The Safety Patrol

October 01, 1999 4 min read

The day after students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on a murderous rampage at Colorado’s Columbine High School last spring, Ronald Stephens became one of the most wanted men in America.

As executive director of the National School Safety Center, Stephens had the credentials in the eyes of the media-and many educators-to make sense of the carnage. In the charged weeks following the Colorado shootings, Stephens emerged as the pundit of the moment, appearing on television 25 times, giving 12 radio interviews, and granting more than 70 newspaper interviews. So far this year, he has delivered 47 talks to schools in 24 states. And there’s no sign his pace will slow.

On a sweltering August day, in the midst of his whirlwind school tour, the seasoned consultant made a stop in Amarillo, Texas. “The message from Columbine is that these kids gave warning signs that weren’t acknowledged,” Stephens tells district officials, dispensing a list of clues educators can use to try to spot troubled students who could become the next school gunmen.

To the 50 or so people assembled in the conference room at the district’s headquarters, he delivers the same message that he has issued to schools from Port Huron, Michigan, to Honolulu: Be prepared for the absolute worst. A good crisis-preparedness plan that spells out steps to take in the event of an armed intruder is more effective than putting metal detectors in every doorway and transforming a school into a fortress, he adds. One way to thwart a crisis before it begins: Set up a hotline where students and others can phone in tips anonymously.

After his talk, teachers and principals buzz around Stephens, peppering him with questions. “It was crazy at the end of last year. We had bomb threats. Anxiety was high,” says Daniel Coward, principal of Amarillo High School, which had a nonfatal school shooting eight years ago.

“We have to consider what to do about these things,” Coward adds. “We can’t just wish it away.”

Despite Stephens’ steep fee-$2,000 a day-Amarillo administrators think he’s a bargain. And from their point of view, he very well could be: In nearly every district where there’s been a fatal school shooting, victims’ families have slapped officials with a lawsuit. In the months since the Columbine tragedy, several suits have been filed against the 90,000-student Jefferson County district. The average financial settlement in such cases, according to school law experts, is around $250,000.

“Parents won’t forgive you if their kids are damaged or injured or killed,” Bob Moore, the Amarillo district superintendent, says after the meeting. “So, this is cheap.”

When he’s not on the road, Stephens, 52, is in his office in Westlake Village, California, fielding questions from journalists, among others. This morning, he is spoon-feeding quotes to a rookie crime reporter and helping her navigate the center’s Web site. An ABC news producer is waiting on hold. After Columbine, Stephens explains, “we became the ‘go to’ agency.”

The National School Safety Center, established in 1984 at Pepperdine University with a federal grant from the Reagan administration, was launched as an information clearinghouse to promote model school safety strategies. Stephens was plucked from the Pepperdine faculty to set up the center, which produces booklets on everything from gang prevention to crisis intervention.

Although NSSC is independent and nonpartisan, it could easily be mistaken for a government agency. Members of President Clinton’s Cabinet-including Secretary of Education Richard Riley and Attorney General Janet Reno-routinely turn to Stephens for help.

During the summer, Stephens was called on to ghostwrite legislation in some states that held special sessions to address school crime. The center provided ready-made drafts of model legislation that would mandate that districts create safety plans, conduct architectural reviews of campuses, and forge partnerships with police.

Stephens’ high profile hasn’t always translated into public financing, however. Nor has nonpartisan status freed the center from political sniping. Stephens blames the loss of a three-year, $3 million competitive grant on, of all things, Whitewater. Pepperdine, which sponsors NSSC, had offered independent counsel Kenneth Starr a position at its law school-a job Starr later declined. Stephens claims that Clinton administration officials were reluctant to offer federal money to anything connected with Starr, no matter how remotely.

The administration dismisses Stephens’ charge. William Modzeleski, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s safe and drug-free schools program, says NSSC lost in a competitive bid process and that there was no political motive.

Whatever the reason for the loss of the grant, NSSC’s annual budget shrank from $1.2 million to $250,000-about 30 percent of that from speaking fees and the rest from subscriptions to its publications. The center’s staff of 30 has been slashed to four.

Stephens plans to make up for the lost revenue by raising money from foundations and through teaching: He was just appointed chairman of the new department of school safety at Pepperdine University’s graduate schools of education and psychology.

Even if financial woes force Stephens to abandon his work, it’s clear he’s started a cottage industry that will thrive as long as there are high-profile school shootings.

“We need somebody to tell us if we are doing the right thing,” says David Cargill, an assistant superintendent with the Amarillo school district.

--Jessica Portner