Coming just four days before the anniversary of the Columbine school shootings, the mass slayings by a student gunman at Virginia Polytechnic Institute last week revived vexing questions and raised familiar fears for educators across the country who grapple daily with ensuring the safety of their students and staffs.
The April 16 killings provoked the same questions that arose for K-12 officials after the 1999 rampage at Columbine High School and a string of other such incidents in the past decade: Could this happen at my school? Are we prepared? What are the warning signs that students may harm themselves or others?
The Virginia Tech slayings also prompted school officials from suburban Washington to the West Coast to pledge heightened security measures and assure anxious parents and students that their schools were safe.
Revelations two days after the killings that the shooter had been an admirer of the student gunmen at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo.—the site of the United States’ deadliest school shooting until last week—stirred even more anxiety for parents, students, and K-12 educators.
In Colorado Springs, Colo., for example, principals, school district security officials, and city police officials met this week to discuss how to develop a more “comprehensive checklist to help us identify kids who might potentially be at risk for being violent,” said Jill L. Martin, the principal of the 2,000-student Thomas B. Doherty High School in that city.
“The meeting is directly in response to the events at Virginia Tech,” she said. “We are extremely sensitive to issues of school violence in Colorado because of Columbine, and we were already girding ourselves for the [April 20] Columbine anniversary.”
Students and parents, Ms. Martin said, were hypervigilant, reporting a number of suspicious signs or remarks that they heard students say in the hours and days after the rampage at the 26,000-student university.
“Our mantra since Columbine has been ‘if you see something, say something,’ and our students have become very aware that it can be a big mistake to ignore something,” she said.
Warning Signs Familiar
Cho Seung-Hui, a 23-year-old senior who was an English major at Virginia Tech, killed 32 people and injured at least a dozen more on the campus in Blacksburg, Va., before killing himself. Authorities are describing that as the largest death toll from any mass shooting in the United States.
Details about Mr. Cho have emerged that reveal a portrait of a disturbed young man whose violence-laced writings for poetry and playwriting courses had so alarmed his professors that they referred him for counseling and notified university officials.
An interactive map from CBSNews.com provides a detailed timeline and description of U.S. school shootings since 1997.
The Casey Journalism Center on Children and Families publishes a wealth of resources on school shootings and violence.
The White House has posted resources and information from the Conference on School Safety, convened by President Bush in October 2006 following the shootings at an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pa.
The online resource, Keep Schools Safe, provides resources for school administrators, parents, and students on the issues of school safety and security.
His roommates told news reporters that Mr. Cho kept himself isolated and rarely spoke even when they addressed him directly. Campus police also revealed that two female students had filed separate harassment complaints against Mr. Cho in late 2005, and that the troubled student had been put in a mental-health facility briefly after authorities questioned him.
“This is just as much a K-12 issue as it is a university one, and I imagine that most K-12 administrators are looking at it that way,” said Gregory A. Thomas, a former security chief for the New York City public schools, who now directs a school-preparedness program at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. “This was a school shooting, albeit on a scale we hadn’t seen before,” he said, “but it was perpetrated by a student shooter who apparently had showed many of the signs we’ve seen in the shooters that have done this in our high schools.”
Mr. Cho’s behaviors—silence, isolation, writings with dark themes—are critical clues for educators to watch for, said one school psychologist.
“There are warning signs that everyone from teachers and counselors to administrators and fellow students need to recognize and report to someone responsible,” said Cathy Paine, a psychologist in the 11,000-student district in Springfield, Ore., where in 1998 a 15-year-old freshman boy shot and killed two classmates and wounded dozens more at his high school.
Peers, said Ms. Paine, can be the best source of information, and school leaders must not only encourage students to report signs of trouble, but also make it easy for them. Offering students the option of reporting anonymously, she said, is important.
“Isolation, depression, and things that students write or say that are either overtly threatening or just don’t seem right” are what students and school staff members should be looking for, said Ms. Paine, who chairs a group on crisis management in schools for the National Association of School Psychologists.
“But at the same time,” she said, “we have to remember that someone who is intent on harming himself or others, as this young man apparently was, is extremely difficult to stop.”
More Than Creativity?
One of the hardest judgments for educators to make, Ms. Paine said, is whether students who write about violent themes in class assignments—as Mr. Cho did—are troubled or just creative.
Making that call is even more difficult because young people are so accustomed to violent themes and images in American culture and society, she said.
The National Association of School Psychologists recommends various steps that administrators and support personnel can take to reduce the threat of violence by students.
• Provide staff and parents information on talking with students about violence and tragedy.
• Provide information on recognizing students experiencing stress, anxiety, or a mental-health problem.
• Institute stress-management activities and emphasize to students the importance of letting someone know if they need help handling stress and anxiety.
• Develop threat-assessment procedures.
• Create safety task forces that include students.
• Build positive faculty-student relations with the goal that students view adults as trustworthy and caring.
• Develop policies and programs to reduce bullying.
• Find ways to make school populations smaller to help instill in students a sense of belonging.
• Provide classroom discussions on safety and tolerance.
• Develop and/or clarify procedures to prevent youth suicide.
• Model tolerance of diversity.
• Among school and community leaders of different races and religions, collaborate and unite in efforts to support students.
“The bottom line is that you have to know the student in a fuller context to make that determination,” Ms. Paine said. “When it is in the creative-writing context, you have to remember that that was the assignment, to be creative. So teachers have to put what is written in the context of that individual student and draw on all the people who know this student, like the parents, other teachers, and the school counselor to decide if it’s something more than creativity.”
Doug Hesse, who directs the writing program at the University of Denver and is a member of the National Council of Teachers of English, said teachers should be aware of the rare student who seems to write only about violence and other disturbing themes, regardless of the assignment. Still, “we shouldn’t rush to Draconian measures,” he said. “You might have the next writer of a ‘Friday the 13th’ movie in your class, which is certainly material that some people might find disturbing, but most of the time it’s not a sign of anything more serious.”
Other signs to be on the lookout for, some educators said, are those that are described in a threat-assessment guide that the U.S. Secret Service put together after the killings at Columbine High.
Law-enforcement officials concluded that though there was no single “profile” of a student shooter, there were many common threads. Many had been bullied or felt persecuted by their peers, many had had difficulty coping with some significant loss in their lives, and most had displayed troublesome behaviors before they attacked people at their schools.
Ms. Martin, the high school principal in Colorado, said she and her staff look for “those classic signs, but we also know that there won’t always be a warning.”
“The bottom line is that you really have to know your kids,” she said, “and that’s not easy in a big high school.”
In the 53,000-student Loudoun County, Va., school district, principals met two days after the Virginia Tech shootings to discuss what they needed to do to keep students safe and reassure worried parents, said district spokesman Wayde Byard. “A couple of our principals mentioned the behavior of a student that they thought might be a red flag, given all that’s happened,” Mr. Byard said. “I think it’s just on everybody’s mind right now.”
Loudoun County, a fast-growing Washington suburb that Mr. Byard said sends “tons” of its high school graduates to Virginia Tech, located four hours away, was one of several districts in Virginia and Maryland that moved fast to reach out to parents and students after the killings.
In a letter to parents on April 17, Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick offered reassurance that the district’s campuses were safe and that principals would review safety procedures with students and staff members. His letter also acknowledged that the April 20 anniversary of the Columbine High shootings would likely heighten concerns about security.
“We want to be vigilant and acknowledge the anxieties that parents and students are feeling, but we don’t want to set off any panic either,” Mr. Byard said.
Terry Bergeson, the state schools chief in Washington state, sent out a media release outlining schools’ preparedness for emergencies, and noting that school officials were working with law-enforcement officials on “threat assessments” to help identify and “get appropriate help for students who may be having problems.”
Leaders in the Fairfax County, Va., schools set up a special Virginia Tech-related page on the district’s Web site with information and links for students and parents for questions about coping and grieving, as well as school security. (“Virginia District Hit Hard by Graduate’s Killing Spree,” this issue.)
A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2007 edition of Education Week