Though there are many ways to improve school safety, when it comes to preventing a mass attack, the most effective thing that schools can do is to increase communication regarding safety concerns. This article examines three different areas of safety-related communication.
The best way to prevent an attack is to know about it before it happens. Thus, a key element in violence prevention is for states and/or school districts to have anonymous tip-lines to make it easy for students, staff, families, or anyone to report warning signs of potential violence. If you work in a school that does not have such a tip-line, this is something to advocate for.
If your school does have either a local or state-wide tip-line, simply having it is not enough. Students, staff, and parents/guardians need to be informed of its existence. In addition, they need to be educated regarding its use—what it’s for, what it’s not for, when it’s appropriate to use it, how it can be accessed, and so on.
A tip-line is only useful to the extent that it is utilized. This means having posters and flyers around the school promoting it, discussing it in assemblies, notifying parents and guardians about it through emails and at back-to-school events, and having it clearly displayed on the school’s website.
If you work in an educational setting, you may already be familiar with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). FERPA is a federal law that protects student information in the same way that HIPAA protects people’s health-related information. It is important to understand how FERPA intersects with school safety. There have been cases in which FERPA was misinterpreted to mean that safety-related information regarding students could not be discussed among school personnel or with law enforcement. This is a dangerous misconception.
To clarify this issue, the Department of Education published a document titled “Balancing Student Privacy and School Safety: A Guide to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act for Elementary and Secondary Schools” (there is a companion document for higher education). This document explains that student threats are not protected information, noting that though FERPA “generally requires schools to ask for written consent before disclosing a student’s personally identifiable information to individuals other than his or her parents, it also allows schools to take key steps to maintain school safety. Understanding the law empowers school officials to act decisively and quickly when issues arise.” This is critical to schools investigating students of concern and conducting threat assessments.
A final aspect of communication relating to school safety occurs when students make threats that constitute crimes. Many, if not all, states have laws prohibiting what is variously called “menacing behavior” or “terroristic threats.” In addition, a student may have illegal weapons, including guns or explosives, that warrant contacting law enforcement. Though schools need to be careful not to criminalize ordinary student misconduct, they need to take appropriate action to maintain safety. Thus, it is important for schools to have conversations with local law enforcement and to know the threshold for when the police should become involved.
There are many things schools can do to improve safety and prevent violence. One of the simplest, least expensive, and most effective courses of action is to improve the flow of information so that students who present a potential risk of violence can be identified and evaluated.
Dr. Peter Langman is the foremost authority on school shootings in the country. His 25 years as a psychologist and counselor has given him first-hand experience with potential perpetrators of school violence. Dr. Langman has translated his expertise into five informative books, such as Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters (2009). Dr. Langman has collaborative relationships with the U.S. Secret Service and FBI.
Check out his informative website