Violence in Schools: A Dialogue with Derek Allen

As a supplement to Starr Commonwealth’s Violence in Schools resource, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Derek Allen shared this perspective on what schools can do to proactively curb school violence.

Click here for our free Violence in Schools resource

Starr Commonwealth is Driven to Heal. What does that mean when it comes to responding to school violence?

In the past, Starr and its staff has responded with direct intervention in times of tragedy. This essentially includes debriefing with friends and family members of victims, perpetrators, and witnesses, with the ultimate goal of referrals for more long-term mental health support. These types of services are offered by a variety of organizations in any community.

Where I feel Starr Commonwealth excels is in the proactive approach to preventing school violence. Considering our Circle of Courage model, how do we shift school culture in a way that professionals are trained to instill the universal need of belonging? We must make schools a place where literally every child feels connected, cared about, and has an adult that they can go to if there’s a problem. In addition, we need to train staff to identify signs of when a student may begin to feel like they’re being pushed away or rejected, as well as how to best respond. The overwhelming similarity of perpetrators of school violence is that lack of belonging. It only takes one adult showing a child they care to change that student’s world and fill that void.

How might teachers and staff members begin to take the proactive approach and ensure student’s universal needs are being met?

This is a difficult question, as three different students who show the same behavior may do so for very different reasons. It always boils down to the constant curiosity of the teacher:

What has happened, or is happening, in this child’s life that cause this misdirected energy? What about this setting, from the actions of the child or their friends and teacher, to the variation in routine for the day, may have affected them? What were you doing before the behavior, and how did you react to it?

Of course this type of curiosity is only skin-deep. We must also consider each student’s private logic:

How do they view themselves? How do they view others and the world around them? Is that a scary place, or is that a hopeful place? Are people generally helpful and nice, or mean and not to be trusted? Do they see themselves as someone who is important and worthy, or as somebody who’s not good?

We also must go back to the Circle of Courage, and consider their sense of belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity. When and where are those needs not met, and why? Because Starr believes that problematic behavior is symptomatic of unmet needs, we must always consider these factors when presented with these situations. When you put those pieces together, you get a much more holistic view of the child and you may find a potential landmine that’s been buried long ago by some pattern of abuse or rejection that is just waiting to be triggered.

When a student’s universal needs aren’t being met, what signs can we look for?

Again, this is one of those difficult questions, as so many “signs” look so similar to your typical kid. There are essentially two broad categories of reaction to unmet needs: inward and outward.

A student showing inward reactions may isolate themselves and no longer play or talk to other students. Sometimes they don’t even respond when spoken to. These students are likely not to engage in extra-curricular activities. Rather, they spend a lot of time expressing themselves through journaling, blogging, or social media. Artwork can often become scary or disturbing. Self-destructive behavior often worsens to self-harm or substance abuse.

The outward reactions tend to be hostility towards siblings or pets, or simply just belligerent and inappropriate outburst for attention at the wrong times. They may begin to present themselves in outlandish ways or dress very peculiarly. This is one of those tricky examples to assess effectively, because millions of kids enjoy expressing themselves through unique fashion. But that, again, is why it is crucial to engage with these kids in constructive ways when you see that type of behavior.

We can never ignore any signs, with the hopes that the lack of attention will curb their misdirected energy. Often times, the lack of attention (and thus missing the sense of belonging that every human needs) is the reason why the behavior started in the first place. Maybe dad isn’t in the picture, or there’s no food at home. Withholding attention does nothing but reinforce, in that child’s mind, that they are not wanted. In addition, you’re also placing undue stress on yourself that maybe can’t be contained forever. When you reach your breaking point, now your reaction to their behavior is elevated and you lash out more than you may have anticipated.  Now, you’re one more adult this student is afraid of.

I’ll return to the simple idea of remaining curious. Engage with these kids! It only takes one adult in a child’s life to show that they’re here for them to change their whole world, and their reaction to that world. If you don’t know where to start, simply let them know that you care about them, and that you can help if they need anything. Then, back it up with intentional interaction each day moving forward.

Starr Commonwealth is driven to heal the pain of violence in schools. While there are many simple steps each educator can take to make an impact in each student’s life, the need for systemic change exists. Download our whitepaper to learn more about our proactive approach to safety in schools, including the 5 shifts each classroom must make for our children.

By Matt Ray

About Starr Commonwealth

Starr Commonwealth is dedicated to the mission to lead with courage to create positive experiences so that all children, families, and communities flourish. We specialize in residential, community-based, educational, and professional training programs that build on the strengths of children, adults, and families in communities around the world. To schedule a training or consultation, please contact or call 800-837-5591.