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Training for School Personnel to Prevent, Prepare, and Respond to School Safety Incidents

An overview of four common training topics and what the evidence says about their efficacy.
Date Published
September 22, 2022

School personnel, including school-based law enforcement, receive training on a variety of issues to help them prevent, prepare for, and respond to violence and student behavioral issues that can compromise both actual and perceived levels of safety among students and staff. Such training may also help provide support to students on these issues. Though the trainings vary, they may be focused on preventing an issue before it becomes an imminent threat or responding to a threat or crisis when it arises.

Research suggests that training school personnel to prevent and respond to a variety of situations impacting school safety can be effective. However, the degree of evidence varies by training topic and program type. The following are brief descriptions of a few of the most common training topics followed by the evidence for each.

Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS)

MTSS is a framework to guide school personnel in employing academic and behavioral strategies for students with various levels and types of needs. The support type is selected based on the type and seriousness of student need. MTSS strategies may range from classroom management strategies for all students to behavioral interventions for selected students. Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) is a common type of MTSS.

Strong evidence exists that Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) can reduce school suspensions and improve perceptions of school safety.[1] However, implementation of PBIS may require additional training to ensure that it will support students with the most complex needs. For example, trauma training may help school personnel identify and address students’ emotional needs and aid in implementation of PBIS.[2]

Student Mental Health Issues and Exposure to Trauma

Students with mental health issues or who have experienced trauma may act out inappropriately at school, particularly when those needs go untreated. This category of training includes measures to aid school personnel in identifying when students have a mental health or trauma issue, determining how to respond to students with such issues in a manner to prevent escalation, and deciding when personnel should seek outside supports, such as when to make a referral for mental health screening and services. Behavioral threat assessment is a systematic approach intended to help school personnel determine when and how to respond to a student who has threatened harm to themselves or others, including when to alert law enforcement.

There is limited evidence on the effectiveness of strategies for training non-clinical school personnel, including teachers and school-based law enforcement, in identifying and responding to students who have experienced trauma[3] or who present with mental health concerns. Two programs show promise: 1) Youth Mental Health Aid and 2) Crisis Intervention Training for Youth,[4] both of which have some evidence that they help improve knowledge on mental health and change attitudes toward youth-related mental health issues. Increased school personnel awareness and understanding of student trauma may help staff avoid escalating a situation (e.g., a trauma trigger that results in aggressive behavior or self-harm). Research suggests that using a systematic approach to assessing a student’s threat, such as through behavioral threat assessment, can help determine its seriousness and inform an appropriate response.[5] But there are a number of concerns about using threat assessment. It likely requires a robust training approach to ensure it is carried out as designed and is successful as a prevention strategy.[6]

Student Bullying and Harassment

Bullying is one of the most common forms of victimization a student may experience at school. In 2019, about 22% of students ages 12-18 reported being bullied at school.[7] School personnel training on bullying includes improving understanding of what bullying is, identifying when bullying occurs, and appropriately responding to bullying in a manner that holds students who bully accountable and reduces its occurrence.

There is strong evidence that a variety of bullying prevention and intervention efforts can reduce bullying at school.[8] But, it can be difficult for school personnel to recognize and respond to bullying. For example, teachers have expressed concern about having limited classroom time to address bullying in the classroom, which may cause bullying to persist. While there is some limited evidence that an approach called Bullying Classroom Check-Up (BCCU) may improve teacher responses to bullying, further research is needed.[9] BCCU involves in-person training and coaching of teachers accompanied by a mixed-reality training simulator. Stopbullying.gov, a multi-federal agency website, offers advice for what schools and school personnel should consider in order to address bullying and to create an environment that supports students. Trainings to improve the school climate and classroom management techniques can also help reduce bullying.[10]

Emergency Operations Planning.

Emergency operations planning (e.g., active shooter drills, crisis response) and the training that accompanies it helps school personnel prevent, prepare for, and respond to a range of safety threats, from mental health crises experienced by students to active shooter events. Notably, while the guidance provided by emergency operations training programs is tailored to specific types of scenarios, different trainings for the same scenario may prescribe different responses. For example, some active shooter trainings may call for the trainee to shelter-in-place while others may recommend options such as run, hide, or fight. This variation in guidance may create confusion during times of crisis.

Training of school personnel varies by state and often by school district. A survey of school districts conducted in 2018[11] found that:

  • Nearly 90% of districts encourage schools to train school staff on what to expect during an active-shooter incident. At least two-thirds of districts expect that schools train staff on how to react to active shooters, communicate dangers to the school, and use communication systems, but one in three districts do not expect schools to train staff on how to cooperate with first responders or how to recognize signs of danger.
  • 85% provide training on emergency safety procedures to teachers.
  • About 73% of districts offer training on violent-emergency preparedness to school staff.
  • Nearly two-thirds train teachers on crisis prevention and intervention.
  • About half the school districts train teachers on how to recognize early warning signs of students likely to exhibit violent behavior.

Multiple federal agencies have issued guidance to help schools develop high-quality emergency operations plans,[12] including how to develop plans tailored to specific scenarios. Some research affirms that state school safety centers may be effective in conveying useful information on how to develop and assess the quality and comprehensiveness of school emergency operations plans.[13] However, preliminary results from a study of school staff comprehension of their emergency operations plan indicates that staff are often confused about the plans and how to respond in various situations.[14]

In terms of emergency planning specific to active shooter scenarios, some evidence suggests that participating in active shooter drills may increase feelings of school staff preparedness and help in implementing procedures (e.g., locking doors), but they may not be helpful in increasing perceptions of safety.[15] Further, these results may be limited to certain drill programs (e.g., the Standard Response Protocol-X).

Concerns about Training in Crisis Situations

It may be challenging for trainees to apply what they learned in training to real-world scenarios, and it is also possible that unintended, undesirable consequences may result from these trainings. For example, active shooter drills may increase fear and anxiety among students and teachers, increase students’ perceived risk of victimization, and decrease students’ perceptions of school safety.[16] There is some concern that schools are empowering staff to make their own decisions in crisis situations rather than following a training protocol, which could create confusion and unintended consequences, although it is unclear what the impact of this may be.[17] Another example pertains to threat assessment. Implementing threat assessment is particularly challenging when resources are strained and information is dynamic, limited, and/or shared across a variety of individuals or systems.[18]

It is important to improve knowledge and understanding about how to best train school staff and students to prevent and respond to a variety of situations. Further research should explore how training should vary depending on staff role and student characteristics, among other factors.

More Research Is Needed on the Efficacy of these Trainings

More research is needed on the efficacy of trainings for school personnel. Research is particularly weak when it comes to emergency operations planning, training on how to respond to crisis situations like active shooters, and how to train non-clinical personnel on issues such as student trauma. We know little about how helpful and applicable these trainings are in real crisis situations or which training programs are most effective. But it is important to emphasize that improvements in training to prevent violence may help avoid crisis situations both inside and outside of schools. Research should also explore variations in training needed depending on the role of school personnel (including school-based law enforcement, teachers, and clinicians). Many school safety experts express concern that certain trainings, like active shooter drills, may traumatize students. This outcome may vary on factors like student age, previous trauma exposure, and disability status. Though there is some guidance on how to avoid causing trauma through such training,[19] research should systematically examine training content for both intended and unintended outcomes.

Date Published: September 22, 2022