Skip To Main Content

Early Warning Signs

Most schools are safe.  Fewer than one percent of all violent deaths of children occur on school grounds.
Indeed, a child is far more likely to be killed in the community or at home.  However, no school is immune.
The violence that occurs in our neighborhoods and communities has found its way inside the schoolhouse door. And while we can take some solace in the knowledge that schools are among the safest places for young people, we must do more. School violence reflects a much broader problem, one that can only be addressed when everyone--at school, at home, and in the community--works together.

The 1997-1998 school year served as a dramatic wake-up call to the fact that guns do come to school, and some students will use them to kill. One after the other, school communities across the country-from Oregon to Virginia, from Arkansas to Pennsylvania, from Mississippi to Kentucky-have been forced to face the fact that violence can happen to them. And while these serious incidents trouble us deeply, they should not prevent us from acting to prevent school violence of any kind.

There is ample documentation that prevention and early intervention efforts can reduce violence and other troubling behaviors in schools. Research-based practices can help school communities recognize the warning signs early, so children can get the help they need before it is too late. In fact, research suggests that some of the most promising prevention and intervention strategies involve the entire educational community--administrators, teachers, families, students, support staff, and community members--working together to form positive relationships with all children.

If we understand what leads to violence and the types of support that research has shown are effective in preventing violence and other troubling behaviors, we can make our schools safer. We can frame our response to potential violence in two ways:

What to look for--the early warning signs that relate to violence and other troubling behaviors.

What to do--the action steps that school communities can take to prevent violence and other troubling behaviors, to intervene and get help for troubled children, and to respond to school violence when it occurs.

Creating a safe school requires having in place many preventive measures for children's mental and emotional problems-as well as a comprehensive approach to early identification of all warning signs that might lead to violence towards themselves or others. The term "violence" as used in this booklet, refers to a broad range of troubling behaviors and emotions shown by students-including serious aggression, physical attacks, suicide, dangerous use of drugs, and other dangerous interpersonal behaviors. However, the early warning signs presented in this document focus primarily on aggressive and violent behavior towards others. The guide does not attempt to address all of the warning signs related to depression and suicide. Nevertheless, some of the signs of potential violence towards others are also signs of depression and suicidal risk, which  should be addressed through early identification and appropriate intervention.

All staff, students, parents, and members of the community must be part of creating a safe school environment:

Everyone has a personal responsibility for reducing the risk of violence. We must take steps to maintain order, demonstrate mutual respect and care for one another, and ensure that children who are troubled get the help they need.

Everyone should have an understanding of the early warning signs that help identify students who may be headed for trouble.

Everyone should be prepared to respond appropriately in a crisis situation.
Research and expert-based information offers a wealth of knowledge about preventing violence in schools. The following sections provide information-what to look for and what to do-that school communities can use when developing or enhancing violence prevention and response plans.