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Section 15
Encouraging Students to Come Forward About Threats

Question 15 | Test | Table of Contents

Schools across the country are suffering from a "silence of the lambs" syndrome concerning school violence. Students are not reporting the warning signs of threatened violence by their peers. One very legitimate reason why students do not report possible threats of violence is a fear of retaliation. But, many students are not educated about their own responsibility to keep their school safe. Students, as well as teachers and administrators need to be made more cognizant of the warning signs of potential violence. This article reviews a number of the most recent school violence episodes. Some suggestions are made of how school administrators can encourage students to report threatened violence. Tips on how to tell when a threat of violence is serious and when it is just bragging are included. Examples are discussed where a violent incident was impeded by an individual's intervention of suspected violence. Unfortunately, we have seen the number of school violence incidents increasing. School administrators, counselors, teachers, students, and parents need to work together to alleviate this dreadful problem.

How can students tell when a threat of violence is serious as opposed to just adolescent bragging? According to the chief psychiatrist for the Commonweal Children's Program in San Francisco, David Arrendondo, the signals for serious violent intent are clear-cut. He warns that a student should notify an adult immediately in any of the following particular instances: if another student emphasizes "killing" as opposed to a vague threat about getting back at someone, if the person points out that they have access to a gun, or if they seem to have a specific plan for how to kill someone.

Dr. Arrendondo believes that every time a child mentions violence it is a subconscious cry for help (Witkin, 1998).

There are many situations where students have told an adult or parents have reported to the police what they heard about upcoming violent behavior by a student and the violence was averted. When a student at Lafayette High School in Lafayette, Louisiana put his cigarettes inside the ceiling tiles of the school bathroom, he discovered a gun hidden in the ceiling. He shared this information with a friend who reported it to the principal. The gun was retrieved without being used (Schmersahl, 1999).

A student enrolled in the Jefferson Davis Parish Alternative School brought a gun to school and showed it to two male students before he checked out of school that morning. The two students reported the incident to their bus driver that after noon and gave a description of the gun. The police arrested the student that after noon and verified that he had brought the gun to school. The school principal, David Clayton, believes that the teachers and administrators at the school have created an atmosphere where students want their school to be safe and that is why the students reported the gun (Clayton, 1999).

There are several different strategies that can be employed by schools to get students to report pending violence. In order for any of these strategies to work, students must feel confidant that they can remain anonymous and that all information will remain strictly confidential to avoid any retaliation. Schools could implement a system of counting the number of days that the school has been violence free. After attaining the first goal of twenty-five days, the students get a reward. The reward could be a local disc jockey playing music before school. If the students reach the next level of sixty days, every class receives a pizza. The pizza party could be donated or sponsored by a local restaurant. The next goal would be one hundred days and a reward such as a "spring fling" would be held at the school for an afternoon. At the beginning of the school year, students can be given a "safe school contract . The contract states that the students agree to report any information they receive regarding a student who intends to do harm to him/herself or others. Each student signs and dates the contract, and the school agrees to keep all information confidential. Rewards such as passes to the movies or coupons for free meals can be given to students who provide valid information.

Some school districts such as Lafayette Parish in Lafayette, LA and Paducah, KY have been successful using an anonymous hot tip line, which can be sponsored by local corporations. A student calls the hot tip line and reports any form of pending violence such as weapons, suicides, gang related activity or drugs on campus. The case they are reporting is assigned a number. When they call the tip line back in three days, they are told to go to the bank and pick up a cash reward if the tip was valid.

Many schools have adopted a zero tolerance policy toward threats of any kind, verbal or in written form. In zero tolerance schools, no exceptions are made regarding the enforcement of discipline for any student no matter what the circumstances surrounding the threat may be or the discipline history of the student. Teachers are instructed to report immediately to an administrator any written form of violence in book reports, journals or artwork as well as any speeches with violent themes.

Older student mentors are having a positive effect for kindergarten through eighth grade students. Middle school and high school students are talking to younger students about the positive side of reporting what they hear about pending violence. These older students are teaching elementary and middle school students that heroes save lives and protect themselves from harm by telling an adult about possible danger (Gergen, 1998).

An innovative principal, Robert Kladifko, of Reseda High School in the San Fernando Valley in California has developed a group called the "Principal's Inner Ear Council." This group includes a cross section of students that include gang members, student council members, and respected athletes. This group is given the authority to vote on a predetermined set of school discipline rules. In exchange for this sense of power and ownership in their school, they each agree to listen and report any signs of upcoming trouble to the principal. The program has been successful in thwarting violence (Gergen, 1998).

In the same way that schools teach "suicide awareness", it is possible to teach "violence awareness." Child psychologist, Pamela Harrison from Houston feels that, "schools have to start emphasizing to students that when they hear a classmate say he is going to kill himself, or kill someone else, they must take it very seriously and act immediately (Bowles, 1998)". Students are taught about the dangers of smoking and drugs at an early age in school. Violence prevention and awareness must be added to the curriculum.

Following the violent death of Alex Orange, a student at West Charlotte High School in North Carolina, the organization called Students Against Violence Every where (S.A.V.E.), was developed. The purpose of this organization is to provide education about the effects of violence and help provide safe activities for students. Within the school chapters, students learn what to do if they encounter a gun (Riley, 1998).  A program called "Natural Helpers" was developed in Seattle, WA, by the Comprehensive Health Education Foundation. It is a peer-helping program that encourages students to confide in trusted fellow students when trouble arises either on a personal level or at school. The individual students trained to be helpers share the message that it is okay to ask for help and that caring adults are available to help troubled students. When a peer helper learns that a student may harm themselves or others, they report the information immediately to an adult (Tanaka, 1997).

It is impossible for schools to provide patrolled security everywhere on campus. Nearly a million students, some as young as ten, brought guns to school during the 1997 school year (Koch, 1998). This staggering statistic combined with widespread depression among teenagers, easy access to unlocked guns, desensitization to violence through movies, television and video games, and a lack of understanding of the finality of death, has made the job of identifying a troubled student at school an almost insurmountable task. For this reason, schools must join hands with students and seek their cooperation in solving the problem of school violence. When students feel a sense of ownership within their school, they are more likely to take an active role in keeping it safe. The combination of rewards for sharing accurate information and teaching children at an early age to recognize unsafe situations will be of great support to schools in dealing with violent individuals.
- Barras, Bernie; Lyman, Susan A.; Silence of the Lambs: How Can We Get Students to Report Pending Violence? Education, Spring2000, Vol. 120 Issue 3, p495

Personal Reflection Exercise #8
The preceding section contained information regarding encouraging students to come forward about threats. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Adam-Troian, J., Bonetto, E., Varet, F., Arciszewski, T., & Dezecache, G. (2021). Explaining social behavior in response to death-related threats: The conspecific loss compensation mechanism. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 15(1), 42–63.

Crichlow-Ball, C., & Cornell, D. (2021). Association of school climate with student willingness to report threats of violence. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, 8(3), 77–93.

Barber, C., Walters, H., Brown, T., & Hemenway, D. (2021). Suicides at shooting ranges. Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, 42(1), 13–19.

Lunn, L., Campion, K., James, S., & Velez, G. (2021). A framework for guiding transformative growth after school shootings. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 27(3), 486–496.

Wozniak, J. D., Caudle, H. E., Harding, K., Vieselmeyer, J., & Mezulis, A. H. (2020). The effect of trauma proximity and ruminative response styles on posttraumatic stress and posttraumatic growth following a university shooting. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(3), 227–234.

What are three guidelines to helping students distinguish a threat that should be reported to adults?
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