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An ethical and legal perspective on the role of school counselors in preventing violence in schools. (Special issue: legal and ethical issues in school counseling).

Recent, highly publicized school shootings have had a tremendous impact on the public's perception of school safety (Vossekuil, Reddy, Fein, Borum, & Modzeleski, 2000). These events have prompted school officials to consider prevention strategies for targeted violence in schools. School officials are increasingly turning to school counselors for help in identifying and providing interventions for students who may pose a danger to others (Riley & McDaniel, 2000). School counselors are meeting this challenge by providing violence prevention activities, assessing students' risk of engaging in violent behavior, and providing appropriate interventions when the potential for violence exists. This article offers school counselors an overview of their ethical obligations related to school violence and an explanation of their legal duty to protect students from harm. In order to adhere to ethical and legal dictates concerning school violence, it is necessary to be familiar with the characteristics of students who may be at risk for violent behavior and strategies for preventing school violence; thus, these topics are also discussed. This article concludes with specific recommendations for school counselors to follow as they attempt to keep violence from occurring in schools.

Ethical Duty to Protect Students from Violence in School

There are two ethics documents that inform the practice of school counselors: the Ethical Standards for School Counselors (American School Counselor Association [ASCA], 1998) and the Code of Ethics (American Counseling Association [ACA], 1995). Ethical standards require school counselors to inform appropriate authorities when a student's behavior is indicative of clear and imminent danger to others (ACA, [section] B.1.c.; ASCA, [section] A.7.). Yet, the best means of accurately determining whether a student is potentially violent has been the subject of much scholarly debate (Bailey, 2001; Reddy et al., 2001; Vossekuil et al., 2000). Accordingly, the ethical standards recommend that school counselors consult with colleagues when working with students who may be at risk for violence (ACA, [section] B.1.c.; ASCA, [section] A.7.).

Though school counselors are ethically obligated to respond to and work to prevent imminent school violence, they are also required to consider the welfare of potentially violent students. When school counselors decide to take action to prevent potential violence, the ethical standards direct school counselors to inform students of the actions to be taken in order to clarify expectations and minimize confusion (ASCA, 1998, [section] A.7.). Furthermore, school counselors have an ethical duty to keep informed about laws related to the rights of their students and ensure that their students' rights are protected (ASCA, [section] A.1.d.).

Legal Duty to Protect Students from Violence in School

School officials, including school counselors, have a legal obligation to take action when students pose a danger to other students (Bailey, 2001). In 1999, the United States Supreme Court commented on school authorities' duty to address school violence (Davis v. Monroe County Bd. of Educ., 1999). The Court explained that school personnel are on notice that they can be held responsible for failing to protect students from student-on-student violence.

Though the legal duty of school personnel to protect students from harm is clear, courts have been reluctant to find school authorities liable in school violence cases (Hermann & Remley, 2000). This trend is evident in courts' recent decisions about the culpability of school personnel in cases related to multiple homicides perpetrated by students in school settings. For example, in August 2000, a federal court in Kentucky dismissed the claims filed against school personnel in the West Paducah, Kentucky, school shooting (Glaberson, 2000). The court found that the perpetrator was the only responsible party for the shootings in spite of evidence that the student assailant showed students his guns when he brought them to school and wrote of homicidal and suicidal thoughts in school papers.

In late November 2001, a federal district court in Denver dismissed the lawsuits of families of victims alleging that school officials, including school counselors, failed to recognize warning signs from the student assailants (Kass, 2001). These warning signs included a violent Web site and a videotape made for a video production class portraying Harris and Klebold enacting a scenario in which they shot students with the motive of revenge (McPhee, 2000). Additionally, in both psychology classes and creative writing classes, Harris and Klebold expressed their anger, hatred, and intent to kill, and wrote that they possessed firearms.

According to the pleadings in the case, these communications demonstrated a serious threat of harm to students at Columbine High School and school administrators, counselors, and teachers were negligent in their failure to respond (Able, 2000). However, the judge ruled that the warning signs were not enough to predict the impending violence. Victims' families report that they will appeal the court's decision to dismiss their case (Kass).

Though school counselors have yet to be held legally accountable for school violence, school counselors still find themselves legally vulnerable because of their role in determining whether students pose a risk of harm to others and deciding on appropriate interventions with these students. Thus, school counselors are wise to keep up-to-date on current court decisions related to school personnel and school violence.

School officials, including school counselors, have been held liable for failing to protect students from foreseeable harm (e.g., Eisel v. Bd. of Educ., 1991; Maynard v. Bd. of Educ., 1997). Courts have consistently found that school personnel have a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect students from foreseeable harm (Hermann & Remley, 2000). Courts have explained that students' violent acts were foreseeable if students threatened to do harm, especially if students have engaged in violent activities in the past (Hermann & Remley). Current case law also indicates that any indicator of potential violence needs to be taken seriously. Accordingly, courts are supporting the temporary removal from the school setting of students who exhibit indicators of potentially violent behavior.

In Brian A. v. Stroudsburg Area School District (2001), a federal district court considered the case of a 15-year-old student who was expelled because he wrote a note stating, "There's a Bomb in this School bang bang!!" (p. 505). The incident took place only a few weeks after the Columbine school shooting. The student claimed that he wrote the note as a joke and forgot to throw it away. In making their decision to expel the student, school officials considered the fact that the student was on probation because of an incident that involved blowing up a shed on the property of another school. The court held that school officials' act of expelling the student was a reasonable response to a bomb threat, especially considering the student's previous delinquent acts.

In addition to evidence of the student's intent to do harm and the student's prior violent history, courts have taken into consideration recent school violence when determining if school officials have acted reasonably when faced with a student's threats of violence. In Lovell v. Poway Unified School District (1996), a federal appeals court considered the appropriateness of a 15-year-old student's suspension after she allegedly threatened to shoot her school counselor because she was dissatisfied with her schedule. The student defended her actions by stating that she "merely uttered a `figure of speech'" (pp. 368-369) and immediately apologized for her inappropriate behavior. The student did not act in a physically threatening manner toward the counselor, and yet the counselor reported that she felt threatened by the student because the counselor had witnessed the student's volatile nature and lack of impulse control on other occasions. The court commented, "in light of the violence prevalent in schools today, school officials are justified in taking very seriously student threats against faculty or other students" (p. 372). The court upheld the student's suspension.

Other courts have considered students' constitutional rights and focused on whether threats of violence made in school settings were believable (Hermann & Remley, 2000). Though threats that present a "clear and present danger" have never been afforded first amendment protections, some courts are still finding that for a threat to be punishable, the threat must meet the objective "true threat" test (e.g., Lovell v. Poway Unified Sch. Dist., 1996). According to these courts, a "true threat" is a threat that a reasonable person in the same circumstances would find to be a serious and unambiguous expression of intent to do harm based on the language and context of the threat.

The application of the "true threat" doctrine is illustrated in D. G. vs. Independent School District No. 11, Tulsa County Oklahoma (2000). In this case, the court considered the suspension of an 11th grade student for writing a poem about killing a specific teacher. The student explained that she was upset with the teacher at the time and she wrote the poem to express her frustration. The student did not intend for the teacher to see the poem. Neither the teacher nor the school administrator considered the threat to be a "true threat" because the student had never been engaged in or threatened to engage in violent conduct at school. But, the school had a "zero tolerance" policy for student threats. The court held that the student's suspension was appropriate while the threat was being investigated; however, the court added that once a psychologist determined that the threat was not a "true threat," the school was violating the student's constitutional rights by not allowing the student to return to school.

Similarly, in Lavine v. Blaine School District (2001), a student sued school officials, including his school counselors, after being expelled because of a poem he wrote. The poem contained suicidal and homicidal imagery including a passage depicting a school shooting, 28 people dying, the shooter feeling no remorse, and the perpetrator shooting himself. The English teacher who read the poem was concerned and notified the school counselor. The school shooting in nearby Springfield, Oregon had just occurred. In a previous school year, the student admitted to the school counselor that he had thought about committing suicide. Suicidal ideation is highly correlated with violent behavior (Vossekuil et al., 2000). The school counselor was also aware of recent, serious problems the student was having at home and that the student was reportedly stalking the girl with whom he had just broken up. The student had a discipline record which included a fight and an incident of insubordination to a teacher. Based on these facts, the principal expelled the student.

After the student's removal from school, the student was evaluated by a psychiatrist who found that the student could safely return to school. Though the student returned to school, the student's father sued school officials claiming that his son's expulsion had violated his son's constitutional rights. Addressing this claim, the court stated that recent school shootings have "put our nation on edge and have focused attention on what school officials, law enforcement and others can do or could have done to prevent these kinds of tragedies" (Lavine v. Blaine Sch. Dist., 2001, p. 987). The court continued by stating that "the school had a duty to prevent any potential violence on campus" (p. 989). Considering the facts of the case and the recent school shootings, the court held that school personnel acted reasonably by removing the student from the school environment until a psychiatrist evaluated the student and determined that the student was not a danger to himself or others.

Case law related to student suicide also has legal implications for school counselors as they engage in violence prevention and intervention activities. As in school violence cases, in student suicide cases educators' liability emanates from their responsibility to keep students safe from harm (Hermann & Remley, 2000). Thus, the reasoning of courts addressing student suicide could be applied by analogy to school violence cases (Hermann & Remley).

In student suicide cases, courts have found that school personnel need to take seriously every threat indicating suicidal ideation. School counselors have a duty to use reasonable care to attempt to prevent a student's suicide when they are on notice of a student's suicidal intent (Eisel v. Bd. of Educ., 1991). Courts have found that students' writing assignments, such as disturbing entries in students' journals, could make a student's suicide reasonably foreseeable (Brooks v. Logan, 1995). Courts addressing school violence could also find that a student's disturbing writing assignments were evidence of premeditated violence. In student suicide cases, courts have also addressed the need for educating school personnel in suicide prevention, noting that without such education, school personnel are likely to underestimate the lethality of suicidal behaviors (Wyke v. Polk County Sch. Bd., 1997). Just as courts are beginning to expect school personnel to be educated in suicide prevention, courts could find that there is an expectation that school personnel be knowledgeable about violence prevention as well (Hermann & Remley, 2000).

According to current school violence and student suicide jurisprudence, school counselors are justified in taking every threat of violence or suicide seriously. Yet, some courts have recognized that not all threats are serious threats to do harm. School counselors play a vital role in assessing these threats and working with administrators as they determine whether to remove a student from school because of a violent threat. According to legal dictates, threat assessment includes determining whether the language and context of the threat indicate a serious intent to do harm. A school counselor's previous interactions with the student are relevant in this determination, especially if the counselor has noted volatile behavior or the student has indicated suicidal ideation. Finally, school counselors need to consider other corroborating evidence such as the student's history of violent behavior.

It is important to note that judges do not expect school counselors be perfect in their prediction of school violence. Assessment of risk is not an exact science (Dwyer, Osher, & Warger, 1998). School officials are also not expected to anticipate random acts of violence (Remley & Hermann, 2000). Consequently, school counselors are only expected to act reasonably to prevent foreseeable school violence (Lavine v. Blaine Sch. Dist., 2001). In determining what actions are considered reasonable, courts have found that school counselors are expected to exercise the degree of care that would be exercised by other school counselors with similar education and experience (Wyke v. Polk County Sch. Bd., 1997). School counselors are only exposed to legal liability if they fail to exercise reasonable care in preventing foreseeable school violence (Remley & Hermann, 2000).

Legal Issues Related to Addressing School Violence Through the Use of Student Profiles

Although school counselors have a legal duty to exercise reasonable care to protect students from foreseeable harm, school counselors also have an ethical duty to ensure that students' legal rights are protected. The use of criminal profiling as a means to identify students at risk for violence could be violative of students' constitutional rights. Reddy et al. (2001) described criminal profiling as a technique to assess individuals who have exhibited disturbing behaviors and communications based on characteristics of previous perpetrators. In the context of school violence, the use of this technique has been severely criticized.

Researchers studying school violence have consistently found that there is no accurate profile of students at risk for violence (Bailey, 2001; Reddy et al., 2001; Vossekuil et al., 2000). Most notably, in October 2000, the United States Secret Service released their preliminary findings based on a comprehensive research project which analyzed information related to the behavior and thinking of students involved in 37 school shootings between 1974 and 2000 (Vossekuil et al.). The goal of the project was to provide this information to school and law enforcement personnel responsible for preventing school violence. In the school shooting incidents studied, the attackers ranged from excellent to failing in academic performance, from socially isolated to popular, and from no behavioral problems to multiple behavioral difficulties in school. The assailants came from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Less than one third of the perpetrators abused drugs or alcohol. Few perpetrators showed any significant change in academic performance, friendship patterns, or disciplinary problems at school prior to the incident. The only demographic variable that was consistent was that young men committed all of the school shootings studied. However, the consistency of this demographic variable changed after the preliminary report was issued. In March, 2001, an eighth grade girl shot a classmate at the Catholic school both girls attended (Morse, 2001).

Vossekuil et al. (2000) concluded that an accurate profile of a school shooter does not exist. They explained that the vast majority of students who fit any given profile actually do not pose a risk of school violence, and some students who do pose a risk of violence do not fit any given profile. Violent student profiles have been characterized as over-inclusive, biased, stigmatizing, and potentially violative of students' constitutional rights (Bailey, 2001; Reddy et al., 2001; Vossekuil et al.).

Bailey (2001) discussed the constitutional law issues involved in using profiles to prevent school violence. He explained that assigning students to alternative education programs based on a student's likeness to a profile could be seen as a deprivation of the right to equal educational opportunities and thus could pose serious constitutional questions. Bailey reasoned that for an individual to be singled out and receive special treatment based on the individual's resemblance to a profile, the profile must be reliable and used in an objective manner. He found that there is no violent student profile supported by comprehensive research and generally accepted by the scientific community. Bailey concluded that interventions based on using such profiles as a predictor of violence could be violative of students' constitutional rights.

Bailey (2001) noted the difference in using profiles to assign students to alternative educational programs and using profiles to direct students to violence prevention or mental health services. He explained that the latter could have constitutional implications, but courts would likely see the allocation of mental health services to students potentially in need of these services as an additional opportunity for students as opposed to a deprivation of rights. However, school counselors can avoid the possibility of litigation related to the use of student profiles by presenting all students with the opportunity for violence prevention activities and using means other than profiles to assess whether students are potentially violent.

Characteristics of Students Who May Be in Need of Violence Prevention Intervention

Though interventions based on the use of a mythical violent student profile could be violative of students' constitutional rights, school counselors still have a legal and ethical duty to act reasonably to prevent school violence. Assessing a student's potential risk of violence is implicit in this duty. Consideration of certain risk factors related to violent behavior can help school counselors make this assessment. In Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001), a risk factor was described as any factor that increases the likelihood that a person will suffer harm. Risk factors differ from violent student profiles because they encompass a broad range of indicators as opposed to one rigid, stereotypical profile. Though no risk factor or set of risk factors can accurately predict that a student will become violent, a risk factor increases the possibility that a student will become violent. The presence of multiple risk factors further increases the possibility that a student may become violent.

The research on risk factors and the prediction of violence has relied upon retrospective studies of students who have already become violent. This was accomplished by conducting psychological postmortems after violent incidents to discover common characteristics related to behavior, development, and psychosocial history (Borduin & Schaeffer, 1998; Dwyer et al., 1998; Hamburg, 1998; Hardwick & Rowton-Lee, 1996; Kashani, Jones, Bumby, & Thomas, 1999; Poland & McCormick, 1999; Vossekuil et al., 2000). For example, Vossekuil et al. studied 37 school shootings and found that most students do not impulsively go on shooting rampages. Over three fourths of the school shootings studied were planned and more than one half of the shootings were planned at least two days prior to the shooting. Furthermore, over one half of the attackers developed the idea to harm others at least 2 weeks prior to the event.

Vossekuil et al. (2000) found that in almost every case, the perpetrator engaged in behavior that caused others to express concern about the student. In over three fourths of the cases, an adult expressed concern because the student was engaging in behaviors such as attempting to gain access to weapons and writing suicidal or homicidal thoughts in school work. Vossekuil et al. reported that in over 75% of the incidents, perpetrators told at least one person what they were planning to do before carrying out the plan. Stevens, Lynm, and Glass (2001) also found that in over half of the violent school attacks, students wrote a note, made a journal entry, or advertised their plan in some other manner.

Students' threats to do harm are a powerful indicator of future violence (Dwyer et al., 1998; Fitzgerald, 2001). A student's threat may be obscure or it may be given in great detail. The threat may have been for homicide, suicide, or both. Vossekuil et al. (2000) found a high correlation between suicidal and homicidal behaviors. In almost three fourths of the school shootings Vossekuil and his colleagues studied, the students had threatened or attempted to commit suicide prior to perpetrating the school shootings.

Students' motivation for committing violent acts at school has included alienation, disaffection, powerlessness, and revenge (Dwyer et al., 1998; Glasser, 2000; Sandhu, 2000). Vossekuil et al. (2000) noted that in over three fourths of the school shootings they studied, the perpetrators were having difficulty coping with a major relationship change or another loss. Some students who have been violent in school were alienated from the mainstream of the student body (Dwyer et al.; Sandhu). The motivation for some student violence has been rejection by peers. In the Jonesboro, Arkansas, and Pearl, Mississippi, school shootings, the perpetrators had been rejected by their romantic interests. The assailants specifically targeted these girls in their violent attacks.

Vossekuil et al. (2000) found that in over two thirds of the incidents, the perpetrators had been bullied, threatened, or attacked prior to the shooting, and more than one half of the attackers were motivated by revenge. The students believed that their violence was justified (Ross, 1996). Some violent students even pictured themselves as heroic figures serving as avenging angels righting past wrongs (Gibbs & Roche, 1999). The shooters at Columbine High School targeted athletes who they believed had been their bullies and tormentors. Yet, in over 75% of the school shooting incidents that Vossekuil and his colleagues studied, the attackers did not alert the targeted victim or victims of their plans.

A history of childhood sexual, physical, or emotional abuse can also increase the risk for violent behavior (James & Gilliland, 2001). Other risk factors include having access to identified victims, the ability to acquire weapons, increased environmental stress, disconnection and alienation from mainstream culture, high levels of anger and frustration, and use of drugs and alcohol (Dwyer et al., 1998; Glasser, 2000; James & Gilliland; Ross, 1996). In addition, many of the students who have committed acts of violence had psychiatric diagnoses. They were either in treatment in which the severity of their problems was not addressed or they were noncompliant with their medications (James & Gilliland). Some of the perpetrators intentionally went off of their medications in order to increase their level of anger and violent behavior. Because the students were emotionally unstable, they were further alienated from emotionally healthy friends who could have discouraged the violent behavior or alerted authorities about the students' cataclysmic plans. (Borduin & Schaeffer, 1998; Kashani et al., 1999).

Harm to small animals is another indicator of possible risk of school violence. For example, the perpetrator of the Pearl, Mississippi, school shootings tortured and killed his family dog (Bagley, 1999). He beat the dog and then set it on fire while it was still alive. He wrote about this incident in his school journal, but this information was not relayed to his mother or the authorities.

Other warning signs of violent behavior include an unusual interest in violence (Dwyer et al., 1998). The perpetrators in Columbine, Colorado, Moses Lake, Washington, Jonesboro, Arkansas, and Pearl, Mississippi, all expressed a fascination with weapons and violent films and video games. The Trench Coat Mafia of Columbine and the perpetrator in Moses Lake dressed like their favorite characters in violent movies.

Finally, the school environment itself can contribute to school violence. The risk of school violence increases when adult supervision is insufficient, bullying and teasing are tolerated, special privileges are afforded to identifiable populations such as athletes or honor students, the faculty is disconnected from the students and community, students in need of care have little access to intervention, and violent threats are ignored (Fagan & Wilkinson, 1998; Futrell, 1996; Mayer, 1999; Ross, 1996; Stevens et al., 2001; Trump, 1997; Weinhold, 2001). Remaining alert to environmental and individual risk factors associated with school violence is vital to school counselors as they work to prevent school violence.

Strategies for Preventing School Violence

School counselors are ethically and legally obligated to work toward preventing school violence. Many strategies have been suggested to combat violence in and around schools. They range from implementing high security at schools (Friday, 1996; Mercy & Rosenberg, 1998; Trump, 1997), to promoting kinder, gentler school environments in which every student feels nurtured and their emotional as well as educational needs are met (Farrell, Meyer, & White, 2001; Glasser, 2000; U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001). There is little consensus regarding the most appropriate interventions. Most experts do agree that the problem of violence in the schools is complex, with multiple etiologies requiring multidimensional prevention and intervention plans (Dwyer et al., 1998; Futrell, 1996; Samples & Aber, 1998; Stevens et al., 2001).

Based on a comprehensive review of violence prevention activities, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2001) noted that there are numerous effective intervention programs aimed at reducing and preventing youth violence. The most effective youth violence prevention and intervention programs addressed environmental conditions as well as individual student's risk factors. It was reported that a program's effectiveness depended on the quality of implementation as much as the intervention.

It is important to note that though many violence prevention strategies have been effective, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2001) found that almost one half of the violence prevention strategies they studied were ineffective. A few of the strategies were even harmful. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services highlighted effective and ineffective strategies that have been used to reduce youth violence. Effective strategies included skills training, behavior monitoring and reinforcement, cooperative learning, bullying prevention programs, and parent education programs. Ineffective strategies included peer counseling and peer mediation. Programs like Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) were criticized for being developmentally inappropriate. However, newer versions of DARE, in which these criticisms were addressed, have yet to be evaluated. Clearly, continued evaluation of violence prevention programs is critical. And, school counselors need to stay up-to-date on which programs are effective in preventing youth violence and which programs are not.

In order to prevent violence, Poland and McCormick (1999) suggested educating school personnel, parents, and students to recognize the warning signs of homicide and suicide. Part of this instruction with students should focus on breaking the code of silence students maintain with each other. This is important because after a violent incident it is usually discovered that several students knew of the plans and knew that a student was armed that day at school. Students must learn that some secrets are too dangerous to keep (James & Gilliland, 2001). The faculty should also be encouraged to take the warnings seriously because denial can have fatal consequences (Hardwick & Rowton-Lee, 1996). School personnel, students, and parents must be united in their determination to act in order to prevent violence. When students are identified as needing intervention, quick efforts are important because there may be a narrow window of opportunity to prevent the violence (Poland & McCormick).

Glasser (2000) and Dwyer et al. (1998) concluded early identification and intervention with students are the best means of violence prevention. Therefore, school counselors' focus in the assessment process should be on identification of students in need of intervention, and efforts should be made to link specific interventions with the individual needs of the student as well as the severity of the situation. Glasser found that if this is done effectively, the risk of violence will be reduced.

Reddy et al. (2001) considered several approaches being utilized in an effort to prevent school violence. Finding that profiles and other inductive methods of addressing this issue are ineffective, they advocated for focusing on the facts of each case through threat assessment techniques. Waldo and Malley (1992) explained that when a student has threatened violence, it is advisable to obtain the necessary information to make a determination about the student's dangerousness. Pietrofesa, Pietrofesa, and Pietrofesa (1990) and Costa and Altekruse (1994) suggested that school counselors assess dangerousness according to the student's plan for implementing the violent act and the student's ability to carry out the act. Reddy and her colleagues advised examining a student's ideas and behaviors and the progression of these ideas and behaviors from multiple sources over time. When there is even a small amount of evidence indicative of potential violent behavior, early intervention would be appropriate.

According to Reddy et al. (2001), determining whether an alarming behavior or communicated threat could be indicative of violent action involves assessing the student's motivation for making the threat or engaging in the behavior, the student's other communications and behaviors, consistency between the student's communications and behaviors, any unusual interest in violence, evidence of planning violent behavior, the student's mental condition, the student's cognitive ability to formulate and execute a violent act, the student's recent losses or perceived failures, others' perception of the individuals potential for violence, and other relevant factors in the student's circumstances. Corroboration from teachers, peers, family members, and school records is important in determining a student's potential for violent behaviors. Waldo and Malley (1992) recommended that school counselors consult with other mental health professionals for clinical advice in these situations.

When students are identified as at risk for violence, there should be protocols for obtaining help for students. Referrals to resources within the school and community should be provided. The school's resources should include staff prepared to provide ongoing individual counseling and group intervention (Gottfredson, Gottfredson, & Skroban, 1998) and could include violence prevention activities.

Loeber, Farrington, Rumsey, and Allen-Hagen (1998) found that modifying the school climate is one of the most effective strategies for preventing school violence. School counselors can help establish an environment in which students know that school personnel care about their well-being. Students also need to know that they will be held accountable for their actions. Without trust and accountability, students do not feel safe in reporting their concerns about their classmates (James & Gilliland, 2001). In this more compassionate school environment, all students are equally valued and differences are acknowledged and respected. Furthermore, all forms of violence, including hazing and bullying, are not tolerated.

School counselors can help create or update school policies related to violence prevention, including specific steps to ensure student safety. School personnel must be apprized of the policies and the importance of following the policies. Courts have found that school personnel were negligent when they failed to follow a policy implemented to keep students safe and a student was injured as a result of the failure to follow the policy (Garcia v. City of New York, 1996). Thus, once a school policy for violence prevention has been created, it is imperative that the policy be followed.

Recommendations for School Counselors

In the context of school violence, school counselors have an ethical and legal duty to prevent clear and imminent danger to others. Though courts have upheld taking every threat of violence in school settings seriously, to date courts have refused to hold school counselors legally accountable for school violence. Courts have found that even blatant warning signs were not enough to predict impending violence. Yet, school counselors are still legally vulnerable. Courts have consistently found that school officials have a duty to exercise reasonable care in order to prevent potential school violence. Implementing violence prevention programming, assessing students' risk for violence, and providing appropriate interventions are reasonable activities related to addressing school violence.

The practice of school counselors is guided by the Ethical Standards for School Counselors (ASCA, 1998) and the Code of Ethics (ACA, 1995). In addition, the activities of school counselors are informed by the court cases cited in this article. The following recommendations are offered to school counselors to assist them in addressing the difficult issue of school violence in a manner that is ethically sound and legally appropriate:

1. Keep up-to-date on effective violence prevention activities, risk assessment techniques, and interventions when the potential for violence exists.

2. Avoid providing interventions based solely on a student's resemblance to a profile.

3. Help create or update school policies related to violence prevention, including specific steps to ensure student safety.

4. Provide violence prevention programming for school personnel and students.

5. Create an effective referral system for teachers and staff to notify school counselors of potential violent behavior.

6. Take every threat of violence seriously.

7. Assess each threat by considering the language and context of the threat, student's previous violent activities and suicidal ideation, and other corroborating evidence.

8. Consult with other mental health professionals.

9. If you determine that a student may pose a danger to others, alert appropriate authorities and inform the student of the actions to be taken.

10. Obtain, and keep readily available, information on community resources for students at risk for violence.

11. Keep current on relevant legal and ethical mandates related to school violence.

12. Consult legal counsel, especially regarding state laws related to school violence.

13. Document actions taken to prevent school violence.

14. Maintain professional liability insurance.


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Mary A. Hermann, J.D., Ph.D., is an assistant professor, Counselor Education and Educational Psychology, Mississippi State University, Mississippi State, MS. E-mail:

Abbe Finn, Ph.D., is an assistant professor, Department of Leadership and Counselor Education, School of Education, University of Mississippi, University, MS. E-mail:
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Author:Finn, Abbe
Publication:Professional School Counseling
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2002
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