Safety Is Hard to Ensure, Administrators Say

By Ann Bradley — April 28, 1999 7 min read

Staying Prepared

For Mr. Bentz and the students and faculty at Thurston High School, the killings hit a raw nerve. Last May, a freshman at their Springfield, Ore., school opened fire in the cafeteria, killing two students and wounding 22 others.

“The rumors were already starting” about the April 20 events in Jefferson County, Colo., said Mr. Bentz, who wanted to let people know the facts as quickly as possible. “It was very rough Tuesday afternoon--we all relived our shooting.”

As the nation struggled last week to understand the massacre at Columbine High School, psychologists and school safety experts warned that such outbursts are difficult to predict and prevent.

But a spate of campus shootings during the 1997-98 school year led to additional guidance for principals and other educators on what to look for and on how to react in times of crisis.

A widely cited guide published last summer by the Clinton administration, “Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools,” lists signs of trouble in students. These include: social withdrawal, excessive feelings of rejection, having been a victim of violence, feelings of being picked on, poor academic performance, expressions of violence in writings and drawings, uncontrolled anger, and a history of discipline problems, among other indicators.

Eric D. Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine seniors who are believed to have killed 13 people, appeared to exhibit many of those signs, according to interviews with classmates.

But experts are quick to add that distinguishing teenagers with severe mental-health problems from those who are simply moving through the experimental phases of adolescence is often extremely difficult.

“You cannot take a checklist and assume if child has eight out of 10 risk factors that he will follow the pattern of the tragedy we have seen,” said Betty Stockton, a school psychologist who counseled students after four students and a teacher were shot to death last spring at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Ark.

And students who don’t fit the profile can commit heinous acts.

Even before Thurston High freshman Kipland P. Kinkel allegedly attacked students waiting in the cafeteria for school to start, the school had a system for identifying and coordinating services for troubled students. The school’s “triage” committee of teachers, counselors, and administrators meets weekly, Mr. Bentz said--but Mr. Kinkel’s name never came up.

“He would not have matched those profiles,” the principal said last week. “His level of behavior was not atypical for a 9th grader in our violent society.”

‘Are You Troubled?’

The large size of many American middle and high schools makes it particularly difficult for staff members to know which students might be dangerous, observed Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

“In a school of 1,800 kids, how do you create a situation where you can intervene and say, ‘Are you troubled?’ as opposed to being teenaged and weird,” Mr. Houston said. “It’s a thin line.”

Michael Rosenberg, a professor and the chairman of the department of special education at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, agreed.

“We use the term ‘appropriately inappropriate’” to describe teenage behavior, he said. “What I look for is balance in kids’ lives. If they’re balanced and involved in other things, then the experimentation tends to be healthy.”

Even if schools do identify students in need of mental-health services, they can’t always provide them. Some don’t have enough counselors to serve everyone, much less address severe needs. Many families don’t have insurance, or have policies that don’t cover mental-health care.

“The opportunities to provide meaningful interventions of the types necessary for at-risk kids are pretty slim,” Mr. Bentz of Thurston High said.

Legal Concerns

School administrators aren’t on any surer ground when it comes to questioning students’ dress or speech.

Columbine High School students who knew the assailants there have reported that they wore swastikas on their clothing and made videos of guns in a school video-production class.

Those actions could prompt intervention by administrators on the grounds that those kinds of expression threaten or harass other students, said Philip G. Villaume, an Edina, Minn., lawyer and author who conducts seminars for educators on eliminating bias and valuing diversity.

Mr. Villaume said the Columbine gunmen appeared to exhibit a number of “red flags,” including unusual attire, interest in guns, and reported disdain for minority students.

Minnesota, in fact, has a “zero tolerance” law on harassment that would require educators to report a student wearing Nazi symbols.

But Colorado has no such law, according to the state education department. Individual districts devise their own policies.

Some students and civil rights groups have argued that such interventions can run afoul of the First Amendment.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit is now considering a “hate speech” case involving a student who was disciplined for drawing a picture of a Confederate flag in a Kansas district that had forbidden the display of racist symbols. The student’s family is arguing that the drawing is protected by free-speech guarantees.

Julie Underwood, the general counsel for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va., said her organization had filed a brief in the case arguing that schools should be allowed to regulate hate speech in the interest of improving school climate and providing a safe place for all students.

Staying Prepared

Scott Decker, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, said he believes school shootings are still so uncommon that they can’t be accurately predicted.

“The kind of intervention that you would need to have picked out those kids or kids like that,” he said, referring to the Columbine High students, “is so broad and would cast so wide a net that it would not be legally, morally, or publicly acceptable.”

Instead, Mr. Decker said, schools should concentrate on improving school climate, student attendance, and student accountability. Such efforts, he said, could reduce assaults, thefts, and vandalism, which occur much more frequently than shootings.

Opening the lines of communication with students is another useful strategy, experts say.

In several of the recent school shootings, the suspects had made comments to their peers about violent plans, but no one told parents or teachers about the remarks.

“American culture has built barriers or walls between children and adults,” said Larry Sullivan, the assistant executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists in Bethesda, Md. “We need to learn to make an effort to communicate.”

Other experts urged schools that have not done so to draw up safety plans and put in place comprehensive discipline policies. And in the event of a violent incident, both schools and districts should have crisis plans for dealing with it, they said.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals, in reaction to the school shootings, has recruited and trained volunteer principals from around the country who can assist their colleagues in dealing with such crises.

Two members of the Principals’ Emergency Response Team are expected to travel to Colorado this week to offer help with school-related tasks, said Stephen Yurek, the general counsel for the NASSP in Reston, Va. The team members can run cafeterias, reschedule classes, answer phones, or deal with parents and students, he said.

In both Jonesboro and Springfield last spring, schools provided extensive opportunities for students, families, and staff members to receive counseling.

First, traumatized parents and children need to be reassured that the campus has been made safe, Ms. Stockton, the school psychologist, said. Then, people need opportunities to “tell their stories over and over again,” she said.

Above all, experts say, schools have to confront the unpleasant reality that violence can happen anywhere.

Even after the highly publicized shootings of the past year and a half, some school administrators remain complacent, said Jane Grady, the assistant director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“I visited a school in the Denver area last month, and when I called to ask about how to check in, they said, ‘You don’t need to go to the office,’” she recalled. “That’s a problem in today’s society.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 1999 edition of Education Week as Safety Is Hard To Ensure, Administrators Say