RPM Special Edition on School Violence:
Schools Inside and Out: Practices and Policy Initiatives to Protect Everyone in School Settings

Last Updated: March 27, 2013

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Special Edition on School Violence

For this report, we compiled media and newspaper accounts of some 700 violent events in which someone died or there was a mass threat in American schools. Our goal was to learn as much as possible from these stories in order to gain insight into the practices and policies that could help protect everyone in school.

It is clear that no single action will prevent all incidents of violence in schools; determined and armed perpetrators have proven capable of penetrating sophisticated security systems and armed guards. Yet there are many things that can be done to reduce the likelihood of a violent event. This section of the report addresses some of the steps schools, communities, and policymakers can take to make schools safer. It is divided into two parts.

In Part I we address strategies that schools, communities, and policymakers can implement to reduce the overall likelihood of violent events occurring at schools.

In Part II we look at separate strategies aimed specifically at preventing Mass Violence and Single incidents.

Part I

Inside: Things Schools Can Do

Schools by themselves cannot prevent all violent events and it is unrealistic to expect them to. However, there are important things schools can do to reduce the likelihood that violence erupts from within the school and to keep minor events from escalating into catastrophes.

Promote a supportive school climate. Many incidents of school violence, both Single events and Mass Violence, develop as a result of negative social and academic environment. Therefore, developing and maintaining a positive school climate is one of the most important things schools can do to prevent violence, especially at the middle and high school levels, where most violent events are perpetrated by students.

Schools with positive climates share common characteristics. They prioritize building high-quality relationships. They are personal. They know and value all students. They make sure everyone has opportunities to participate and to make contributions that are meaningful to the student and to other people. They promote a sense of belonging and identification with the school community.

They create structures that help students to work with and get along with each other. They act to ameliorate intense winner-loser rivalries. They reward acts of kindness and empathy. They discourage bullying, ostracizing, and verbal abuse among students. Students are trusted to live up to the good behavior that is expected. These practices go a long way toward reducing the social tensions and personal despair that underlie many acts of school violence.

Many schools also actively teach emotional self-awareness and conflict management skills. Frequently they use restorative justice systems that require offenders to address the negative consequences of their actions and make amends to their victims.

Positive school climate is associated with lower levels of school violence and higher levels of academic achievement across all student groups. Negative school climate, on the other hand, contributes to poor academic outcomes and increased risk of violence. (See “Resources on School Climate” at the end of this section on page 44.)

Positive discipline. Among the most important components of a healthy school climate are positive disciplinary practices.

These well-documented, highly successful systems promote pro-social behavior, teach disciplinary self-management, and require students to take responsibility for negative behavior by repairing the damage their actions have caused.

Students with more serious disciplinary problems receive more intense interventions through counseling, behavior management programs, and family supports tailored to the individual student’s needs and developmental levels.

Exclusionary discipline and criminal sanctions are used only with students exhibiting behaviors that are truly threatening or dangerous.

The Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program has been widely implemented in schools and shown to improve school climate and reduce disciplinary problems, often dramatically.

End zero tolerance. Zero tolerance policies have not been shown to reduce violence. In fact, schools that attempt to maintain order through intimidation, punishment, and harsh consequences for minor offenses may actually increase the likelihood of violence by modeling retribution and intolerance and by provoking anger in response to inequitable or disproportionate punishments.

Further, zero tolerance programs criminalize non-violent behavior and expose non-violent young people to the criminal justice system unnecessarily. This exposure dramatically reduces students’ chances of completing school, opens the possibility that the student will be physically or sexually victimized while in the justice system, and increases their contact with violent offenders.

Vigilance, not vigilantism. Many Mass Violence events in schools have been averted because students and families have noticed and reported when someone has weapons on campus or has revealed plans to commit acts of violence. School safety is everyone’s responsibility so encouraging students to take action in response to a real or potential threat can save lives. When carried out in the context of a positive school climate, this kind of awareness and reporting is understood to be in the interest of everyone’s well-being. Schools must also make sure that reporting itself does not become a form of bullying that raises the risk of backlash.

Circumscribe school policing. School policing is strongly associated with increases in school-based arrests for non-criminal behaviors. To the extent that police officers are used in schools, their role should be clearly defined to protect and support students, not intimidate or threaten them. Use of force should be strictly limited to incidents in which persons are clearly threatened. Students and families’ rights should be clear and recourse for complaints well-established and publicized.

Tend to basic security. Even without extensive technology, surveillance systems, or dedicated staff, many schools could improve their overall security. Such measures include making sure that latches and locks work on doors and gates and that everyone understands which doors are okay to prop open and which doors must remain closed and locked. It also means that everyone knows where to go and what to do if there is a security breach.

Schools should also take reasonable and necessary steps, appropriate to the community, to prevent weapons from getting on campus. Most school deaths occur because someone carries a weapon, most often a gun, onto campus and uses it.

Schools also need to understand their immediate surroundings and secure their physical vulnerabilities. For example, schools might ask: Where would street violence most likely affect the campus and its buildings? Where would an off-campus sniper or shooter most likely position themselves and what parts of the campus would be likeliest targets? Where on campus would it be easiest to place an explosive device and where would one do the most damage?

Schools that are uncertain about their plans and their physical readiness might wish to consult with their states or with school security organizations to complete an audit to determine where to focus their attention and efforts.

Most schools are part of the social fabric of their communities and cannot and should not be fortresses. But they can take steps that both protect students and promote a shared sense of responsibility for everyone’s safety.

Outside: School-Community Partnerships

Schools and communities can reinforce their efforts to reduce violence by collaborating on a variety of activities.

Connect students to their communities and promote positive life prospects. Many students need more positive connections with other people and a more optimistic view of their own futures. Schools and communities can work together to create opportunities for students to make valuable contributions in their communities that also help them see their own worth. Those opportunities can help young people forge relationships with adults and other young people that broaden their horizons and help reveal a path to a meaningful and happy future.

Create venues for positive personal and creative expression. In too many communities school is a repressive and frustrating exercise in passing tests of rote learning, poorly preparing students academically and leaving both teachers and students angry and dissatisfied. Alternatively, opportunities for creative expression, arts, personal initiative, and collaborative community-building enhance academic learning, promote personal responsibility, and channel energy in productive directions. In addition, they can improve quality of life and economic opportunity for the student and for others. When schools do not or cannot provide these vital learning opportunities, community organizations might step in by creating supports and venues for rich student learning and expression.

Provide mental and physical health services. Partnerships between schools and mental health providers can help bridge the gaps between students’ health needs and available services. Schools and local school boards should consider providing these services in school-based clinics or partnerships with community-based or public agencies to make them readily accessible to students and their family members.

Community-based violence reduction programs. Some communities have been able to take action, sometimes in collaboration with local police departments, to reduce local neighborhood, gang, and drug violence. Such actions help reduce the kinds of violence that often spill into schools. Community and neighborhood activities like gardens, arts and cultural events, and festivals promote a shared sense of belonging and personal agency that strengthen communities and help reduce violence.

Reduce access to weapons. Communities may not wish to address local weapons laws and in some states they may not be able to. But communities can take steps to reduce the access of students to lethal weapons, which helps lower youth suicide and homicide rates. For example, they can run campaigns to remind families how to keep guns safely away from children and youth or provide free gun safety training. Communities can call for enforcement of existing laws that limit sales to minors and people with criminal records. And communities can be proactive in communicating that violence is neither acceptable nor inevitable.

Protect young people. The causes of violent behaviors and the circumstances in which violence emerges are complex and can be difficult to address. Far too many teens and children feel that no one, individually or in their communities, is really able to protect them. When kids feel this way they may resort to violence to defend or assert themselves. Active engagement of adults and community organizations in improving safety and violence reduction can help vulnerable youth feel that someone responsible has their back.


Policy is a powerful tool that can create conditions in which schools can act more effectively to reduce violence. Ill-conceived policy, however, can make challenges more difficult.

Encourage positive school climates. Promote positive disclipline programs and end mandated zero tolerance discipline. Find ways other than testing for schools to demonstrate academic progress and enable schools to develop more engaging curricula; encourage schools to partner with communities by removing barriers and ending test-score-based sanctions for schools and teachers. Support smaller schools and learning communities, especially where they already exist. Make arts, creative expression, and collaboration part of all students’ school experience. Help make all schools inviting, stable places to work by providing teachers and building administrators the support, leadership, and professional respect that enable them to build a strong and supportive learning environment for students. Make equitable investments in schools so all students have access to educational environments that give them real academic and economic opportunity.

Promote equity. School violence occurs in all kinds of schools with all kinds of funding levels. But some schools and communities have many more local resources with which to build personal nurturing relationships and create rich learning opportunities — the kinds of circumstances that help reduce the likelihood of violence. These same communities tend to have more resources to respond to tragedy. State and federal supports should be targeted to communities that need them.

Increase economic opportunity and social supports. Young people need to see a future in which they want to live. And just as importantly they need to see ways to get there. Policymakers can help reduce the vulnerability of young people to violence by investing in mental health services, job training, enriched educational opportunities, and transitional support for students exposed to the criminal justice system, gang or neighborhood violence, and drugs.

Limit access to weapons. The vast majority of school deaths we identified could have been prevented if lethal weapons were not so easily available.

Tone down the rhetoric. Americans are guaranteed the right to say what they think and are charged with the responsibility to monitor government activities. For these very reasons, deliberately inflammatory language is irresponsible. The angry and bullying tone of current debates could increase the likelihood of violent outbursts in response. Further, extreme rhetoric carries the implications of extreme action.

Part II

Steps to Help Prevent Mass Violence

The following steps represent some of the actions schools can take to reduce vulnerability to a Mass Violence event. Schools can also work with their states, districts, and security firms to determine where they need to focus their efforts and resources.

  • Focus on creating a positive school climate that knows and values everyone, encourages kindness and inclusion, provides meaningful work for all students and teachers, and emphasizes good behavior and restoration rather than punishment and intimidation.
  • Focus intruder prevention on elementary schools. The majority of intruder events occurred in elementary schools, and almost all Mass Violence events in elementary schools were committed by intruders.
  • Focus insider prevention on middle and high schools. About 90% of Mass Violence incidents in middle and high schools were committed by students.
  • Deadly violence occurs primarily because perpetrators have easy access to weapons. Find creative ways to limit this access.
  • Address ways to prevent events that could be targeted at the school from an off-campus location.
  • Don’t ignore the possibility of an explosive event. The U.S. has not experienced a serious bombing in a K–12 school in nearly a century. But there have been bombing attempts, mostly by students.
  • Schools that don’t have sufficient local resources should receive priority funding for activities and training to promote a positive school climate and for school violence prevention and response.

Steps to Help Prevent Single, On-Campus Violence

  • Establish a positive disciplinary system that promotes kindness and teaches students skills and attitudes to prevent, manage, and resolve conflicts.
  • Provide training in non-violent intervention and de-escalation for all adults. Focus first on middle and high schools, where most Single events of violence occur.
  • Pay attention to interpersonal relations among students, notice when tensions are building, and take steps to intervene.
  • Many on-campus events happen in parking lots and at school events. Schools should make sure these locations are well-supervised, especially if tensions are brewing within the school, between schools, and in the community.
  • Reduce access to weapons and take necessary steps to prevent weapons from coming on campus.

Steps to Help Prevent Single, Off-Campus Travel Violence

Students who die going to or from school or school events are usually the victims of random or neighborhood violence, including drive-by shootings, gang retaliation, and misidentification. Many victims are vulnerable because they do not have a ride and are waiting for someone to pick them up.

Schools in neighborhoods where open violence is a problem need to:

  • Provide security at the opening and dismissal of school. A number of events occurred just as school was dismissing and early in the morning as students were arriving.
  • Provide transportation or escorts for students who have dangerous routes — either walking or on public transportation.
  • Pay attention to the concerns of neighborhoods and communities about where their schools are located. Plan transportation routes and site schools so that students don’t have to cross known danger zones to get to school. Make genuine efforts to strengthen schools in place, rather than close them. Research is clear that school closure rarely saves money or improves student outcomes. It does, however, weaken the ability of neighborhoods and communities to create and sustain other valuable organizations and assets.
  • Target resources to schools where neighborhood violence puts children and youth at risk.
  • Find ways for schools, police, and neighborhood organizations to work together to reduce neighborhood violence and provide safe zones for children and young people.

Resources on School Climate

You can find out more about the importance of school climate and steps your school and community can take to help your school be as positive and supportive as possible for all students.

ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) has a variety of resources, including this report:

The National School Climate Center offers research and services for improving school climate, including this paper:

This paper from the University of South Carolina documents some of the aspects of school climate that schools can address:


Read more from the RPM Special Edition on School Violence.