School Safety: Prevention

Benjamin Erwin 4/11/2019

Although prevention is often linked closely with security and infrastructure, states have taken steps to prevent school violence through the implementation of threat assessment models, the coordination of mental and behavioral health services, and efforts to improve school climate.


Threat Assessment

Threat assessments have been highlighted as a best practice by the U.S. Secret Service, the Federal Commission on School Safety and countless school safety experts and organizations.

The Secret Service released “Enhancing School Safety Using a Threat Assessment Model: An Operational Guide for Preventing Targeted School Violence” to assist schools, districts and policymakers in implementing threat assessment policies. The accompanying executive summary provides a brief overview of the threat assessment process.

The eight steps to an effective threat assessment are:

  • Step 1: Establish a multidisciplinary threat assessment team.
  • Step 2: Define behaviors.
  • Step 3: Establish and provide training on a central reporting system.
  • Step 4: Determine the threshold for law enforcement intervention.
  • Step 5: Establish threat assessment procedures.
  • Step 6: Develop risk management options.
  • Step 7: Create and promote a safe school climate.
  • Step 8: Provide training for all stakeholders.

Some states, including Florida, Maryland and Virginia, have implemented threat assessment requirements to ensure schools are prepared to address the warning signs of school violence and suicide. 

  • In the 2018 legislative session, the Florida Legislature enacted SB 7026, which requires the formation of school threat assessment teams headed up by the school’s school safety specialist. Threat assessment teams are tasked with the coordination of resources, as well as the assessment of and intervention with individuals whose behavior may pose a threat to the school. District policies must meet minimum requirements established by the Office for Safe Schools.
  • Similarly, Maryland enacted SB 1265. The legislation known as the “Safe to Learn Act” requires districts to form a threat assessment team and assign a school administrator the role of school safety coordinator and mental health coordinator, consistent with the model policy and guidance provided by the Maryland Center for School Safety.
  • Virginia 22.1-79.4. Virginia enacted threat assessment legislation in 2013, which requires each district to develop a threat assessment team, allows for the formation of a district oversight committee, and outlines protocols for confidentiality during the threat assessment process.

State Threat Assessment Resources

  • Although Colorado does not mandate the development of threat assessment teams, schools and districts are able to utilize funds from the school security disbursement program to receive training from the Colorado School Safety Resource Center.
  • The Colorado School Safety Resource Center maintains a wealth of resources on threat assessment teams and training for the development of school and district policies.
  • The Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, which houses the Center for School and Campus Safety, released this video on threat assessments for key school and community stakeholders.

Infrastructure and Technology

Ensuring that a school building is properly equipped to prevent school violence and limit access for bad actors is imperative for any approach to school safety. According to a study of school facilities, Education Week found that the average school building was constructed 44 years prior and that schools had gone an average of 12 years without a major renovation. Considering the state and age of America’s school buildings, legislatures are grappling with ways to retrofit schools with key security infrastructure.

School safety technology continues to grow as an industry as states and districts invest more into “hardening” schools. Despite the various technologies available, research indicates that not all infrastructural improvements have the intended impact.

In “The Role of Technology in Improving K–12 School Safety”, a 2016 report from the RAND Corporation, researchers identified 12 types of school safety technologies and evaluated available research on each, in order to identify best practice. The literature review highlights entry control equipment, communication and alert technology, and anonymous tip lines as potentially having a positive impact on school safety. On the other hand, Schwartz, et al. found video surveillance and the use of metal detectors and X-rays have no effect on school violence, while contributing negatively to school climate.

School safety tip lines have been embraced as a potentially lower cost option to help prevent school violence. Although the evidence is largely anecdotal, tip lines can serve as a valuable resource to anonymously alert school and law enforcement authorities of concerning behaviors. Safe2Tell (S2T) Colorado, considered a national model for reporting, has been successful in addressing threats to student and school safety by providing multiple mechanisms for reporting including a mobile app, tip line and website. In the 2017-18 school year alone, S2T received 16,000 tips on issues including suicide, bullying, mental health, threats of violence, and sexual assault and harassment, among others.

S2T was originally founded as a nonprofit organization in 2004, partnering with state and local government to provide an anonymous reporting outlet. In 2014, the Colorado Legislature enacted SB 2014-002, which incorporated S2T into the attorney general’s office. 

Other states, including MichiganNevadaOregonUtah and Wyoming, enacted legislation requiring the development of a tip line. Florida’s comprehensive school safety legislation requires the release of a mobile reporting application by January of 2019 and allocates $300,000 in nonrecurring funds, as well as an additional $100,000 in recurring funds to the Department of Law Enforcement to competitively procure proposals for the development or acquisition of the mobile suspicious activity reporting tool, training and advertising on the use of the tool, and the maintenance of the reporting system. Local and state education agencies have also spearheaded efforts to develop and implementing reporting tip lines and applications.

Additional Resources

Coordination of Mental and Behavioral Health Services

Although student mental health is not necessarily a school safety issue, state legislators have considered various approaches to ensure students are supported and have access to the mental and behavioral health resources they need in the context of a broader school safety discussion. States have taken innovative approaches to the coordination of mental and behavioral health services for students in the face of limited resources and logistical obstacles. Various policy options include training and professional development, instructional requirements, and increasing the accessibility of professionals through staffing requirements and partnerships with external providers.

Some states have pursued policies to require training or professional development in mental health first aid and evaluation for school personnel, as well as curriculum and course requirements for students to raise awareness.

Both Connecticut and Washington require mental health first aid training for school personnel, while at least eight states enacted legislation instituting similar requirements during the 2018 legislative session.

At least four states, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, and Virginia, currently address mental health instruction in schools. New York and Virginia enacted legislation in the 2018 session implementing a requirement. Minnesota (2013) and Massachusetts (2018), enacted similar legislation although the legislation encouraged, but did not require, mental health instruction.

Although measures to train students and staff are beneficial for raising awareness, reducing stigma and identifying warning signs, states have also implemented innovative programs to ensure students have access to mental health services and professionals. The following table outlines examples of state statutory requirements for the coordination of mental health services.


Effective Date



Connecticut Gen. Stat. § 19a-6p


July 1, 2013

Provides that a school-based health center may extend its hours of operation, provide services to students who do not reside in the school district that such school-based health center is located, provide behavioral health services, expand the health care services provided by such school-based health center, conduct community outreach relating to services provided by such school-based health center, and receive reimbursement for services from private insurance.


Iowa Code § 225C.54


July 1, 2015

Allows for state block grant allocation to develop a wide range of children, youth and family services through existing community mental health centers and other local service partners. Services include, but are not limited to, school-based mental health projects, mobile crisis intervention services, and mental health assessment capacity development based in public and nonpublic schools and clinical settings. States that to maximize federal financial participation, the Human Services Division will analyze the feasibility of leveraging Medicaid administrative funding and existing Medicaid options, such as expanding the home and community-based services waiver for children’s mental health services.


Maryland Education Code Ann. § 7-440


July 1, 2017

Requires the Department of Health with the Department of Education to recommend best practices for county boards of education to provide to students with behavioral needs assessments and individualized or group behavioral health counseling services with a health care provider through a school-based health center or through community-partnered school-based behavioral health services.


School-based mental health initiatives have also been pursued at the Local Education Agency (LEA) level. For example, the Boston Public Schools Comprehensive Behavior Health Model (CBHM) provides a model for leveraging resources and engaging stakeholders to ensure access to mental and behavioral health supports.

In addition to LEA efforts, nonprofit organizations, colleges and universities have pursued innovative approaches to offering students access to mental and behavioral health services. Texas Tech University’s Telemedicine Wellness, Intervention, Triage and Referral Project (TWITR) leverages telemedicine services to intervene with junior high through high school students who are at risk for injury or harm to others or themselves in school settings. The program includes school personnel training, risk-assessment procedures and access to telehealth sessions with a Texas Tech University Health Service Center psychiatrist. 

Finally, the National Association of School Psychologists released a "Framework for Safe Successful Schools", which outlines evidence-based practices to increase school safety and access to mental health services for students. 

For more information on student and children's mental health, contact the NCSL Health Program.

School Climate

School climate and school safety are interdependent and vital to student health and learning. Ensuring students feel safe, supported and connected to a positive school community not only improves academic performance, but also serves to prevent school violence. Cultivating a positive school climate is itself a multi-faceted issue, including student mental and behavioral health support, student social and emotional development and school discipline policies.

The U.S. Deparment of Education released, "A Parent and Educator Guide to School Climate Resources" in April of 2019.

Social and Emotional Learning

Social and emotional learning (SEL) fosters critical thinking, managing emotions, working through conflicts, decision making and teamwork, which impacts a student's academic success, employability, self-esteem and relationships, as well as civic and community engagement. Research indicates that this invaluable skill development has a positive effect on school climate and safety.

For more information on SEL, consult NCSL’s Social and Emotional Learning webpage.

School Discipline 

The intersection of school safety, discipline and climate presents a difficult balance to strike. School discipline policies can drastically affect the climate of the school both positively and negatively. Schools have largely shifted away from exclusionary measures in order to decrease school discipline disparities along the lines of race and foster a positive school environment.

For a detailed examination of state policy options, NCSL’s LegisBrief on state approaches to school discipline offers a broad overview of discipline policy, while the Center for Safe Supportive Learning maintains a comprehensive 50-state review of state school discipline policy. Of the promising non-exclusionary practices identified, Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and Restorative Justice have been highlighted as effective alternatives.

  • Restorative Justice (RJ)
    • According to Restorative Justice Colorado, “Restorative Practices in Schools is philosophically based in fostering relationships, strengthening understanding, repairing harm, and building strong communities. Identifying and addressing the needs and harms that occur when there is conflict in the school community by cultivating empathy and modeling conflict resolution skills serves students and adults alike."
    • Restorative Justice has taken root in Colorado and been embraced by the Colorado Legislature. For more information on policy and program details, consult Restorative Justice Colorado’s guide to RJ implementation in schools.
  • Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS)
    • Similarly, PBIS is a “schoolwide system of support that include[s] proactive strategies for defining, teaching, and supporting appropriate student behaviors to create positive school environments,” according to the OSEP Technical Assistance Center.
    • In 2013, the Ohio State Board of Education adopted a policy requiring all school districts statewide to implement PBIS systemwide.

Measuring School Climate

The importance of school climate is undeniable, but states are still figuring out how exactly to measure school climate for school and program evaluation. Eight states have committed to a measure of school climate as a School Quality and Student Success Indicator in their accountability system under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The Center for Safe Supportive Learning offers a wealth of resources on survey development, including a compendium of school climate surveys.

Wholistic Approach to Prevention

Virginia has taken a particularly interesting approach to ensure schools and districts have taken the proper steps to prevent school violence. In addition to requiring the development of emergency and crisis response plans, each school is required to conduct a school safety audit, as developed by the Virginia Center for School and Campus Safety, to identify infrastructural and policy changes necessary to address building security and student conduct.

The Virginia Center for School and Campus Safety developed five key components of the school safety audit, including:

  • Virginia School Safety Survey (annually)
  • Division Level Survey (annually or as determined by the VCSCS)
  • Virginia School Crisis Management Plan Review and Certification (annually)
  • Virginia Secondary School Climate Survey (administered in the Spring)
  • The School Safety Inspection Checklist (due every three years; next due date: August 2020)

The inclusion of survey data, school climate, emergency management and response plans, in addition to building infrastructure, ensures that schools are meeting school safety needs by taking into account the many aspects of effective prevention.