How to Identify When a Student Will Act Out

Stephen C. Satterly, Jr., presented tips to help campus officials look out for behavioral warning signs in students and how to address the signs during the 2014 Campus Safety Conference.

LOS ANGELES – A recent report released by the Associated Press revealed Arapahoe High School officials labeled a student who fatally shot one of his classmates before killing himself on campus as “not a high-level of threat” just days before the incident.

That news has shocked many, considering the report also revealed that the shooter, Karl Pierson, had displayed warning signs of impending violence, such as shouting death threats to his debate teacher, just three months before the event.

What type of warning signs should campus officials look out for and how should they address such behavior before it escalates into emergencies? That topic was covered during “The Warning Signs of Violence” breakout session at the 2014 Campus Safety Conference.

Presented by Stephen C. Satterly, Jr., director of transportation and school safety, CSC Southern Hancock County, the 45-minute interactive session provided attendees with tips on what the behavioral warning signs are in adults and juveniles, the research behind them, and ideas on what to do when these signs manifest.

“How many times have you heard someone describe a person saying, ‘He’s such a quiet man, and he just snapped?’ Satterly asked the crowd. “Ninety-nine percent of the time that is not true. People who engage in violent acts do not just snap.”

Children and teens do give concrete, identifiable signs that they are in distress. However, because their minds are not fully developed, their signs will differ from those displayed by adults, Satterly explained.

RELATED: Spotting Warning Signs of Violence in Adults

For example, if a student strikes another child, an administrator might ask why the student did it. In return, the student might reply that he doesn’t know why because he lacks the thinking skills necessary to correctly use introspection. Thus, it is important for campus administrators to identify certain signs, such as:

  • Social withdrawal
  • Feeling isolated, rejected, humiliated
  • Written or non-verbal cues of distress
  • Uncontrolled anger
  • Intolerance/prejudice
  • Impulsive chronic hitting
  • Intimidation/bullying
  • Joined gang or hate group
  • Victim of violence
  • Low interest in school
  • Poor academics
  • Chronic discipline problems
  • Drugs/alcohol abuse
  • Obsession with guns
  • Engage in violence threats and aggressive behaviors

It’s important for school officials to know the natural inclinations of children to discern whether anyone displaying these signs has suddenly had a change in behavior. Thus, it is important for school leaders to develop trusting relationships with students, Satterly said.

“Through those relationships, adults can discern the verbal and nonverbal cues of distress,” he explained. “Once these signs are seen, then help is needed to identify the nature of the problem and develop solutions to help the child.”

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