Early Warning Signs of Youth Violence:
Fiction, or Fad?
Are there children who are "ticking time bombs" ready to explode with violent
behavior in our schools and in our communities? Recent high-profile school
and other youth violence incidents have lead many to ask, "Are there early
warning signs indicating the potential for violent behaviors by youth?,"
and many opinions have been offered on the subject.
At National School Safety and
Security Services, we believe that there are behavioral indicators which could
serve as a "red flag" of a potential for higher-risk of violent youthful
incidents. However, we are concerned about the use, and potential for
misuse, of the various "checklists" and similar products being produced
in response to this issue. Who makes these checklists and what are their
qualifications and perspectives in doing so? Who will use these check-lists
and in what context? These and many other issues need to be closely examined
when discussing this issue. (For two full chapters on these and other
early warning sign and threat management issues, see Ken Trump's latest
book on school crisis preparedness.)
We strongly believe that an understanding of youth and delinquent psychology
can help parents, school officials, and other youth-service providers to
better deal with potentially violent youth. However, the call for increased
awareness and recognition of "early warning signs" has generated
profiles, rating scales, and other similar products which could have negative
implications. In particular, we are concerned about:
1. Parents, School Officials,
and Other Youth-Service Providers as Pseudo-Psychologists.
Psychology and counseling are professions which require extensive
training, certification, and other professional preparation. Lists of early
warning signs and other products need to be viewed within an appropriate
context and in a reasonable manner. A check-list does not automatically
make someone an expert in psychology. When a "red flag" pops
up, remember to consult with professionals, such as licensed professional
psychologists or counselors, when concerns arise.
2. Misuse of Early Warning
Sign Resources. Caution should be exercised not to allow
such products to be used in a manner to stereotype or classify children,
or to overreact or under react to the potential for youth violence. Some schools
may have a large number children with characteristics on an "early warning
sign" list, yet none of them will commit a violent, tragic act. Other
schools may have children who show none of the characteristics on such a
guide, yet one may commit such an offense. Again, lists and other products
need to be viewed within an appropriate context and in a reasonable manner.
3. Unwarranted Fears
That Only "Experts" Can Effectively Work with High-Risk Youth.
Media and public attention to recent incidents may have unintentionally
communicated to parents, educators, and others that only highly-trained "experts"
can have an impact with high-risk youth. Again, while an understanding
and increased training on youth and delinquent behavior can be quite helpful
and is encouraged, we also do not want parents or others who work with children
to "toss in the towel" because they do not have a degree in abnormal psychology
or counseling! Such a paralysis of adults can only contribute to youth
violence, not to help control and prevent it.
It is for these (and other) reasons that the training on Assessing
and Managing Student Threats in our school security and crisis preparedness
workshop is focused not on a checklist of specific characteristics,
but more importantly on the process and questions school officials, law
enforcement officers, and other youth-providers should use to evaluate the
circumstances of their own unique cases. It is also important
to consider that the key to intervening prior to a violent incident
perhaps should focus less on a checklist of specific behaviors and more on
changes in behavior. And in order to notice a change in
behavior, we must first know what that a youth's normal behavior is like
--- something that can only be done by knowing our kids.
With those thoughts in mind, we now offer our insights...
What stressors can contribute to
young children becoming violent?
A variety of social and economic factors can contribute to violent and aggressive
behavior by children at home, in school, and in the community. In cases
of workplace violence, we tend to look at the offenders to identify what
"stressors" lead them to committing violent acts. Ironically, we tend
not to look at our juvenile population from the same perspective, particularly
in terms of thinking about prevention and "early recognition" or warning
Children, especially teens, are influenced by numerous stress factors. Based on our experience of over 15 years work in the school safety
and youth violence fields, some of these stressors might include:
psychological, and/or emotional abandonment by parents, adults, and significant
violence, abuse, neglect, and/or other severe family stress or dysfunction
of order, structure, and discipline
Self-concept formation, peer pressure, need to protect reputation,
and related developmental issues
drug, and similar influences
cult, or other deviant subculture attraction
to succeed academically
of the unknown, fear of rejection, and fear of failure
These and other influences leave our children with an enormous amount of
stress and internal conflict which can easily trigger aggressive and violent
behavior --- all of which is often committed with little or no remorse due
to a lack of bonding and connectedness.
Knowing that these pressures exist and that our children, especially our
teens, lack adequate and appropriate coping skills for dealing with such
stressors, why then are we so surprised that children as young as 11, 12,
or 13 are committing such violent acts? We should assume that we are
dealing with a higher-risk population and be appropriately prepared for doing
How can parents, school officials, and
other concerned adults best help children?
Parents, school officials, and other youth-service providers can take numerous
steps to reduce the stressors on children and to reduce the risks of youth
violence. Some of these steps might include:
Establishing ongoing, sincere, and trusting relationships with youth
built upon regular, quality communications
sensitive to the stressors influencing children and providing timely intervention
alert for, and promptly responding to, issues such as:
A lack of bonding and "connectedness" to others
or perceptions of hopelessness
Threats --- and the efforts to establish the means and opportunity
to carry out the threats
Disciplinary problems in school and/or delinquent, criminal activity
in schools or communities
Unusual interest or preoccupation with weapons, bombs, and violent
forms of "entertainment"
Abuse of animals, suicide threats or attempts, self-mutilation, etc.
Talk to children honestly and, if necessary, seek professional help
BEFORE a crisis!
For additional information on parent strategies, visit our page on frequently
asked questions from parents.
For Additional Information on Early Warning
The U.S. Department of Education released
Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools, a publication designed
to help educators and other youth-service professionals identify possible
indicators warranting concern prior to violent behavior. Their
follow-up publication was released a year later and is entitled Safeguarding
Our Children: An Action Guide.
Other resources include:
American Psychological Association
HelpCenter: Warning Signs of Teen Violence
& AAP Warning Signs of Violence in Children
For two full chapters on early
warning sign and threat management issues, see Ken Trump's latest book on school
crisis preparedness. And for more information on our school
security assessments and school
safety and crisis preparedness training, visit our web pages and
contact our president, Ken Trump.
Check them out!