Study Pinpoints High-Risk Times for School Violence

From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 10, 2001 -- 'Tis the season to pack the kids off to school for another year of reading, writing, and arithmetic. But in the back of their minds, many parents may be wondering if their kids will learn about something they hadn't anticipated: school violence.

In the wake of several high-profile, horrific events around the country during the last five years (think Columbine, and more recently, Santee, Calif.), this fear may percolate to the surface as school starts up again. As a first step in trying to anticipate and head off school-associated violence, the CDC released a study today analyzing when during the school year student homicides and suicides tend to occur.

"The study looked at school-associated student homicide and suicide events over 7 school years -- from September 1992 to June 1999," study author Mark Anderson, MD, MPH, tells WebMD. Anderson is a medical epidemiologist with the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

The researchers found that homicides peak at the start of each semester then taper off, while suicides follow the pattern of suicides in the general population: they are higher in the spring than in the fall.

According to the researchers, one homicide occurs per seven school days and one suicide occurs every 33 school days. But Anderson stresses that these are very rare events and that schools are still very safe places. "It's an important message for parents to give kids at the start of the semester," he says.

Why do homicides peak at the start of each semester?

"[It] could be due to conflicts that began at the end of the previous semester or during the holiday break and then spilled over into the new semester," says Anderson. Also the change of semester is "a time of increased stress. And that that increased stress could contribute to violent behavior."

Racine, Wisc. high school counselor Mark Kuranz agrees that stress is high at the start of new classes. And, he tells WebMD, a lot of conflict in neighborhoods spills over into the school. Kuranz is the past president of the American School Counselors Association.

Rosemary Rubin, MS, a school counselor and consultant for the Los Angeles Unified School District Suicide Prevention Unit, was not surprised with the study findings. "It basically shows what all of us in the school system have known: transition times are very hard for kids."

Says Anderson, "We hope that the [study findings] might be helpful to school administrators and teachers as well as parents, just to alert them that these are high-risk time periods for students." Anderson says parents can help by being aware of the stresses a child might feel at the start of each semester and help them deal with these transitions.

What else can parents do?

Here are some tips from Rubin and Kuranz:

  • Get a complete physical for a child that is showing signs of depression or other problems -- to rule out any physical cause.
  • Listen to and talk with your children, and be available. "Even teens who push their parents away want to know that their parents are there for them," says Rubin.
  • Teach your child coping skills. "We have to help kids learn how to deal better with life stresses," says Rubin.
  • If you sense a problem with your child, don't be afraid to get help. "There is a stigma associated in our society with mental illness; but it's better to get help for your child than to have something happen to your child," says Rubin.
  • Call the school counselor to discuss any concerns.
  • Look for changes in normal behavior and patterns, like changes in eating, sleeping, and 'hanging out' habits.
  • Ask your child questions. "Parents have to keep pushing, practicing, and using different strategy to get information from the kids. Look for opportune times," says Kuranz. He says his own teenage children are more likely to open up while in the car with him.