Recognizing The Signs and Signals That Lead To Violent Acts At Our Schools and Making Collaborative Efforts to Prevent Them

“Know yourself and know your enemy. You will be safe in every battle. You may know yourself but not know the enemy. You will then lose one battle for every one you win. You may not know yourself or the enemy. You will then lose every battle.” ~Sun Tzu

A lot has been discussed about violence in the workplace and in particular, school campuses. Whether you are part of a local school, university, college or community college, conflict is part of everyday life and at times if unfettered can result in violent altercations and an unsafe environment for real learning to take place.

School safety and security, as a whole, can encompass many issues ranging from the personal safety of students and teachers and visitor/building access control, to crowd control at sporting events, anti-terrorism concerns and fire prevention. If we think of a campus as a mini-city, we can likewise logically assume that the crime and safety concerns of any city will similarly exist on our campuses.

The vast majority of the nation’s students will complete their schooling without ever being touched by violence. Nevertheless, recent school attacks carried out by violent offenders have shaken the image of schools , colleges, community colleges and universities as reliably safe and secure environments in which the qualifications of safety and security personnel, teachers and the efficacy of the educational curricula are the most pressing concerns of educators and parents.

Safety whose responsibility is it?

“You alone can deny victory to the enemy. Only your enemy can allow you to win.” ~Sun Tzu

Most think that safety and violence is a concern for only school safety and security personnel or law enforcement. It’s their job to handle these types of issues. This is true, violence and safety is their business. It is their business to prevent violent acts from occurring and stopping violent acts when they take place. However a big missing link is in school administrations, staff, students, parents, legal and medical staff, etc. who need to share the information on behaviors they have gathered through observations and intuitively or explicitly believe may possibly be related to violence. Information sharing and analysis is critical if safety and security personnel are to be effective at preventing acts of violence.

Prevention of violence, can it be done?

“Winning a battle is always a matter of people. You pour them into battle like a flood of water pouring into a deep gorge. This is a matter of positioning. Your decisions determine your victory.” ~ Sun Tzu

My answer to the question can violence be prevented is; yes it can; in an atmosphere where collaborative efforts are made and the information sharing is robust within the school environment and there is a willingness to take the initiative involving all resources available to take prevention steps. Yes this can have a great impact at reducing violence and conflict on school campuses. Can we prevent it all from happening? Truthfully no we cannot. Can we make a big difference? Yes, if we take down our associative barriers, open our minds to learning, unlearning and relearning about violence and what each of our roles are in its prevention.

Unique Environments

“Each battleground has its own rules. As a commander, you must know where to go. You must examine each position closely.” ~Sun Tzu

Colleges, Community Colleges and Universities and our local schools are about knowledge and learning in an effort to prepare those for the future and all that it may entail. Knowledge and learning is paramount to preventing violence as well. Without information and actionable knowledge being shared throughout a community, pieces of the puzzle of potential violence are missing. The obvious and subtle, missing pieces of the puzzle of violence can lead to tragedy.

Safety starts with knowing your own facility and those who attend and frequent it. Every facility, has its own unique environment to include buildings, staff, students and visitors. Most colleges and universities have housing. Community Colleges do not. Our local schools have day time and nigh time activities. All offer unique advantages and disadvantages and these, must be known, for example; a community college, much like our local schools has a traveling student body, which is on and off of campus throughout the day.

The unique types of environment could pose individual strengths and weakness for example, in a community college the teachers and administrative staff do not know what or who belongs and what or who does not belong. They may not know their students or the layout of the campus as well as a university or college who has a student body housed on campus and professors tenured and work fulltime. Local schools have similar access problems, yet most local schools have taken the initiative to stop people from entering a school without access through locked doors.

To mitigate this possible weakness the administration and staff, will have to be a bit more initiative driven in getting to know students, their habits and who belongs where, and when. In this environment it can be more difficult to gather information, unless trust is established with a proactive effort to ensure information about behavior that could lead to violence or potential violence is wanted and praised when shared.

To bring about a true safe environment all administrators, teachers, students, parents and safety and security personnel must understand the overall philosophy to create and nurture a safe and healthy learning environment. It’s important to understand that some of the same problems that act as a catalyst to violence may be the same yet the environment and climate on individual campuses is unique to each individual location. All must take proactive steps to ensure a proper orientation of what’s going on campus wide. We cannot have our heads in the sand living in a world of self-deception and complacency if safety is our goal.

Understanding the philosophy, environment and climate of your particular campus and managing knowledge gathered, leads to actionable knowledge and leadership’s ability to develop a comprehensive emergency plan. A plan that compiles and centralizes relevant site data, coordinates an adaptable emergency response, and provides preplanned information geared toward the prevention of or successful resolution to a complex incident.

To ensure a workable plan is in place and a balance between privacy and protection is adhered to, educate and involve all members of the school community including legal and mental health staff to draft appropriate policies. I use the term appropriate polices because most policies are designed to cover your assets (CYA). CYA policies do not foster a safe learning environment; they enhance the opposite, one in which conflict is allowed to fester and then escalate to acts of violence. Due to fear of litigation and possible repercussions, we fail to take appropriate actions. Again knowledge and learning is critical. If we know the laws state and federal, CLERY and FERPA we can implement viable policies in combination with a good applicable plan, limit the risks and take appropriate actions to detect, prevent and resolve conflict before it escalates to deadly violence.

Defining violence and the methods to curtail

“Plan an advantage by listening. Adjust to the situation. Get assistance from the outside. Influence events. Then planning can find opportunities and give you control.” ~Sun Tzu

First we define violence? Violence is any physical assault, threatening behavior, or verbal abuse occurring in the college, community college or university setting. Remember violence does not just stem from those on campus you work with and around; clients, unpaid vendors, vandals, gang members, mentally ill, substance abusers etc. can all be potential threats. It’s not just the disgruntled student or staff member armed with an assault weapon.

Once we define violence we need to determine what methods do we use to prevent campus violence?

  • Better Pre employment/student screening
  • Policies on violence
  • Create a threat management or crisis intervention team
  • Awareness training for employees
  • Use new intervention tools
    • legal staff
    • EAP (employee/student assistance programs)
    • mental health providers
  • Treat people like you want to be treated (Golden Rule)
  • Create and nurture a relaxed state of awareness
  • Boyd Cycle (threat assessment and management methodology)
  • Do not let situations get worse…Be proactive!
  • Plan-Plan and PLAN! And ADAPT when necessary

What is Threat Assessment and How Can Crisis Intervention Teams Effectively Intervene to Stop Violent Acts?

Threat assessment is situational awareness and management through; observation, orientation, decision and action cycles, on the part of individuals, teams and the organization in a collaborative effort to snuff out risks and threats: Good threat assessments should answer the questions; Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?

The process of threat assessment is driven by information concerning the behaviors of the involved individuals. In general the more information provided to the assessment process, the higher quality the assessment. This will take gathering the stakeholders and forming crisis intervention teams whose job it is to collaboratively look at the data, analyze it, and come up with the best course of action. The process of information gathering and knowledge management in a collaborative way, by the crisis intervention team is brought to a level of actionable knowledge to determine best prevention strategies to promote safety and a healthy learning environment.

What skills are needed to orient to the potential early warning signs of violence?

"Win as easily as picking up a fallen hair. Don’t use all of your forces. See the time to move. Don’t try to find something clever. Hear the clap of thunder. Don’t try to hear something subtle." ~Sun Tzu

Knowledge is the catalyst to awareness; Learn-unlearn and relearn what we know or think we know about violence. Violence does not unfold in a linear way; it unfolds in a non-linear and probabilistic way. It is full of complexity and uncertainty in the potentially violent individual and in the way a violent individual carries out his violent acts. Predicting events of violence is a very difficult job but it can be done, not perfectly but in a much more efficient way through planning, awareness and training those in adaptability and decision making under pressure and the signs and signals of anxiety and stress that potentially lead to violence.

What are some of the signs and signals of anxiety, stress that potentially lead to violence?

“Learn from the history of successful battles. Your first actions should deny victory to the enemy. You pay attention to your enemy to find the way to win. You alone can deny victory to the enemy. Only your enemy can allow you to win.” ~Sun Tzu

Threat Assessment in Schools a Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates developed by the secret service stated; incidents of targeted violence at school are rarely sudden, impulsive acts. Prior to most incidents, other people knew 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.

When looking at behavior or behavioral changes it’s important to look at them in context of the situation as stated in the key findings of the secret service guide; there is no profile. Yet there are behaviors to look for based on continuing patterns of behavior or a change in the regular pattern of behavior in an individual who may be struggling with anxiety, stress or potentially fixed on violence. Understanding these behaviors and taking action to reach out to the vast array of resources to help the individual may be the bridge between prevention of violence and the act of violence. There must be training and education in this area of recognizing the signs and signals of stress, anxiety that lead to potential violence, as well as a team approach involving professionals to make an assessment.

Some common patterns and anomalies (behaviors and behavioral changes) in past, school violence offenders:

  • Inflexibility
  • Hopelessness, an extreme lack of energy
  • Identifies with perpetrators of violence
  • Intimidation of others
  • Need to have control over others, manipulative
  • Paranoia, views self as a victim of society
  • Socially awkward or uncomfortable
  • Adverse reaction to constructive criticism
  • Does not take responsibility for own actions
  • Blames others
  • Dwells on the negative
  • Sense of entitlement
  • Creates unrest for the sake of unrest
  • May have history of disciplinary action
  • Obsession with weapons. Not a strong interest but obsession.
  • Police encounters
  • Stalking others
  • Inability to “let it go”

Are there risks involved in making threat assessments?

Yes, indeed there are risks. But a good comprehensive program involving a collaborative effort in violence prevention and the strength of character to implement the program fully can make these risks calculated which is far different from rash.

Campus Leadership

“You fight with momentum. There are only a few types of surprises and direct actions. Yet, you can always vary the ones you use. There is no limit in the ways you can win.” ~Sun Tzu

Leadership means nothing when it comes to the prevention of violence if those in charge lack the strength of character to walk their talk about violence prevention programs on campus. Talk means nothing, unless it’s followed up with initiative driven action to implement sound campus wide methods. Leadership should seek knowledge about security related issues. Work together in collaborative effort amongst the diversified disciplines on campus and within our communities, which brings about various insights from the different perspectives in curtailing violence.

As those charged with establishing safe environments, we study the behaviors of those who would do violence and this is a critical piece of the equation. But translating that knowledge from theory to practice takes understanding our own behavior as well, stepping out of our comfort zones and making the necessary changes to observe, orient, decide and act in an effort to make a difference and deal with our changing environment, fight complacency and take initiative driven action to prevent violence on campus.

“Some may see how to win. However, they cannot position their forces where they must. This demonstrates limited ability.” ~Sun Tzu

Stay Oriented!

Fred