Preventing School Violence

In the wake of the tragic school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, there has been a tremendous amount of discussion about making schools safer and the enhancement of crisis plans if an incident would occur.

The questions facing us when discussing school safety are not just of gun-control or stronger security – but are schools providing services for the mental health and emotional safety of their students.

Fundamentally, do school districts have prevention and intervention services in place that promote student mental health and assist students with their mental and emotional needs? One of the programs meeting these needs for the past 32 years is Belmont County Student Services. Student Services’ mission is to assist area students and their families through life’s difficult problems, so they succeed in school and in life. Their Student Assistance Program is designed to support and enhance the climate of safety that promotes a positive school experience. Addressing students’ behavioral, emotional and mental health issues reduces the barriers to learning, making students more successful and receptive to learning. The more support services, intervention, and mental health treatment our students receive, the healthier they will be in all areas of their lives.

It could be said that in each case of a mass shooting, the shooter has had a definable history of mental health or behavioral issues. In a society where one in five children have a diagnosable mental illness, early support and referral for treatment is essential. Student Services programs help identify “at-risk” students and refer them and their families to appropriate treatment services.

Student Services’ primary prevention and intervention programs are effective in promoting the safety of students and staff because prevention and intervention are the most important factors in keeping our schools safe.

Student Services is an independent program that allows us to advocate for students in the school as well as in the community. Student Services staff are licensed social workers and prevention professionals who have a minimum of 15 years working in the district.

Student Services staff is trusted and familiar to your students and the majority of students refer themselves for help. Many students refer peers for Student Services support.

As a result of their longevity in the schools, our staff has a wealth of knowledge about students’ families. In many cases our staff has worked with current students’ parents when they were students in your schools. This familiarity allows for effective and comfortable family interventions.

Our presence in schools helps us to provide continuity of care when students move between districts, effectively preventing students who are struggling with mental health or behavioral issues from falling through the cracks.

It is important that everyone educate themselves on the facts about school violence. An excellent resource is “Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates.” To quote the following information from Chapter III, Key Findings, the Safe School Initiative suggests that there are productive actions that educators, law enforcement and others can pursue in response to school violence.

Specifically, findings suggest that officials may wish to consider focusing their efforts on strategies for preventing these attacks in two principal areas: Have the capacity to pick up on and evaluate available or knowable information that might indicate that there is a risk of a targeted school attack; and from the results of these risk evaluations or “threat assessments,” develop strategies to prevent potential school attacks from occurring.

Support for these suggestions is found in the 10 key findings of the Safe School Initiative:

  • Incidents of targeted violence at school are rarely sudden, impulsive acts.
  • Prior to most incidents, other people know about the attacker’s idea and/or plan to attack.
  • Most attackers did not threaten their targets directly prior to advancing the attack.
  • There is no accurate or useful “profile” of students who engage in targeted school violence.
  • Most attackers engaged in some behavior, prior to the incident that caused concern or indicated a need for help.
  • Most attackers were known to have difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures. Many had considered or attempted suicide.
  • Many attackers felt bullied, persecuted, or injured by others prior to the attack.
  • Most attackers had access to and had used weapons prior to the attack.
  • In many cases other students were involved in some capacity.
  • Despite prompt law enforcement responses, most shooting incidents were stopped by means other than law enforcement intervention.

We should applaud the River Schools Initiative, funded by the Safe Schools/Healthy Students Grant for sponsoring a June threat assessment training for Belmont County school districts. The presenter, Dr. Dewey Cornell, is a clinical psychologist and professor of education at the University of Virginia and has done extensive research on the lethal treat assessment process.

From the beginning of the 2012-13 school year, Student Services staff have assisted schools in implementing this assessment process for student threats of violence. Student Services plays a key role toward providing Belmont County students with vital interventions and programs delivered by a staff with unequaled experience and knowledge. Hopefully, Student Services will be able to continue despite the decreased in grant and school funding. Belmont County Mental Health and Recovery Board has been a major sponsor of Student Services programs for 32 years.

Groome has served as director of Student Services for 26 years. She is a licensed independent social worker in Ohio. Belmont County Student Services, located in Bellaire High School. serves riverfront schools including Bellaire, Bridgeport, Martins Ferry, Shadyside and the Career Center.