Hit Lists, Murder Plots and Death Threats: Violence in Schools
Recently, school violence has dominated the news – here and overseas. Media reports of students planning, preparing and actually harming each other and teachers are scarily becoming commonplace. To add to this, the recent Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey 2017 (Wellbeing Survey 2017) shows that principals and senior staff do not feel safe and schools now appear to be a dangerous environment to work and learn in. Instances and recent reports of copies of a hit list being circulated around a non-government school, a foiled murder plot at a Victorian government school, the tragedy of the Florida high school shooting that took the lives of 17 people and the results of the Wellbeing Survey 2017 have made violence in schools a prominent point of discussion.
School Governance, on multiple occasions, has reported about the violence in schools, especially in the context of occupational violence that teachers or senior staff, such as school leaders are subjected to. This article discusses further recent examples of violence in schools which should cause concern for everyone in the community.
The hit list
In February, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that copies of a deranged list was circulated around the halls of a Melbourne non-government school. The document titled HITLIST 2018 (Revamped) chastised students for being gay, being a feminist, having bad teeth and having a low IQ. The hit list also discussed killing students and organised students into alpha, bravo, charlie and delta to give students a ranking.
One student was described as a “communist that supports women’s rights” while another was described as a “degenerate weeb trash.” Some students were listed for having previously “made fun” of the student or for being described as “too honest, so I can’t manipulate him much.”
The school reacted quickly to the incident and decided to suspend the student and is reportedly working with other students and families as well as providing counselling for students. The school’s principal consulted with Victoria Police, who indicated they would not take further action at this stage. The principal regarded “this incident as a very serious matter. We consider the actions of the student involved in creating this list to be unacceptable.”
While no actual violence occurred, the list represents a potential, real threat of harm to students.
The foiled murder plot
The Herald Sun revealed from documents released under Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation, a dossier of horrific violence in Victorian schools. Among the incidents documented was an incident involving two students, at a school in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, who plotted to murder a classmate by spiking a drink bottle and poison them with chemicals stolen from the school’s science labs.
The FOI documents revealed that in March 2017, the murder plot by two female students was foiled when a staff member found chemicals in a locker of one of the pupils.
The school investigated the incident, and the two students who planned to harm their intended victim were suspended and support for the intended victim was arranged. It is not clear whether any of the students involved returned to the school. A Victoria Police spokesperson said that an incident at the school was “investigated, but the target, also a female, did not proceed with a complaint.”
The thwarted murder plot was one of many violent incidents reported in Victoria’s government schools, with attacks on students rising 36 per cent in one year. In 2017, there were 229 incidents involving weapons that were reported in Victorian government schools. 68 of these incidents were against school staff and 161 against students. The incidents involved guns, knives, scissors, tasers, screwdrivers, an axe, rocks, chairs and even pencils.
On the afternoon of 14 February 2018 (Valentine’s Day) a mass shooting occurred at Majory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida. 17 people were killed and 14 more were taken to nearby hospitals. This is the 18th school shooting for 2018 and one of the deadliest school shootings in US history – 10 less fatalities than the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting in 2012 and two more than the Columbine High School Massacre in 1999.
Authorities say that an ex-student, identified as Nikolas Cruz, walked into the Florida school and opened fire on students with an assault rifle. Cruz left warning signs on social media, where a person with his name wrote a comment last year under a YouTube video that read: “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.” The sheriff’s department confirmed that Mr Cruz had confessed to the shooting and told investigators how he shot students in the hallways and on the school grounds.
In response to the shootings, US President Donald Trump held a listening session to hear what survivors and victims’ families had to say about the effects of gun violence in schools. In the wake of the Florida shooting, President Trump suggested that teachers and sport coaches should carry a firearm, and use armed former military personnel to provide school security – which has sparked much debate and criticism.
While the tragic events in Florida have no direct link to Australian schools, it demonstrates the extent of violence that can occur in a school environment.
The Wellbeing Survey 2017
Correlating to the issue of student violence in schools, the Wellbeing Survey 2017 released its findings on the wellbeing of principals. Almost 2,800 principals, deputies and assistant principals from across Australia took part in the latest Wellbeing Survey. The Wellbeing Survey 2017 assessed many different factors such as sources of stress, number of hours worked, offensive behaviours experience, health and personal background.
The Wellbeing Survey 2017 recorded that principals, deputy and assistant principals experience a far higher prevalence of offensive behaviour at work each year than the general population. This includes threats of violence, physical violence, unpleasant teasing, bullying, conflicts and quarrels, as well as gossip and slander.
In 2011, the Wellbeing Survey 2017 reported that 38 per cent of participants had been threatened. Fast forward to 2017, of the principals surveyed, 44 per cent experienced a threat of violence – this is almost 1 in 2 principals receiving a threat, which is 5.5 times higher than the general population.
The frequency with which principals experience actual physical violence has risen from around 27 per cent in 2011 to approximately 36 per cent in 2017. This translates to roughly 1 in 3 principals who experience actual physical violence, which is also now 8.4 times the rate of the general population – up from 7 times in 2011.
The Wellbeing Survey 2017 made several recommendations to improve the occupational wellbeing of principals, assistant and deputy principals. In relation to violence in schools, Recommendation 7 of the Wellbeing Survey 2017 made the recommendation to “stop the offensive behaviour” and stated that: “This is beyond debate. It simply must stop. The real issue is how to achieve this outcome. The steadily increasing levels of offensive behaviour across the country in schools of all types should give us pause. But this is not just occurring in schools, with increases noted in all frontline professions and domestic violence rates that we should be nationally ashamed about. Australia needs to have an adult conversation about the root causes of this and set about addressing them at every level of society.”
Consequences for schools
Violence in schools, at any level and no matter how serious, has severe consequences for the school and its community. While it is clear, as the Wellbeing Survey 2017 recognises, violence in schools is unacceptable and must stop. The risk of violence in schools not only poses the obvious risk of students and staff being injured, but it could carry the risk of WHS/OHS or legal claims against schools. As can be illustrated by the cases mentioned, the main aim for schools is to ensure they maintain the safety of the working and learning environment of a school to prevent serious injury or death of a student or staff member.
Essentially, schools need to have an “adult conversation” about how to prevent or reduce the risk of violence in schools. To have this conversation, schools will need to assess themselves on what the risk of violence is in their school and determine how to deal with it such as training or implementing procedures to deal with violence.
However, the reality is violence cannot be stopped, but it can be mitigated and dealt with. Schools need to ensure they have control measures (such as policy, procedure and training) and a culture in place to avoid instances of violence such as a student’s assault on teachers. In the event that a staff member is threatened or is assaulted, a critical incident report must be sent to the state or territory’s responsible authority, procedures must be followed and if necessary the Police must be informed.
About the Author
William Kelly is a School Governance reporter. He can be contacted here.