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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.

Joe Harpold, a supervising special agent in the FBI's Behavioral Sciences Unit, jokes that the unit might more accurately be considered the "Behavioral Arts Unit," since human behavior defies scientific prediction. For that reason, the FBI does not recommend profiling potentially violent students. Profiling, he says, is a specific law enforcement tool that is not meant for use in schools. Rather, the FBI's list of traits is simply a list of warning signs. "If a child has any of these traits, he may need help to stop hurting," says Harpold. "We need programs to provide support these kids aren't getting elsewhere."

The Cherry Creek School District in Colorado uses the "Early Warning" list of signs to spot students in need of assistance rather than as a predictor of violence, according to school psychologist Linda Kanan. The district emphasizes a team approach to assess student need. A group of adults, including the child's parents, comes together to decide whether the child needs help and to develop a plan for obtaining it.

The same team (consisting of an administrator, a dean of students, counselors, a special education representative, a school nurse, and a school psychologist or social worker) meets to examine and address concerns specific to individual students—whether academic, social, behavioral, or emotional. It gathers facts, assesses the student's mental status, reviews the child's background, and tries to determine the function a particular antisocial behavior serves for the student. "We might need to look very closely at the behavior, when and where it occurs and what leads to the behavior of concern, in order to decide on appropriate interventions for that student or situation," says Kanan.

Parental input can provide potent clues. For example, disclosure of a family illness, domestic violence, a move, or a pending divorce can shed light on the student's behavior, where it might lead, and how the school might provide support. In turn, team members try to assist parents with suggestions for how to address the child's needs at home and in the community.

When a student exhibits warning signs for potentially violent behavior, she says, "the intensity of the intervention must match the severity of the needs." That might range from simply telling the student his behavior is "not okay," to connecting the student to a caring adult in the school, to referring the student to an outside mental health agency.