How to Make Schools Safe?

By Laura Strobel and Claudia Vincent, Ph.D.

The time has passed for sitting back and waiting for school violence to decrease. We’re seeing more violence and mass shootings in schools in the United States than ever before. The time has come to act, but what can we do?


There is no reliable research data that tells us what works to decrease violence in schools. School violence appears to happen suddenly; however what ultimately can lead to violent behavior, such as bullying, harassment, and social isolation often builds over a period of time. RichardReactive responses to violent events do not allow us to address those potential underlying causes. Therefore, we need to work upstream and find proactive approaches that might reduce potential causes of school violence. This proactive and preventative approach will take time to work, but if applied consistently and universally, school violence might eventually decrease.

Mental health

The current routine of waiting for violence to pop up and then sending a lot of mental health professionals to help the victims is a poor use of resources. Allocating resources to train more mental health professionals and making their work in schools a priority is a better way to go.

We know that the people who perpetrate violence are most often marginalized males. They feel belittled, perceive slights and are intent upon revenge. Sometimes they plan their attacks and other times they lash out suddenly.

Richard counselorResearch tells us there are predictors we can look for: a mental health diagnosis, traumatic events in the child’s life, being teased or victimized by peers because of real or imagined differences, and learning disabilities. Sometimes kids fixate on previous school shootings. More school psychologists and staff with mental health training could identify these kids, who are in pain, and help them deal with their feelings before something bad happens.

Students taking responsibility

After violence happens, we often find out that someone knew about the plan to commit violence. This could be friends or classmates, and information about planned violence is often shared on social media. Unfortunately, peers often don’t take threats seriously until violence happens. That’s why we need to teach children that every threat should be reported and provide a safe way for them to bring threats or concerns to the attention of adults.

mattTip lines such as Safe2Tell in Colorado provide an anonymous way to report threats. But with current tip lines, the kids who plan violence are often dealt with in a punitive way by suspending or expelling them, or—in the case of bullying—by reducing their contact with each other through schedule changes. The kids don’t get help and they’re kicked out of school with plenty of time on their hands to hatch more plans. Few existing tip lines take the information and use it in a restorative way so that the situation is not only defused, but the child can get help and return to school when he or she is no longer a threat.

Restorative practices: a proactive approach

In a restorative approach to discipline, students have ownership in the discipline process and are active participants in decision-making. This is intended to increase students’ sense of responsibility to keep their school safe. If something major happens, like a fight, all affected parties are encouraged to meet (this could be the students, teachers, parents, peers, student leaders) and come up with a restorative plan together. Peers can help each other set things straight instead of the student who initiated the fight being suspended or expelled. But because the kids who already feel marginalized tend to be the kids who act out, it can be difficult to establish relationships after a major incident; therefore we need to go further upstream with our interventions and focus on establishing positive relationships proactively.

School climate

We can create a school climate where people can safely talk about how they feel, have a shared vocabulary, and learn to use restorative practices from a young age. Oakland Unified School District has brought restorative practices into their schools. Instead of having to react when violence happens, they “circle up” before violence begins. At a given time, groups of students sit in a circle and everyone shares how they are feeling. Teachers begin the circle with topics to discuss, and eventually students become leaders of the circle.

rules classroom0000Everyone in the circle becomes aware of the issues kids are dealing with and perhaps bringing from home. This increases teachers’ awareness of who is having a hard time and they can arrange for help. It also teaches students empathy. Children are less likely to pick on each other.

Circle time can build positive and trusting relationships among peers and between students and teachers. It’s not just talking about feelings, it’s building community. Students feel like they have input and a role in the class. They are more likely to take responsibility and when problems arise, students can circle up, talk about the problem, and come to a solution together instead of resorting to violence and retaliation.

Students report that the current approach to fixing school violence – adding security, metal detectors, armed police – actually creates more frustration, alienation and reactive feelings towards adults in school. Let’s turn the tables and give responsibility for school safety to students by helping them build a community that they care about.

How do you prevent violence at your school? Are there practices that you have found to be effective? Add your comments below.

This article was written with a lot of help and input from Claudia Vincent, Ph.D.

Read about a new project to rethink school safety from IRIS Ed and Universities of Illinois and Oregon. Read more about restorative practices in classrooms.