violence prevention and response team because they know what points of student life and school to target."

Elsa Quiroga, Graduate of Mount Eden High School and Student, University of California at Berkeley

"Our school system has created a student services team-including the principal, a special educator, the school psychologist, other behavioral support personnel, the child development specialist, and others — that meets weekly to address safety and success for all students. Our teachers and families have easy access to this team. As part of our plan, we conduct a campus-by-campus risk assessment in coordination with city, county, and state law enforcement agencies. We provide interventions for children who are troubled and connect them and their families to community agencies and mental health services."

Lee Patterson
Assistant Superintendent
Roseberg, OR

"Since we developed the high school peer mediation program, we have seen a decline in physical fights. We are defusing potentially dangerous situations."

Terry Davis,
School Psychologist,
Natick, MA
















"Everyone is trained to use consistent language. We remind students to stop and think. Students also know we will always follow through if they make poor behavioral choices. As a result, we have been able to diffuse violent situations."

Annette Lambeth
Assistant Principal
Chester County, PA







"Appropriate behavior and respect for others are emphasized at all times. However, despite our best efforts, unfortunate incidents do occur. When they do, it is our responsibility to provide appropriate support to meet the needs of every child."

Carol S. Parham,
Superintendent of Schools
Anne Arundel County, MD














"The police are a school's greatest community asset when effectively preventing and responding to school violence. Building a relationship with law enforcement strengthens the school's ability to ensure safety."

Gil Kerlikowske
former Police Commissioner
Buffalo, NY




"Everyone follows the same discipline plan.  Everyone including the lunch room workers and custodians works as a team.  There are always times when children forget the rules.  But there is immediate intervention by faculty and staff, and even other children.  The responsibility is on the students.

Anne Allred, Parent
Lakeland, FL

"It is necessary to provide training and support to staff. We have provided inservices on behavior management systems that are effective in regular classroom settings. These inservices have been of great benefit. Numerous schools throughout our district presently use stop and think, conflict resolution, and peer mediation."

Denise Conrad, Teacher
Toledo, OH

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