Violence Prevention

In this module, you will be introduced to the topic of violence prevention. Adolescents and young adults have exhibited higher rates than young children or adults for both minor and serious forms of violence. For this reason, the information provided in this module focuses on youth violence, with specific attention given to violence prevention in schools and communities. You will find statistics on youth violence, definitions describing what behaviors constitute youth violence, risk factors to be aware of, warning signs, violence management and prevention strategies, and a plentitude of information about community, state and national resources aimed at reducing the rates of youth violence.

As a Masters student in Counseling, it is very important for you to have an appreciation for and an understanding of the types of violence that your clients are likely to present to you in your professional setting. Learning about types of violence, rates of occurrence and what you can do to prevent violence as a counselor will help you get more comfortable with the topic and your ability to handle the situations you will be confronted with.

In this Module


Why is violence an issue that counselors need to be concerned with? Do you know how frequently violence occurs in our country? Are you aware of frequently violence occurs in schools? Do you know what constitutes violent behavior? Do you know how students feel about their personal safety? This kind of information will affect the content of the developmental curricula you develop and institute in your career as a counselor.

  • On a typical day in the United States, 6-7 children are killed. Most are inner city, minority youth.
  • Adolescents and young adults experience significantly higher rates of perpetration and victimization of violence than people in any other age bracket.
  • Handgun homicides committed by young males, ages 15-18, increased by more than 150% between 1980 and 1995.
  • Of those violent incidents occurring involving youth ages 10-17, 90% of those incidents are perpetrated by young males.
  • Since 1992, approximately 190 shooting deaths have occurred in American schools.
  • Though this represents only a small fraction of all youth killed with guns, it is evidence that youth violence in schools is a topic of concern.
  • The National Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that, of those students surveyed, 5% reported feeling too unsafe to attend school on at least one of the thirty days preceding the administration of the survey. In the state of Colorado, 4% of students reported feeing too unsafe to go to school.
  • Available evidence on juvenile sex offenders (JSOs) suggests that the majority of JSOs offend solely against other children, that the first offense typically occurs at age 13 or 14, and that most offenses by a JSO involve intense coercion manipulation rather than overt violent aggression.
  • Between 1992 and 1996, the number of female juveniles arrested for violent crimes such as murder robbery and aggravated assault increased by 25%. There were no increases in the arrest of males for the same offenses. Female juvenile arrests for property crimes such as burglary, auto theft and arson have increased 21%, while males arrests have declined by 4%.
  • Nearly three million index crimes occur on or around American school campuses each year. This breaks down to 16,000 crimes per school day, or 1 crime every 6 seconds when schools are in session.
  • Fear of violence in schools has been shown to negatively affect attendance rates of students and attrition rates of teachers and staff.
  • Every day, approximately 100,000 children are assaulted at school. Additionally, 5,000 teachers are threatened with physical assault and 200 are actually attacked.
  • Approximately one of every eight students has reported carrying some form of weapon to school.
  • Twenty percent of students have reported that threats involving a weapon and/or threats of assault in schools present a major problem for them. The most frequently reported forms of violence in schools involve pushing, shoving, and bullying.
  • More statistics:

Categories of Violence

Since the 1980s, The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has focused on violence prevention. The CDC views violence as a threat to the health and well-being of children and has given an increasing amount of attention to the topic. When their efforts first started, they focused on the prevention of youth violence and suicide attempts. More recently, the Division of Violence Prevention, which is part of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, designated the following areas as priorities in preventing violence. Follow the links below to learn about the four categories of violence as defined by the CDC. Youth violence is the focus of this module, but the information available in links to the three other violence categories is also of great value and worth exploring.

  • child maltreatment
  • intimate partner and sexual violence
  • suicide
  • youth violence

Defining Youth Violence Behavior

As new counselors, it is often difficult to discern truly violent behaviors in youth, unless these behaviors are extreme, overtly dangerous and unmistakable. You may encounter children who are aggressive in their play, belligerent or passive-aggressive in their interactions with teachers or peers, but you may not feel convinced that their behavior constitutes violent behavior. The following list of behaviors gives you an idea of what kinds of violent behavior you will likely see in working with youth, and the different levels of severity.

  • Horseplay
  • Rules violation
  • Disruptiveness
  • Refusal or Defiance
  • Cursing
  • Bullying
  • Sexual Harassment
  • Physical Threats
  • Vandalism
  • Student-Student Fights
  • Attacks on Teachers
  • Collective Violence
  • Use of Weapons

Harassment and Bullying are two problems that schools and community youth agencies are making concerted efforts to curb through preventative, developmental programs.

Understanding the Causes of Youth Violence

Children learn early on in their development that there are values to being perceived as aggressive. When they are young, the “roughhousing” one might see on a playground or in a backyard allows children to develop affiliations with others, helps them select their friends, establishes their place in the natural dominance hierarchy and helps them develop what are often very useful fighting skills. This does not mean that children who engage in this behavior, whether it is physically or verbally aggressive, intend to carry out any “threats” they may make in this process of identity development. It is only when this “rough and tumble” behavior persists in pursuit of outright domination that it becomes a problem.

As children mature, their behavior becomes more intentional. Exposure to social diversity, coupled with the overwhelming need to be respected and to feel a sense of belonging in a peer group increases the intensity of rough or aggressive interaction. The competition for status that young people engage in can become increasingly vicious. The insistence on being dominant turns into bullying, which can, in turn, develop into antisocial and/or aggressive behavior. If a youth does not find an alternative means of establishing his or her social position (such as success in school, music, sports, etc.), it is more likely that he or she will continue to use the means that have worked up to this point–aggressive behavior.

Dr. Arnold Goldstein, a leading practitioner, educator and researcher in the field of aggression management/replacement training and pro-social skills development, published some excellent books that explore the development of aggression in young people and ways in which aggressive behaviors can be managed and replaced with more functional behaviors. When looking at where aggressive behaviors stem from, Dr. Goldstein and his coauthors posit that aggression is primarily learned behavior; learned by observation, imitation, direct experience and rehearsal. Coercive parenting characterized by irritability and inconsistency is blamed for producing “temperamental” children who throw tantrums to get what they want. You’ll usually see this at ages 2-3, also known as the “terrible twos”. Children learn to be aggressive by watching what happens in the home and discovering that aggressive behavior can get them what they want. Once they get a couple of years older and are on the playground with their friends, they revert to what they know and use aggressive behaviors to get the toys they want and dominate their peers. Now these children begin to be labeled as “oppositional” or “problem children”. Other kids who have not learned these aggressive behaviors shy away from befriending those who are bullying them, and the aggressive children find one another. They form a peer group that encourages this behavior and normalizes aggressive behavior as an acceptable way to gain attention. As the years go by, these aggressive behaviors become more intense, more frequent, and lead to children having “conduct disorders” and becoming “juvenile delinquents”. (This is just a thumbnail sketch of the process that Dr. Goldstein describes in his book, Aggression Replacement Training.)

In addition to the home, schools and the media also have significant effects on aggressive behavior. Children may have direct learning experiences, during which they themselves are involved in aggressive behavior (as a victim or perpetrator), or vicarious learning experiences, where they watch aggressive interactions of others. The mass media has had a truly profound effect on children. Dr. Goldstein highlights three different consequences that children face after significant exposure to violent media such as television, movies, magazines, comic books and video games:

  • aggression effect: when kids copycat what they see in the media and carry out self-directed violence
  • victim effect: a sense of mistrust and anxiety about ones own safety and security
  • bystander effect: a callousness and loss of sensitivity toward violence

To learn more about the effects that the media has had on aggressive behavior in children, check out:

  • Skillstreaming the Elementary School Child: New Strategies and Perspectives for Teaching Prosocial Skills by Ellen McGinnis, Arnold P. Goldstein. December 2000.
  • Skillstreaming the Adolescent: New Strategies and Perspectives for Teaching Prosocial Skills by Arnold P. Goldstein, Ellen McGinnis. August 1997.
  • Aggression Replacement Training: A Comprehensive Intervention for Aggressive Youth by Arnold P. Goldstein, et al. August 1998.
  • The Prosocial Gang: Implementing Aggression Replacement Training by Arnold P. Goldstein, et al. August 1994.

Legislative Action: Project SAVE

The most recent and comprehensive legislation regarding youth violence is the Safe Schools Against Violence in Education Act, which went into effect on November 1, 2000. Commonly referred to as Project SAVE, this act aims to protect students and staff and ensure a safe climate for learning. It includes new initiatives with regard to student codes of conduct, student suspensions and school safety plans.

Here are some of the main points from the Project SAVE legislation that you, as counselors, need to be aware of:

  • Penalties for assaults by any individual upon a teacher or school employee, or by any non-student upon a student are raised from a misdemeanor to a Class D felony.
  • Teachers have the authority to remove disruptive students from the classroom pursuant to provisions of a locally adopted code of conduct. Students will not be able to return to the classroom until the principal makes a final determination about the case.
  • Boards of education are required to adopt a detailed code of conduct to provide for the maintenance of order on school grounds. This code must be developed in collaboration with student, teacher, administrator and parent organizations.
  • Boards of education are required to develop district-wide and building-level school safety plans that provide for crisis response and management.
  • School district employees are given “whistleblower” protection (i.e., immunity from civil liability and protection against retaliatory actions by their employers), if they make a report about a suspected act of violence.
  • Certified or licensed school personnel must report allegations of child abuse committed in an educational setting by school employees or volunteers.
  • The State Education Department must develop interpersonal violence prevention education and training packages for grades K – 12.
  • The Commissioner of Education is required to ensure that school conference days include school violence prevention and training. Teacher certification candidates will be required to complete two hours course work or training in school violence and prevention.
  • The Board of Regents is directed to include a civility, citizenship and character education component in the course of instruction in grades K – 12.
  • All prospective school district employees and all individuals who apply for certification will be fingerprinted for a criminal history background check.
  • The State Education Department and the Department of Criminal Justice Services must develop a uniform violent incident reporting system. School districts will be required to furnish information on violent and disruptive incidents at schools and to report such incidents to local enforcement authorities.

Counseling Training in Violence Prevention

As new counselors, you will be required to complete a two-hour training workshop in the identification, reporting and prevention of school violence in order to receive your School Counselor Certification. These workshops are offered through state approved teacher and counselor preparation programs and are also available through regional certification organizations such as BOCES, Boards of Cooperative Educational Services.

It is very important for you as a counseling professional to be familiar with your school’s “plan”, and with your role in that plan. Project Save has outlined a number of criteria that school districts must meet in order to effectively provide safe school environments and adequate emergency responses. Each school has it’s own variation on Project SAVE’s mandates. It is critical that you are aware of these plans and policies.

When you are completing your practicum and/or internship, you host school or agency may offer you the opportunity to participate in violence prevention workshops offered through their organization. Make every effort to attend and collect information on the topic. The same holds true for you when you are employed full-time as a counselor. It is critical that you educate yourself on the topic continuously so that your understanding of the problem and related legislation remains current and applicable!

Know When a Threat is Serious

Let it first be said that most threats by youths are never actually carried out. But in this day and age of rising youth violence rates, it is imperative that counselors in all areas of the profession be aware of the warning signs that can help you distinguish between a true threat and an empty one. In determining the legitimacy of a threat, as with anything else, you must consider the threat in the context of the person’s past behavior, personality, and the current stressors leading to the threat. There are three main threats that should cause you to worry:

  1. A person is threatening to or warning that he will kill or hurt someone.
  2. A person is threatening to do something dangerous or potentially harmful to him or herself or to others.
  3. A person has possession of or access to a weapon.

If a person falls under any of the above, you need to assess your next move by considering how serious the person appears to be, along with everything you know about the person who made the threat. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help you assess how seriously you should take the threat of violence:

  • Does he or she have a specific plan to carry out the threat?
  • Does he or she have the means to carry out the threat?
  • Does he or she have a past history of violent or aggressive behavior?
  • Has he or she ever brought a weapon to school?
  • Does he or she exhibit a pattern of making threats when angry or aggravated?
  • Is substance abuse or alcohol an issue for this student?
  • Is there a history of criminal behavior or destruction of property?
  • Has he or she ever been cruel to animals or set fires to things?
  • Is there a history of family conflict or volatility?
  • Is he or she involved in a gang?

Risk Factors and Warning Signs

You do not have to be blind sided by a violent incident in your school. There are risk factors that you can be aware of and be on the lookout for so that you are better able to recognize potentially violent situations and clients.

School Risk Factors

  • Previous possession of a weapon
  • Aggressiveness in primary grades, social isolation or hyperactivity
  • Truancy
  • Fights or consistent misbehavior in class
  • Serious disciplinary problems
  • Past suspension or expulsion for aggressive behaviors
  • Anger, frustration, or violent expression in written work or art pieces
  • Consistent academic failure

Personal Risk Factors

  • History or tantrums
  • Past violent behavior
  • Consistent name-calling or cursing
  • Bullying or history of being bullied
  • History of violent threats
  • Cruelty to animals
  • Fire-setting
  • Drub abuse
  • Past suicide attempts
  • Depressed and/or moody
  • Blames others for personal problems
  • Recent experiences of humiliation or rejection
  • Lack of peer group support
  • Involvement with cults or gangs
  • Too much free, unstructured time

Community Risk Factors

  • Extreme economic deprivation
  • Lack of community organization or involvement
  • Access to weapons

Family Risk Factors

  • History of family violence
  • Weapons possession or use by family
  • Drug or alcohol abuse in the family
  • Family conflict
  • History of child abuse
  • Severe or inconsistent punishment by parents or guardians
  • Lack of supervision and/or support

Early Warning Signs

To stop violence before it occurs, it is critical that you know what the early warning signs of violent behavior are. Read on to learn about behaviors that can signal potentially violent behaviors:

  • Social withdrawal
  • Excessive feelings of isolation and being alone
  • Being a victim of violence
  • Feelings of being persecuted
  • Low school interest and poor academic performance
  • Expression of violence in writings and drawings
  • Uncontrolled anger
  • Patterns of impulsive and chronic hitting, intimidating and bullying behaviors
  • History of discipline problems
  • History of violent and aggressive behavior
  • Intolerance for others and prejudicial attitudes
  • Use of drugs and alcohol
  • Affiliation with gangs
  • Inappropriate access to firearms
  • Serious threats of violence

Warning Signs of Imminent Danger

If you are seeing the following behaviors in your students or clients, it is very likely that a violent incident occurring is only a matter of time.

  • Serious physical fighting with peers or family members
  • Severe destruction of property
  • Severe rage for minor reasons
  • Self-injurious behaviors or threats of suicide
  • Threats of lethal violence
  • A detailed plan to harm or kill others.
  • Possession and/or use of firearms and other weapons

What to Do When You Are Aware of a Threat of Violence

If you are convinced that violent behavior is about to occur, there are a number of things that you can do as a counselor. Before all else, remain as calm as possible. You will be looked to for information and instruction by administrators, parents, the community and other youth in the event that a potentially violent act is initiated. By preparing yourself now for this kind of event, you are taking steps toward being calm in what can be an extremely stressful situation. Remember to do the following things:

  • Immediately tell someone and alert your administration to activate your school’s Emergency Management Plan. This may involve contacting the police, the school psychologist, local mental health agencies and the parents/guardian of the youth. If the threat is physical and appears imminent, keep your distance and try to create barriers between the person making the threat and others. Avoid aggressive language or body movements.
  • Ask open-ended questions to keep the youth talking. Distraction will buy you time in a threatening situation.
  • Accept that you are not in control of the situation and do not try to assert your nonexistent authority.
  • Do not dismiss the threat.
  • Immediately talk with the youth making the threat or being threatened, is at all possible.
  • Arrange for an immediate evaluation by a qualified mental health professional.
  • Do not leave the youth alone.
  • Contact the school administration, the school psychologist or another counselor, parents or guardians, local mental health agency, and, if warrented, the police.

Violence Prevention

Now that we know that youth violence is a significant social problem, we know some of the root causes of aggressive and violent behaviors, and we have a clear picture of what to do when confronted with threats of violence, it is time to focus on what we as counselors can and should be doing to prevent violence in the first place. There are a number of elements that are key to effective violence prevention. Children MUST have competent skill bases in the following areas:

  • Anger Management
  • Empathy for Others
  • Perspective Taking
  • Social Problem Solving
  • Media Resistance
  • Communication
  • Social Skills and Peace-Building

Effective Strategies

  • Provide information to teachers, students, parents and the community about violence prevention. This is essential if you want to begin to effect change. Your Violence Prevention Program must include information and activities that promote the following skills: Communication, Assertiveness, Decision-Making, Refusal/Resistance, Coping Skills, Goal-Setting
  • Enlist the help of your students to act as peer helpers/peer educators. Often times, the same message coming from a peer can have a greater impact.
  • Involve parents. Schools alone can only do so much good in preventing violence if parents and guardians are not reinforcing non-violent messages at home. Let parents in your district know what you are trying to do in your school and make sure they know how important it is that they support and join you in your efforts.
  • Launch public information and educational campaigns. This might include publishing informational articles in your local paper or school bulletin, hosting educational seminars on the topic. You can get very creative with this part of your violence prevention plan.
  • Provide alternatives to violence for students! Research has shown that too much free time can be very dangerous for children. The hours between 3-7pm are when kids get into the most trouble. Giving them other things to do and activities in which to participate can keep them from turning idle time into violent time. Recreation programs, after school clubs, service learning, etc., are good alternatives to “hanging out” and being bored.
  • Your program should have a well-organized curriculum that touches on topics related to violence and is culturally sensitive. It must also include developmentally appropriate activities. This can be tailored to your particular district once you’ve conducted a needs assessment or a violence survey at your school to gauge the severity and gather details of the concerns you need to address. There should be anywhere from 10-20 sessions during the school year devoted to violence prevention, with 5 or so additional follow-up sessions over the course of the next year. You should design your program with the help of other school personnel so that you include the perspectives of others and make sure that you have everyone’s “buy-in” as you move forward. Incorporate group work, cooperative learning, discussions and role-play in order to engage children in the process. Lecturing will do very little. Children need to express their own perceptions and experiences relating to violence and be involved in the change process for it to have any lasting effects.
  • Provide teacher training on the topic of violence prevention, above and beyond that which is now required by Project SAVE. Let teachers know what factors underlie violent or aggressive behavior in children and give them the opportunity to assist you in detecting, correcting and preventing violence in the school. You share the school; you need to share the knowledge.
    Evaluate the effectiveness of what you are doing on a regular basis. If you do not assess the effectiveness of your program, you may be wasting your time doing things that are having no effect of the prevention of violence in your school or community. The following article has some interesting information on what effective violence prevention programs must include, and suggestions for how programs should be evaluated.

An effective program will prevent or reduce substance abuse or violent and disruptive behavior, will begin to change the knowledge, attitudes and beliefs that lead to substance abuse and violent behavior, and promote and strengthen positive behaviors and skills. As a counselor seeking to reduce the likelihood of violence, you want to create motivation for learning pro-social skills, demonstrate those skills, have students practice those skills and then implement them into real life situations.

Intervention Strategies

Individual Interventions

  • Reach out to students to help them form positive, healthy relationships. Let them know that you take a positive interest in them.
  • Provide tutors or mentors from within the school, community, service organizations, colleges or churches.
  • Encourage and facilitate part-time employment or volunteer opportunities.

School-wide Strategies

  • Anger Management and Counseling programs
  • Offer Mediation and Conflict Resolution programs
  • Establish a confidential reporting system for youth to let you or other administrators know about perceived threats of violence
  • Offer drug and alcohol interventions for youths and families
  • Provide extended school hours to allow for involvement in supervised recreational activities.
  • Classes for parenting skills
  • Establish crisis centers that are staffed with professionals equipped to work with violent youth
  • Offer violence prevention training for all teachers and staff in the school.
  • Enforce discipline and dress codes consistently.
  • Author and enforce a Post Incident Response Plan as part of the Incident Management Plan (as mandated under Project SAVE legislation).

District-Wide Strategies

  • Determine specific discipline codes and review them periodically to make sure they are in keeping with local, state and federal education laws.
  • Distribute and implement a district-wide Incident Management Plan and Emergency Response Plan.


Mentoring can be a very powerful tool to help children who may feel otherwise disconnected from school and society to gain a sense of belonging. The sites listed below provide a lot of information about setting up your own mentoring program and utilizing the mentoring resources that are currently available.

Conflict Resolution/Peer Mediation

Conflict resolution and peer mediation have gained widespread popularity as methods of deterring violence. When children (and adults) learn the skills to handle disagreements respectfully and calmly, it is less likely that violence will occur.

Parent Involvement

As was mentioned previously, if you are giving children one message at school and they are receiving a different message at home, you will have a very difficult time preventing violent behavior. It is extremely important to let parents know what you are trying to do, and to encourage them to support your violence prevention curriculum at home. You can do this by including them in activities you plan as part of your program, and educating them about what your goals are. There are many sites devoted to helping parents deal with aggressive children, as well as helping them play a part in the prevention of violence among children.

Social Skills/Life Skills Training

Helping children develop social skills and life skills enables them to interact in healthy, productive ways with those around them. This training pays attention to the development of health and assertiveness skills, promotes responsibility for self, and respect for self and others. It also gives children the tools they need to develop positive relationships with others, thereby diminishing the likelihood of drug use or violence. Children gain personal, social, cognitive and environmental skills necessary for peaceful interactions.

Model Programs

As the rate of youth violence has climbed in the past decades, so has the number of programs developed to combat this problem. Many schools will design their own violence prevention program by taking bits and pieces of the “characteristics of effective prevention programs” and incorporating them into the existing school/counseling curriculum. There are formally designed, comprehensive violence prevention programs that have been implemented and evaluated at schools around the world, and more and more research is surfacing that can point professionals in the direction of those programs that are truly successful in reducing the incidents of youth violence in educational settings. To find information on the content and implementation of some violence prevention programs that have been shown, thus far, to be effective, explore the following sites: