JFS Perspectives

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

School Violence: There is Hope

School Violence: There is Hope

The headlines appear almost daily—another school shooting. It’s enough to strike fear in the heart of every parent, grandparent, and school-age child. We have new data that shows school violence is linked not only to mental health problems, but to physical health problems and risk-taking behavior, including drug and alcohol use. We see connections between bullying, victimization, fighting, and school violence.

Thirty percent of young people admit to bullying others. Twenty-three percent of high schoolers report being in a physical fight in the past year. Six percent of students had been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property. There were 82 school shootings in 2018.

Clearly this is troublesome, but I’d like to clear up some misconceptions about school violence. Just 1.2 percent of all youth fatalities occur in school. A full 30 percent of pediatric deaths are suicides. In 12 states, the number of pediatric firearm fatalities is greater than pediatric motor vehicle deaths. The number of pediatric deaths due to firearms is basically the same in urban and suburban areas and slightly lower in rural areas.

Research on gun safety has severely lagged behind that dedicated to motor vehicle safety. Think about seat belts, air bags, and all the other advances we have made to improve motor vehicle safety. The lack of political will and resources to improve gun laws and safety are impacting children’s lives and leading to the alarming statistics we are seeing.

While we continue to be inundated with horrific news stories, there’s progress being made in our efforts to prevent school violence. In the 20 years since Columbine, we’re starting to understand some of the precursors to school violence and take actions to prevent it. We know the signs that can lead to trouble, including peer pressure, bullying, low self-esteem, abuse, neglect, and mental illness. The most best part is that we know how to treat these issues—and we are.

I recently attended the annual conference of the Colorado Association of School-Based Health Care and came away inspired and full of hope. There is tremendous progress being made on preventing school violence and creating safe schools. The one-day conference was focused primarily on the prevention of school violence and the progress being made since the Columbine tragedy that brought the issue to the forefront. The speakers were excellent, and the content was eye-opening. I learned about cutting-edge research and practical tactics that our JFS school-based therapists could put into practice immediately at their schools.

In one session, we learned how to thoughtfully assess the threat of violence in a school environment by gathering information about the behavior and communications of the student of concern, and analyzing the data with a team of professionals to determine whether the student is moving on a path to do harm to him or herself or others.

Another session focused on creating a positive school climate by preventing bullying and harassment and educating teachers and staff about policies and procedures to deal with bullying behavior when it occurs.

Attendees learned new strategies for positively disciplining children in the school environment to ensure that all students feel safe at school and can focus on learning. Positive discipline can lead to safer learning environments without a heavy reliance on suspensions and expulsions that can lead to isolation and aggression.

The conference stressed planning and collaboration between communities, school administrators, teachers, parents, and students, who all have a role in creating and maintaining safe schools. The data shows that these approaches are working. Students are happier, more connected to their schools, and engaged in learning.

I was excited to share these findings with our school-based therapists, so they could put these ideas to work. Positive school climates and an awareness of the signs that lead to school violence are making a difference. I’m hopeful that we’ll see a decline in school-based violence, so kids can get back to learning.


Stacey WeisbergBy Stacey Weisberg, LPC, Director of Mental Health Services
Stacey Weisberg is a licensed professional counselor with more than 28 years of clinical experience. She directs Mental Health Services at Jewish Family Service, including Mental Health Specialists, Refugee Mental Health, and KidSuccess/International KidSuccess. Stacey earned an M.S. degree in Counseling Psychology from Temple University. Her postgraduate training was completed at the Philadelphia Guidance Clinic, an internationally recognized marriage and family training center. She worked at John’s Hopkins Hospital, where she specialized in treating foster children and their families. During her 26 years at JFS, Stacey developed the school-based mental health program that reaches hundreds of children and their families, who would otherwise not have access to mental health services.