SCHOOL VIOLENCE: Better Prevention or Better Preparation?

This article was initially published in Principal Connections • Summer 2018 • Volume 21 • Issue 3

It seems like stories about violence in schools are increasingly making the headlines. And Ontario is not immune. According to a recent survey of 20,000 elementary school teachers in Ontario, 70 per cent have experienced or witnessed a violent incident Against a staff member. Ontario provincial police also report that the number of threats against schools, especially online threats, is also increasing.

In Ontario, resources have been funnelled into the Centre of Threat Assessment model led by Kevin Cameron. This very important protocol aims at analyzing potential

threats of violent outbreaks and shootings in schools. Boards have also put into place protocols for dealing with violent situations. However, while these protocols

provide important support and guidelines for school administrators and their staff, a great deal needs to be done to also address the earlier stages that lead to threats

and intimidation.

As a workplace violence prevention consultant, who has worked directly with many boards and individual schools, I believe that adults need to be well versed at

negotiating the early stages of a potential conflict. They need to acknowledge their intuitive messengers rather than deny them and subsequently create a series of

actions and strategies that will stabilize the student(s) at the earliest sign of distress. I’ve seen that too often, adults will task themselves the chore of solving all discomfort

and emotions. They may also believe that solving a crisis is about eliminating noise and chaos and bringing back compliance, when in fact it is about reducing arousal.

As seen in my Stages of a Crisis Model, shown below, most crisis situations involve seven stages. Every crisis has a beginning and an end. Often a simple request (questioning phase) from either party can trigger a sudden and escalating behaviour. A student may request to do a different task, to use their iPad instead of doing work, or the teacher might request that the student pay more attention or help a fellow student. Simple requests can be the launching ground for ventilation or violence. It is important to answer the request with empathy. This stage is preceded by the intuitive awareness and observations made by staff announcing a possible conflict.

Stages Of A Crisis Model

Resistance is the “why not?” stage. There is still some rationality to work with. In my career I have not yet seen violence attached to “why not.” This very important phase is when the adult explains to the student why they are saying no.

The Refusal stage is the pivot of rational thinking. It is where the explanations previously given are rejected. At this point it is important that the adult provide limits and options. Limits are not threats or ultimatums. An example of a limit setting is, ‘Help me understand … ‘or ‘I do want to find a solution to this …’

The Ventilation stage is where the student quickly loses rational thinking. It’s loud, chaotic and disorganized. It is recommended that adults listen to the student while

paying attention to their own non-verbal communication. Staff regularly need to have the opportunity to practise responding to this stage in order to maximize the success

of the intervention.

Threats and Intimidation speak for themselves. This is where your board’s clear policies and procedures come into place. Any organization that does not have

clear policies and procedures to respond to threats and intimidation are organizations that welcome violence.

Violence needs to be responded to by a non-violent crisis intervention. This could lead to a physical containment if the adults feel that there is an immediate risk of danger to

the student, the others around them or to themselves. At such point, staff should not be alone.

Post Crisis is the most important phase of the entire continuum. This is where we evaluate the impact of the crisis, where we invite the student to take part in a cooperative and collaborative conversation where options are created and the new plan is set in order to reduce the intensity, frequency and duration of future crisis. The

Post Crisis stage will also involve all staff and students impacted by the crisis.

The importance of preparation

Looking at my model, the phases of Requesting/Questioning and Resistance are the most important ones to be ready for. A crisis will gain quick momentum if these two phases are ignored by the adults. The Refusal phase is the last stage where rational thinking can be accessed. At this stage, it is important that adults practise their limit setting abilities, as well as the offering of well aligned options. Again, the goal is to have staff intervene before the student gets to the Ventilation or venting stage. It is also important for adults to understand that a student in the venting stage probably understands less than 10 per cent of the instructions he/she receives (Albert Mehrabian’s theory). It is not what you say but the way you say it that counts at this point.

A school that regularly practises strategies that include scripts (short lines aimed at defusing) and key code phrases (mobilizing supportive assistance at the early stages of a crisis), as well as being well rehearsed in applying limits and offering options is a school that is well prepared in addressing crisis.

School leaders are tasked with the responsibility to ensure that their staff members are ready to respond to the first six stages of a crisis. But just as importantly, you also need to promote post-crisis dialogue with the students in order to review the event and collaboratively develop options that might reduce the intensity and duration of the next crisis. You are also tasked with the responsibility of assessing the inception of trauma experiences by the personnel implicated, the student, and the witnesses (both staff and kids). Unchecked, this very important step might trigger emotional and behavioural ripples throughout the school and staffroom.

As adults it is important that we know our triggers and more importantly what to do if we become triggered. Adults need to make the commitment of never acting on their feelings, particularly when those feeling are negative.

The best type of prevention to potential violence is a good preparation for it. Not in the form of teaching adults how to manage the physical part of violence, but rather be ready and confident in addressing the early stages of crisis.

Steve Hall has facilitated hundreds of workplace violence prevention workshops within profit and non-profit sectors, and has worked extensively with school boards and individual schools. For more information visit

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