Samantha Haviland was a junior and a peer counselor at Columbine High School in April 1999 when two of her fellow students brought weapons to school, killing 12 students and one teacher before dying by suicide.
The massacre at the Littleton, Colorado, high school is often cited as the event that launched an era in which U.S. schools practice lockdown drills as often as fire drills. In less than two decades since, phrases such as active shooter, rampage violence and post-Columbine have become part of the American vernacular.
Haviland, a past president of the Colorado School Counselor Association and director of counseling support services for the Denver Public Schools, doesn’t usually disclose her connection to Columbine to the students with whom she works. But it is undeniably an experience that she still carries with her.
“What it does do is remind me, every day, of the vulnerabilities of our school communities and our students and the need for mental health,” Haviland says. “It is very sad to see that 17 years later, we struggle with the exact same thing — and worse. … What I do see is a lot of heightened awareness from school staff and a lot of fear, both from students and staff. It can be scary to go to work every day with the knowledge that this is now an [issue].”
Today’s reality is that school counselors and school administrators need to have well-crafted crisis plans ready to go. But equally as important, Haviland says, is the attention that school personnel should pay to the smaller, day-to-day issues that affect a school’s safety, from racial microaggressions and bullying to dating and relationship violence.
School counselors need both preventive and reactive tools in their toolboxes, and “there’s no magic wand for any of it,” Haviland asserts.
A visible presence
Violence can be defined as anything that is done with the intent to harm someone else, says Zachary Pietrantoni, a licensed school counselor who just finished his doctorate in counselor education and supervision at Southern Illinois University. In school settings, conversations about safety should take into consideration that violence can be physical, such as fighting, or nonphysical, including aggressive behavior that is verbal, psychological or carried out over social media, Pietrantoni says.
The antidote to school violence — in all its forms — is an inclusive and resilient school environment in which counselors play pivotal roles, say many of the professionals interviewed for this article. One key way school counselors can foster a culture of safety is by making themselves a familiar face and ready resource for students, parents and school staff.
“Make yourself the person they turn to,” says Kevin Curtin, an associate professor of counseling at Alfred University in New York state. “Be present, be visible. You want everyone to know that you’re the go-to person.” That might mean helping a parent or colleague to better understand a student’s mental health diagnosis, or talking through a challenging situation regarding a particular student with a teacher, he says.
Although school counselors are part of the leadership in their school buildings, Curtin thinks the word facilitator is a better fit than leader. “Establish a relationship with everyone,” he advises. “You have to work with all the teachers, specialists, parents, the principal and the assistant principal. You need to collaborate effectively with everyone. Make sure you’re a contact point. It’s a unique role. … While you’re not the ultimate boss [in a school], you need to be a leader for everybody.”
School counselors can foster this mindset among students by being highly visible throughout the school, says Curtin, who spent 17 years as a counselor and clinical director at an alternative school in Rockville, Maryland, for students who were identified as being at risk. “You want to go from classroom to classroom during the first week of school every year and introduce yourself,” says Curtin, an American Counseling Association member who is a certified school counselor and licensed mental health counselor. “I used to joke that I should have rollerblades because I was constantly roaming. I was visible. I made sure I knew every student and their families. I wanted to be trusted. … I wanted them to know they could come to me, and I wanted my colleagues to feel the same.”
Haviland says the role of the school counselor is to be a unifying staff member who builds relationships throughout the school building so that everyone feels safe and included. The goal should be to create an environment in which each student has “at least one positive relationship with a staff member. It doesn’t have to be the school counselor. It could be the janitor,” says Haviland, a member of the American School Counselor Association and the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision, both divisions of ACA.
Carleton Brown, a certified school counselor and counselor educator who researched school rampage violence for his doctoral dissertation, notes that perpetrators of school violence often lash out because they feel it is their only avenue to “be heard,” either by their peers or by society at large. That is one of the reasons, he says, that school counselors should strive to create opportunities for all students to feel heard, including helping them to establish relationships with trusted adults in the building.
“Create a sense of belonging [for students], a sense of ‘I belong here at this school’ — a personal stake in the school and the school environment,” says Brown, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at El Paso and past president of the Arkansas Counseling Association, a state branch of ACA.
The importance of staff-student relationships also comes into play in a phenomenon that law enforcement officials term leakage, Brown says. This is when a student clues a friend or classmate in to his or her plans for violence, such as telling the peer to stay home or avoid a specific area of the school on a certain day. If that peer is comfortable with a school staff member, he or she is more likely to come forward and report any potential threat, says Brown, a member of ACA.
The simple truth is that students always know of goings-on in the school that staff members don’t, notes Mark Lepore, a professor at Clarion University in Pennsylvania who was a school counselor for a decade. “When you ask teachers if bullying is [happening] in their classrooms, you’ll most likely get a ‘no.’ But if you ask students, they can tell you where it occurs, who is involved, how often it happens,” says Lepore, an ACA member. “It’s just this world that students are privy to, but we, as adults, miss it.”
To that end, school counselors can play a key role in making connections and building rapport with — and between — students, Lepore says. For example, counselors can help teachers facilitate weekly check-ins, in which a small amount of class time (for example, 15 minutes every Friday) is spent on a safety topic. This might include a lesson about social-emotional skills or an open-ended discussion about how safe students are feeling, he says.
“When [teachers and classrooms] check in every week, it seems so simple, but it makes a difference,” says Lepore, a licensed professional counselor and licensed clinical social worker. “Having this meeting every week sends a message to students that [staff] do care and issues can be talked about. There’s a lot of opportunity for counselors to be a part of that process.”
Pietrantoni, a national certified counselor and ACA member, worked as an elementary school counselor at a Title I school in Topeka, Kansas, where a program called Cool Tools was used. Students were introduced to a different “tool” each week involving a positive social behavior or characteristic, such as how to make friends, how to ask another child to play or how to be respectful or friendly. For example, one week the tool was trustworthiness, so the entire school focused on behaviors that demonstrated and fostered that characteristic. Each classroom would discuss that week’s tool and engage in role-playing. School counselors put up posters about the tools throughout the school and visited classrooms to review the week’s lesson with students.
Reaching those who are ‘at risk’
School counselors can also play an important role in ensuring school safety by working with teachers and other school staff to identify and reach out to students who are struggling. This includes students who are often truant or absent, have behavioral issues or are socially isolated.
For example, Lepore says, a school counselor or other staff member can be “assigned” a struggling student to interact with on a daily basis. The counselor or staff member would check in with the student at some point each school day, such as during lunch or as students enter the school in the morning.
During his time as a school counselor, Curtin regularly performed these check-ins with certain students. In some cases, the meetings were scheduled, such as when he ate lunch with a student or asked a student to stop by his office each day before lunch. Other times, he simply made a point of being in the hallway at a certain time of day when he knew the student needed to pass through. Regardless, he made sure to interact with the student daily.
“I used to have a big jar of candy [in my office],” Curtin remembers. “It’s just something little, but one piece of candy, right after lunch, if a student was meeting a goal. Something as little as that [can provide] positive reinforcement.”
As an elementary and middle school counselor in suburban Pittsburgh, Lepore facilitated peer mediation programs and an initiative called Circle of Friends, which grouped students who possessed healthy social skills with students who needed to work on those skills. First, parental permission was obtained. Then these “circles of friends” were grouped together for lunch or school events such as field trips. The interactions helped curb negative behaviors and made struggling students feel included, Lepore says.
“Teachers are already so overworked,” he adds. “They often tune stuff out when asked to do more, but if they can see results, [programming] will be embraced. It’s finding the right program and the right fit, and [also] involving parents the whole way.”
Service learning and volunteer projects are also effective tools for helping students experience a sense of belonging and community, Lepore says, and this can curtail potential problems down the road. For example, students in Lepore’s school wrote cards and letters to the New York City Police Department after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The police department responded and sent officers to visit Lepore’s school. What started out as a gesture of thanks became an unforgettable experience for many students, he says.
“Service learning is a really great vehicle for changing behavior and promoting [student] engagement. … Sense of belonging is a key factor in how students will achieve. Does a student feel they belong? If not, what can we do to fix that?” Lepore says.
Fostering a safe environment
The approaches school counselors take to cultivate a safe environment must be tailored to their schools’ unique needs, Haviland says, and the first step in that direction is assessment. She suggests that counselors create and administer student surveys with questions related to bullying and other safety indicators, such as whether students feel they have a teacher or other school staff member they can talk to when needed.
After reviewing the responses, counselors can help their schools create programs to meet the needs that students identified in the survey. This might range from concerns about dating violence among the student body to a need for additional extracurricular activities for students to get involved in, Haviland says.
Haviland recommends that school counselors administer safety surveys at their respective schools a minimum of once each year because the makeup of the student body and the perceived needs are constantly changing. “Have a pulse on the needs of your students at all times,” she emphasizes.
Pietrantoni says that forging partnerships with community groups such as nonprofit or advocacy organizations, churches and counseling agencies can be conducive to addressing specific needs in a school. For example, if bullying of students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) is an issue within the school, the counselor might facilitate a partnership with a community LGBT advocacy group to organize a schoolwide assembly focused on equality or to establish a gay-straight alliance, Pietrantoni suggests.
Another avenue for counselors to monitor the pulse of their schools is to create advisory councils that include students, parents and school staff, Pietrantoni says. This approach allows school counselors to gain multiple perspectives on issues going on in the school and the community at large.
“Not relying on one perspective will help broaden [a school counselor’s] program and perspective. This will give you eyes and ears in different areas,” says Pietrantoni, who begins a position as an assistant professor of counselor education at New Jersey City University this fall.
Crisis intervention and threat assessment
Creating and maintaining a safe, inclusive school culture requires that school counselors take a multilevel approach. At the staff and administrative level, this might include organizing teacher trainings, collaborating with a school resource officer and spearheading parent outreach. In working directly with students, it could range from organizing schoolwide programs on social-emotional behavior to providing group counseling with students who are at risk. As a whole, “school counselors are the leaders in creating a healthy environment,” Haviland says.
One key piece of the puzzle for Curtin was ensuring that his therapeutic team and school staff were trained in crisis intervention. The training helped staff de-escalate potentially volatile situations, such as when students became frustrated over something and were “about to lose it,” he says. Curtin worked at an alternative school where many of the students had emotional or behavioral disorders, so those situations were relatively common, he says.
The crisis training not only helped school staff learn how and when to intervene but also taught them empathic listening skills, says Curtin, who facilitated the trainings.
Another important skill to foster among school staff is the ability to identify warning signs that might indicate a student needs extra attention, Curtin says. These signs may include behavioral problems such as physical fighting or destruction of property, bullying or being bullied, suicidal tendencies, drug use, social withdrawal or isolation, impulsiveness, expressions of violence in writings or drawings, and outbursts of uncontrolled anger.
“Counselors are the front line in being able to identify potential risks and train others,” says Brian Van Brunt, executive director of the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association. He says all school staff, including teaching and nonteaching positions such as sports coaches, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and janitorial staff, should be given training in crisis intervention and mental health first aid.
“Nonclinicians are key. The same people you’d want to know CPR are the people you’d want to be trained [in mental health first aid],” Van Brunt says. Why? Because it’s equally likely that a student will become violent or suicidal on a school bus or on the playground as in a classroom, he says. When trained properly, these “first responders” can intervene effectively to stop potentially violent situations from escalating. They can also refer students who need counseling.
Van Brunt, who holds a doctorate in counseling education and supervision, started his career as a private practitioner. He eventually became the director of a college counseling center before moving into the specialty of threat assessment. As he explains, threat assessment is different from the typical mental health evaluations that counselors do, which usually result in a diagnosis and treatment plan. With threat assessment, a practitioner determines how likely a person is to repeat a violent incident or follow through on a threat that he or she has made. In school settings, this often comes into play when administrators are deciding whether to allow a student to return to school after being suspended for a violent or behavioral incident.
“You need to get to the underlying question of whether that person is a danger to someone else. … You need to determine whether or not the person is a risk,” says Van Brunt, the author of Harm to Others: The Assessment and Treatment of Dangerousness, which is published by ACA. “[Threat assessment] is asking very different questions than a mental health assessment.”
Van Brunt presented a threat assessment case study at ACA’s 2016 Conference & Expo in Montréal. The case involved a female student whose bra strap was snapped by a male classmate in the hallway. In response, the female stabbed the perpetrator in the arm with a pencil.
Both individual and systemic issues need to be considered when conducting a threat assessment, Van Brunt emphasizes. In this case, the female student was surrounded by a group of male students in a dark hallway when the incident occurred.
“Often we need to look at both the individual and the community and ask questions about how we reduce this behavior going forward,” says Van Brunt, a past president of the American College Counseling Association, a division of ACA. “Consider the circumstance. Was this a reasonable reaction or not? … Why was the hallway dark? Why were these students left unsupervised?”
In this situation, a counselor should also consider — and possibly introduce school programming focused on — the bigger, systemic issue of how the student body understands (or doesn’t understand) personal and sexual boundaries, Van Brunt adds.
“This is where I think counselors have such a wonderful, diverse [skill set], building rapport and understanding the issue of cognitive distortion, how we understand things, how we put things together,” he says. “A lot of these [threat assessment] cases center on how people are thinking about things, which is really what counselors do best — helping people think differently when they choose a path [and] getting them to the solutions they want to go to.”
Brown agrees, noting the difference between making a threat and posing a threat. He suggests a team approach can be helpful when conducting threat assessments in schools. In addition to school administrators and school counselors, it can be beneficial to include school resource officers, law enforcement professionals and mental health counselors from the community on these teams. Having multiple viewpoints is vital, he says.
Determining whether a student poses a threat “is difficult for one person to answer,” asserts Brown. “My suggestion, when it comes to threat assessment, is to look at it from a holistic, integrative and multiteam way.”
Although it is important for school staff to look for warning signs of potential violence, Brown emphasizes that there is no “all-in-one checklist” of behavioral cues to monitor. He points to a 1999 FBI report by Mary Ellen O’Toole that analyzed 18 different U.S. school shootings.
“One response to the pressure for action [after a violent incident] may be an effort to identify the next shooter by developing a ‘profile’ of the typical school shooter,” wrote O’Toole, a former senior profiler for the FBI. “This may sound like a reasonable preventive measure, but in practice, trying to draw up a catalogue or ‘checklist’ of warning signs to detect a potential school shooter can be shortsighted, even dangerous. Such lists, publicized by the media, can end up unfairly labeling many nonviolent students as potentially dangerous or even lethal. In fact, a great many adolescents who will never commit violent acts will show some of the behaviors or personality traits included on the list.”
Instead, Brown suggests that school counselors take a holistic approach and consider the wider circumstance of a student’s full personality, home life, family dynamics, social situation and past interactions with peers and staff when assessing the potential for future violence.
“What research says is [that warning signs] are all a factor, but they are not the sole factor,” Brown says. “Some of the students who committed these acts [school shootings] were bullied or they were the bully. … That doesn’t mean that every student who is bullied will commit these acts.”
Curtin agrees. “It is important to understand that warning signs should be viewed in context. They do not necessarily mean that the young person is predisposed to commit violence,” he says. “Instead, I try to convey the notion [to graduate school counseling students] that warning signs are an opportunity for school counselors to check out and address any concerns or issues the child might have in order to determine an appropriate intervention.”
This is especially important to keep in mind in situations in which students have trauma in their backgrounds, Lepore says. “It’s changing the focus from looking at a student [and asking], ‘What’s wrong with you?’ to ‘What have you been through?’” he says.
School counselors “have a unique opportunity to know the students, their families and their unique situations,” Lepore continues. “We have more information [about a student’s background] than the teachers or administration have, and that can be of use for the betterment of the students and the school.”
Resiliency and response
Counselors are also key players in a school’s response to trauma or violence. This could involve any number of scenarios that affect the school community, from the death of one of its students to an act of violence (such as a shooting) in the local community or an act of mass violence that happened elsewhere but is widely reported in the news. Depending on the situation, it can be beneficial for school counselors to go classroom to classroom to discuss the incident and answer students’ questions about grief, self-care and other mental health issues, Brown says.
School counselors can also orchestrate “stations” throughout the school — safe places, such as the library, where students can take a break and talk to a staff person — following a traumatic or violent incident that affects the student body, Brown says. In such circumstances, counselors may need to meet with teachers and administrators to discuss the importance of temporarily relaxing school rules, postponing tests and altering academic schedules to enable students to freely seek the help they need, he adds.
If a traumatic event affects a large swath of the study body, the school’s counselor may want to arrange for additional counselors from the community or other schools to come on-site to provide services to the students. Likewise, if a particular class or student group is affected, it can be helpful to have a counselor or other mental health professional sit in with that group all day to offer support, Brown says.
As with threat assessment, school crisis response is most effective when it involves a team, Brown says. He suggests these teams include the school’s counselors, principals and administrators, teachers, other staff relevant to the situation and, in some cases, parents.
“The team will assess ‘how do we handle this situation?’ You want to prepare and respond in a way that makes the students feel safe, feel heard [and feel] that we’re not just going on with everyday life. You need to give students an opportunity to talk about it and mourn,” Brown says.
“The team [dynamic] is very powerful [in crisis response],” he adds. “It’s not fair for a school counselor to feel that all of this is on his or her shoulders. … The school counselor shouldn’t be the sole person responsible for the emotional welfare of a school.”
Parents as part of the safety equation
A significant amount of research shows a connection between student achievement and parents who are involved and engaged. According to the counselors interviewed for this article, a similar connection exists between parental engagement and safe school environments.
“Parents are key players in your schoolwide approach [for safety],” Curtin says. “Bring them in for meetings. Include them in planning. Empower them to help.”
Curtin suggests that school counselors include parents on any team that creates or revises a violence prevention or school improvement plan. Counselors should also keep in touch and work with their schools’ parent-teacher organizations and other parent groups, he says.
The driving philosophy is that a safe school is born out of community, Curtin says. His advice to school counselors: “Build relationships, be present, have good prevention programs and know the warning signs [for violence]. Help the at-risk and be there for them.”
School safety and violence statistics
- In 2014, there were more than 850,000 nonfatal victimizations (including assaults, thefts and other incidents) among students ages 12 to 18 at schools across the United States.
- About 7 percent of U.S. high school students reported being threatened or injured with a weapon such as a gun or knife on school property in 2013.
- In 2013, approximately 22 percent of U.S. students ages 12 to 18 reported being bullied at school during the school year. Females reported higher percentages of being made fun of, being called names or insulted, being the subject of rumors or being excluded from activities on purpose. A higher percentage of males reported being pushed, shoved or tripped at school.
- In 2013, about 8 percent of U.S. high school students reported being involved in a physical fight on school property during the past year.
- In 2013, approximately 7 percent of U.S. students ages 12 to 18 reported being cyberbullied during the school year. A higher overall percentage of female students reported being victims of cyberbullying.
- In the 2013-2014 school year, about 88 percent of U.S public schools had a written plan for response procedures in the event of a shooting; 70 percent of those schools with a plan had drilled students on the use of the plan.
— Source: The National Center for Education Statistics, nces.ed.gov/programs/crimeindicators/
To contact the counselors interviewed for this article, email:
Bethany Bray is a staff writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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