It’s every parent’s worst nightmare – a Columbine-style attack in a British school, where a disgruntled student, armed with a lethal weapon, starts shooting indiscriminately within the school grounds.
While incidents such as these might not be commonplace in the UK – although they are becoming more and more common in the United States – violence in schools is certainly an issue.
More and more secondary schools in urban areas today have installed metal detectors to keep weapons out, and more and more students are being excluded for violent behaviour than ever before.
The Department of Education estimates that about 900 children are excluded from school every day for being violent, which included attacks or assaults on other pupils or teachers. Boys were the most likely culprits, being three times more likely to be expelled than their female counterparts.
Age, it appears, is no barrier either, with up to 15 children under age five per day were being excluded from primary schools for violent behaviour, mainly for assaulting their fellow pupils.
A new Education Bill gives headteachers the right to exclude pupils for being violent, and also gives them the right to search pupils for items which the school might forbid, ranging from mobile telephones to weapons and pornography.
It is hoped that this measure will make schools a safer place. Some schools, however, were criticised for excluding “problem” students for long periods of time to improve the league tables, giving them “authorised absences” for months at a time.
So what can schools do to make their hallowed halls of learning a safer place – without simply getting rid of those pupils with the worst behaviour – and what can parents do if they suspect that their child may be in an unsafe environment?
Schools can help combat violence by:
- Focusing on prevention. Having a strict plan in place if someone has a firearm, for example, can make all the difference.
- Having a strict anti-bullying policy. It’s important to let students know that there is no tolerance for bullying, including racist/homophobic and other slurs. Any type of bullying or any type of gang-related behaviour should not be allowed.
- Teaching staff to deal with situations that could escalate into violence. Gaining students trust should be the most important step, so students feel comfortable talking openly should a problem occur. Staff should also know how to educate students about violent behaviour – and how to deal with it.
- Encouraging anger-management programmes. Some students are inherently angry, and their out-of-school situation may contribute to their feelings of hopelessness and rage. Schools may not be able to change students’ living situations, but they can teach them to deal with them better.
- Dealing adequately with consequences. Schools should take quick action should a violent event occur, and deal with the consequences of any violence quickly. They should also be willing to openly address any violence after the fact, and not sweep incidents under the rug. Openness is key.
Speak to the School
If you suspect your child is at risk of violent behaviour at his or her school, start by speaking to the form tutor. If you don’t get any joy, speak to the headteacher, and if necessary, send your complaint to the school’s Governing Body.
Schools should learn to identify potential stressors in a child, and act appropriately. A student who is experiencing parental domestic violence at home, for example, might think it’s okay to act that way at school, or a depressed child might lash out in inappropriate ways. Schools should be trained to intervene and take action, when necessary.
Similarly, parents should take responsibility for their own children’s behaviour, and be able to spot the warning signs of a child who could become violent. These can include a child who is depressed, fixated with death, or suicidal.
Children at risk of becoming victims might exhibit signs of being petrified to go to school and feigning illness, and experience trouble sleeping or difficulty concentrating. They might also come home with torn clothing, bruises and/or missing belongings.
Ideally, all schools should have a strict policy concerning violence, and should record and monitor all violent incidents, directed both toward staff and other students. There is no legislation concerning who has specific responsibility for security in schools, but whatever body has jurisdiction over health and safety should include security as a priority.
It is an offence to carry any type of offensive weapon in a school – including knives – and head teachers have the power to exclude students whose behaviour is either very disruptive or violent.
Violence has no place in schools, and every child has the right to get an education in an environment where they feel safe. If you feel that your child is under threat from violence, you should speak to the school and see what can be done. You CAN make a difference – before it’s too late.