Melanie Barwick

Melanie Barwick is a registered psychologist with a primary role as a health systems scientist in the Community Health Systems Resource Group at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

Ten years after the tragedy at Columbine High School in Colorado we remain acutely aware of threats to public safety, particularly when it involves our children. School violence is embedded in our collective psyches as a result of multiple high-profile and tragic incidents in the past 10 to 20 years — Montreal's Dawson College (2006), W.R. Myers High School (1999) in Taber, Alta., and École Polytechnique, also in Montreal (1989), all hit close to home. 

This is a global issue that many would say has become a worldwide public health concern. But there are ways to curb school violence, and there are roles all of us need to play.

Although school violence conjures up these tragic and much-publicized events, it includes more subtle behaviours that permeate school life on a daily basis. School violence includes any verbal, physical, psychological or visual manifestation intended to directly or indirectly threaten, harm or control the physical or psychological integrity, rights or property of others within the school setting. 

In other words, school violence ultimately involves all forms of bullying. It's a social problem that affects up to 60 per cent of school-aged kids, depending on grade level and gender, according to PREVnet.

A recent World Health Organization report found that about 40 per cent of 13-year-olds across 35 countries have fought, have bullied others or have been victims of bullying. When you include the number of young people who have said they've witnessed any form of school violence, the numbers climb to more than 90 per cent.

Effects of school violence

We know relatively little about the effect that witnessing school violence has on the psycho-social adjustment of young people. Yet, some recent research tells us that kids needn't be the perpetrators or victims of violence to be affected by it. 

Bullying is the most common type of school violence.

A team of researchers at the University of Montreal led by Dr. Michel Janosz reported in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2008 that witnessing violence diminishes kids' well being.  Exposure to "everyday" violence in school makes kids more likely to act aggressively, dislike school, and to avoid it.

Janosz's team found that most young people witness or hear about the more violent acts a few times a year, but 50 per cent reported observing verbal abuse several times a week or in some cases every day. About 20 per cent have witnessed students threatening others, and one in six has witnessed incidents in which older students harassed younger kids. 

Not only is witnessing school violence common, it represents a stronger risk factor for adjustment problems than actual victimization.

Janosz's team theorizes that this is because witnessing violence can generate feelings of powerlessness, fear and insecurity, causing people to have a fight-or-flight response. As a result, kids develop negative feelings toward school and begin "acting out" to cope with these feelings and to fend off potential threats.

Lessons learned

In the United States and Canada, school shootings receive much higher levels of media attention than the issues of general and pervasive bullying. While this may be a sensationalist response, these unusual and extreme cases do serve to motivate the education system to become prepared for such extreme events. 

Lockdowns and drills

We have good information on how to identify at-risk kids. Emergency management is also part of the solution — schools must identify potential risks and be prepared to meet them head on.

Lockdown drills are controversial, but they prepare students and teachers for the real thing and have the potential to save lives. More than half of the attacks studied in a 2002 U.S. National Institute of Justice report ended before law enforcement responded to the scene — making school personnel the first responders. These individuals need to know what to do and they need to practice it so they can respond appropriately when needed.

While lockdowns can create anxiety in some children, this can be managed by thoughtful procedures and knowledgeable staff. All kids, regardless of age, need to be reassured that they are safe while in school. While they should be told a crisis situation is rare and not expected to happen, they also need to know what to do as a group to keep everyone safe:

  • Elementary school students need fewer details and more reassurances that their teachers will keep them safe. They need to learn that all schools have safety measures, and that being prepared to deal with an emergency doesn't mean it will happen.
  • Kids in middle school may be more desensitized to violence and to school routines that address both daily bullying and the threat of more severe incidents. They need to be reminded of why a safety plan is important, and that they have a role to play by reporting potential safety problems, such as noticing a stranger in the school.
  • High school students can play a bigger role in helping to maintain school safety. They are old enough to be less intimidated by adults and can be encouraged to report threats, strangers or unsafe behaviour. 

Any young student will tell you that drills and lockdowns are a normal part of school life that, for most kids, don't cause them undue anxiety. And while no parent wants to be on the other end of a lockout, separated from their child, these safety procedures are useful and protective.

But they have also helped us to understand that there is no single reason why school shootings occur, and no single type of student who becomes a shooter.

According to a 2002 report on school shootings by the U.S. National Institute of Justice in partnership with the U.S. Secret Service, perpetrators of school violence do not fit a specific profile — the personality and social characteristics of the shooters they studied varied substantially. They came from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, were between the ages of 11 and 21 years, and came from intact homes as well as foster homes.

They also weren't the ones who were failing academically; many of them were good to excellent students.  Few were diagnosed with any mental disorder prior to the incident, and less than one-third had histories of drug or alcohol abuse. The lesson here is that there is no benefit to profiling tactics where school violence is concerned.

And most importantly, children who attack don't just "snap" — they plan.  Incidents of targeted violence in schools are rarely impulsive. More than half the time, the motive is revenge.

As a result of careful study of school shootings, we now know that attackers talked about their plans before taking action in more than three-quarters of the cases studied, often to more than one person. Students intending violence also make efforts to acquire firearms — often from home or relatives — or bomb-making equipment, and they sometimes solicit help from friends to do so. Although attackers acted alone in two-thirds of cases, friends or fellow students influenced or encouraged them about half the time. 

Most attackers also engaged in some behaviour prior to the incident that caused concern or might have been considered a call for help. More than half the time, the attacker's behaviour caught the attention of more than one person. 

This is hugely important, because it tells us that there is opportunity for us to step in and take action. This advance knowledge among fellow students about the planned incidents contradicts our common assumption that shooters are "loners." It means we should gather information from student's friends and schoolmates when potential incidents are suspected.

Plans developed to prevent school violence should involve having adults attend to concerns when someone poses a threat, before a direct threat becomes evident. Adults need to take the time to pay attention to and investigate any grievances or bad feelings a student may be experiencing about school or potential targets.

Show kids you care

All of this points to why preventing all types of school violence is so very important.

Not surprisingly, bullying was found to have played a key role in the decision to attack in a number of school shootings. Most of the time, the bullying was longstanding and severe.  This information strongly supports continuing efforts to combat bullying in schools, and many school boards have implemented successful programs to address this problem.

School-wide prevention programs that aim to improve the school climate, strengthen disciplinary and educational practices, and offer specific supports for students who show greater need have been successful in preventing daily occurrences of violence. Schools that implement effective programs against school bullying, including cyber-bulling, have reduced the extent to which kids witness violence in the school setting.

The knowledge we've gained through studying previous school violence incidents suggests that we need to be attentive and to pay attention to kids, particularly when they appear to be struggling.  It's not enough to notice; we have to intervene by providing support, warning the necessary people, and providing a healthy and supportive environment.

And it is important to note that when it comes to seriously violent events, North American schools are safe places for kids. U.S. statistics show a steady decline in the rates of school violence and the U.S. Department of Education finds schools are one of the safest places for kids. The highly unusual and extreme cases of school violence that have occurred in the past 20 years are considered rare events. In fact, some say schools are much safer environments than homes and local neighborhoods. 

If the tragic school-violence incidents of the past decade have taught us anything, and they have, it's the importance of paying attention and listening to our kids — not just our own kids but all the kids in our community.

History has taught us that kids who plan targeted violence often tell at least one person about their plans. They also give out specifics before the event takes place, and make plans to obtain the weapons they need — often from their own homes. Adults can play an important role in promoting well-being and success, and in preventing depression, loneliness, and violence in and out of school.

Young people need opportunities to talk and connect with adults who care about them.  And we need to listen — actively.