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Volume 17, Number 1
January/February 2001

Violent Students

Reading the Warning Signs


Not every child will respond to school-wide violence-prevention efforts, and few can be expected to appear at a principal's office door asking for help. In fact, how schools should identify troubled students and whether and how to intervene is the subject of some controversy. The U.S. Department of Education, the Federal Bureau of Investi gation, the U.S. Secret Service, and the American Psychological Association have all released lists of "warning signs" or reports on characteristics common to violent offenders.

Do such lists encourage so-called profiling that will lead to unfair labeling and stigmatizing of students? Not if they're used with discretion and sensitivity, say experts. "If a teacher is concerned about a kid's behavior or writing and calls the police, who then come and arrest the kid, that's different than when the concern is brought to a group of mental health professionals who interview the kid and find out what's going on and discuss how to help," says Kevin Dwyer, lead investigator for the Department of Education's "Early Warning, Timely Response" and "Safeguarding Our Schools" guides. He notes that the list of warning signs in "Early Warning" make clear that items on the list—such as social withdrawal, excessive feelings of rejection, uncontrolled anger, and a history of discipline problems—should not be presumed to predict violent behavior, but merely used "as an aid to identifying and referring children who may need help." Although this list has been used in court to support a student's expulsion from school, "This was certainly not intended," he says.

Bill Modzeleski, director of the DOE's Safe and Drug Free Schools program, agrees with Dwyer in rejecting facile use of checklists to label or rule out children as potentially violent. He says schools must be particularly cautious when a commercial enterprise tries to sell them software or other services designed to "predict" violent behavior. "There's just no way we can profile kids and figure out who's the next shooter," he adds.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.