Identifying and Responding to Imminent Warning Signs

Unlike early warning signs, imminent warning signs indicate that a student is very close to behaving in a way that is potentially dangerous to self and/or others. Imminent warning signs require an immediate response. No single warning sign can predict that a dangerous act will occur. Rather, imminent warning signs usually are presented as a sequence of overt, serious, hostile behaviors or threats directed at peers, staff, or other individuals. Usually, imminent warning signs are evident to more than one staff member as well as to the child’s family.

Imminent Warning Signs May Include:

  • Serious physical fighting with peers or family members.
  • Severe destruction of property.
  • Severe rage for seemingly minor reasons.
  • Detailed threats of lethal violence.
  • Possession and/or use of firearms and other weapons.
  • Other self-injurious behaviors or threats of suicide 

When warning signs indicate that danger is imminent, safety must always be the first and foremost consideration. Action must be taken immediately. Immediate intervention by school authorities and possibly law enforcement officers is needed when a child:

  • Has presented a detailed plan (time, place, method) to harm or kill others particularly if the child has a history of aggression or has attempted to carry out threats in the past.
  • Is carrying a weapon, particularly a firearm, and has threatened to use it.

In situations where students present other threatening behaviors, parents should be informed of the concerns immediately. Schools communities also have the responsibility to seek assistance from appropriate agencies, such as child and family services and community mental health. These responses should reflect school board policies and be consistent with the violence prevention and response plan.

Using Early Warning Signs To Shape Intervention Practices

An early warning sign is not a predictor that a child or youth will commit a violent act toward self or others. Effective schools recognize the potential in every child to overcome difficult experiences and to control negative emotions. Adults in these school communities use their knowledge of early warning signs to address problems before they escalate into violence. Effective school communities support staff, students and families in understanding the early warning signs. Support strategies include having:

  • School Board policies in place that support training and ongoing consultation. The entire school community knows how to identify early warning signs, and understands the principles that support them.
  • School leaders encourage others to raise concerns about observed early warning signs and to report all observations of imminent warning signs immediately.
  • Easy access to a team of specialists trained in evaluating and addressing serious behavioral and academic concerns. 

Each school community should develop a procedure that students and staff can follow when reporting their concerns about a child who exhibits early warning signs. For
example, in many schools the principal is the first point of contact. In many cases that do not pose imminent danger, the principal contacts a school psychologist or other qualified professional, who takes responsibility for addressing the concern immediately. If the concern is determined to be serious but not pose a threat of imminent danger the child’s family should be contacted. The family should be consulted before implementing any interventions with the child. In cases where school-based contextual factors are determined to be causing or exacerbating the child’s troubling behavior, the school should act quickly to modify them.

It is often difficult to acknowledge that a child is troubled. Everyone including administrators, families, teachers, school staff, students, and community members may find it too troubling sometimes to admit that a child close to them needs help. When faced with resistance or denial, school communities must persist to ensure that children get the help they need.

 Understanding early and imminent warning signs are an essential step in ensuring a safe school. The next step involves supporting the emotional and behavioral adjustment of children.

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