• by K. Dwyer, D. Osther and C. Warger  • IDRA Newsletter • May 1999

Editor’s Note: Research-based practices can help school communities – administrators, teachers, families, students, support staff and community members – recognize the warning signs early, so children can get the help they need before it is too late. “Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools” presents a brief summary of the research on violence prevention and intervention and crisis response in schools (1998). It tells school communities what to look for and what to do. The following is an excerpt from “Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools,” developed by the Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice of the American Institutes for Research in collaboration with the National Association of School Psychologists for the U.S. Department of Education.

Well-functioning schools foster learning, safety and socially appropriate behaviors. They have a strong academic focus and support students in achieving high standards, fostering positive relationships between school staff and students, and promoting meaningful parental and community involvement. Most prevention programs in effective schools address multiple factors and recognize that safety and order are related to children’s social, emotional and academic development.

Effective prevention, intervention and crisis response strategies operate best in school communities that do the following.

  • Focus on academic achievement. Effective schools convey the attitude that all children can achieve academically and behave appropriately, while at the same time appreciating individual differences. Adequate resources and programs help ensure that expectations are met. Expectations are communicated clearly, with the understanding that meeting such expectations is a responsibility of the student, the school and the home. Students who do not receive the support they need are less likely to behave in socially desirable ways.
  • Involve families in meaningful ways. Students whose families are involved in their growth in and outside of school are more likely to experience school success and less likely to become involved in antisocial activities. School communities must make parents feel welcome in school, address barriers to their participation and keep families positively engaged in their children’s education. Effective schools also support families in expressing concerns about their children – and they support families in getting the help they need to address behaviors that cause concern.
  • Develop links to the community. Everyone must be committed to improving schools. Schools that have close ties to families, support services, community police, the faith-based community and the community at large can benefit from many valuable resources. When these links are weak, the risk of school violence is heightened and the opportunity to serve children who are at risk for violence or who may be affected by it is decreased.
  • Emphasize positive relationships among students and staff. Research shows that a positive relationship with an adult who is available to provide support when needed is one of the most critical factors in preventing student violence. Students often look to adults in the school community for guidance, support and direction. Some children need help overcoming feelings of isolation and support in developing connections to others. Effective schools make sure that opportunities exist for adults to spend quality, personal time with children. Effective schools also foster positive student interpersonal relations – they encourage students to help each other and to feel comfortable assisting others in getting help when needed.
  • Discuss safety issues openly. Children come to school with many different perceptions – and misconceptions – about death, violence and the use of weapons. Schools can reduce the risk of violence by teaching children about the dangers of firearms, as well as appropriate strategies for dealing with feelings, expressing anger in appropriate ways and resolving conflicts. Schools also should teach children that they are responsible for their actions and that the choices they make have consequences for which they will be held accountable.
  • Treat students with equal respect. A major source of conflict in many schools is the perceived or real problem of bias and unfair treatment of students because of ethnicity, gender, race, social class, religion, disability, nationality, sexual orientation, physical appearance or some other factor – both by staff and by peers. Students who have been treated unfairly may become scapegoats and/or targets of violence. In some cases, victims may react in aggressive ways. Effective schools communicate to students and the greater community that all children are valued and respected. There is a deliberate and systematic effort – for example, displaying children’s artwork, posting academic work prominently throughout the building, respecting students’ diversity – to establish a climate that demonstrates care and a sense of community.
  • Create ways for students to share their concerns. It has been found that peers often are the most likely group to know in advance about potential school violence. Schools must create ways for students to safely report such troubling behaviors that may lead to dangerous situations. And students who report potential school violence must be protected. It is important for schools to support and foster positive relationships between students and adults so students will feel safe providing information about a potentially dangerous situation.
  • Help children feel safe expressing their feelings. It is very important that children feel safe when expressing their needs, fears and anxieties to school staff. When they do not have access to caring adults, feelings of isolation, rejection and disappointment are more likely to occur, increasing the probability of acting-out behaviors.
  • Have in place a system for referring children who are suspected of being abused or neglected. The referral system must be appropriate and reflect federal and state guidelines.
  • Offer extended day programs for children. School-based before- and after-school programs can be effective in reducing violence. Effective programs are well supervised and provide children with support and a range of options, such as counseling, tutoring, mentoring, cultural arts, community service, clubs, access to computers and help with homework.
  • Promote good citizenship and character. In addition to their academic mission, schools must help students become good citizens. First, schools stand for the civic values set forth in our Constitution and Bill of Rights (patriotism; freedom of religion, speech and press; equal protection/nondiscrimination; and due process/fairness). Schools also reinforce and promote the shared values of their local communities, such as honesty, kindness, responsibility and respect for others. Schools should acknowledge that parents are the primary moral educators of their children and wok in partnership with them.
  • Identify problems and assess progress toward solutions. Schools must openly and objectively examine circumstances that are potentially dangerous for students and staff and situations where members of the school community feel threatened or intimidated. Safe schools continually assess progress by identifying problems and collecting information regarding progress toward solutions. Moreover, effective schools share this information with students, families and the community at large.
  • Support students in making the transition to adult life and the workplace. Youth need assistance in planning their future and in developing skills that will result in success. For example, schools can provide students with community service opportunities, work-study programs and apprenticeships that help connect them to caring adults in the community. These relationships, when established early, foster in youth a sense of hope and security for the future.

Research has demonstrated repeatedly that school communities can do a great deal to prevent violence. Having in place a safe and responsive foundation helps all children – and it enables school communities to provide more efficient and effective services to students who need more support. The next step is to learn the early warning signs of a child who is troubled, so that effective interventions can be provided.

The full text of this public domain publication is available at the Department of Education’s web site at http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/osers/osep/gtss.html. For printed copies of the guide, contact ED PUBS toll-free at 1-877-4ED-PUBS (1-877-433-7827), or by e-mail at edpuborders@aspensys.com.

Comments and questions may be directed to IDRA via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1999, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 1999 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]