School Climate & Safety

Experts Ponder Sept. 11 Effect On School Violence

By Darcia Harris Bowman — June 19, 2002 7 min read
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The random school shootings erupted with almost gruesome regularity. Americans soon came to use the names of the suburban and rural schools and communities as shorthand for a new kind of tragedy.

There was Frontier Junior High in Moses Lake, Wash., in 1996, followed by Pearl High School outside Jackson, Miss., and Heath High in West Paducah, Ky., the following year. Then came Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Ark., and Thurston High in Springfield, Ore.

Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., in April 1999, became the site of the nation’s worst school shooting ever—and it was followed a month later by a violent spree at Heritage High in Rockdale County, Ga. Then, last year, a disgruntled student opened fire at Santana High School.

Now, it looks as if there will be no additions to the list of multiple, fatal shootings for the school year just ending. Most schools have made it through the academic year. Some others will finish this week.

Instead, a different kind of violence took center stage in the United States. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 coincided almost precisely with the start of the 2001-02 school year, and some experts speculate those events and their aftershocks may have something to do with the absence of large-scale violence in American schools.

“When there is a national mobilization, it often suppresses personal troubles and draws people together,” said James Garbarino, a Cornell University professor who specializes in youth violence. “Columbine galvanized all those kids with grievances against ‘the system.’ But September 11 redefined who the enemy is, so we may have a lot of troubled kids who have shifted their maps to the enemy outside.”

“The question,” he said, “is how long does that last?”

Positive Steps

At least some in the school safety business are cautiously hoping the nation has rounded another corner in violence prevention. Just as the inner cities saw a drop-off in violent youth crime in the late 1990s, they say, the kinds of communities hit by the spate of deadly incidents may be experiencing the beginning of renewed peace—at least when it comes to armed student assaults on schools.

The optimism of those experts is based on the belief that deliberate efforts—not the unexpected blow to the nation last September—made the most difference this year.

“More states and schools than ever before have placed school safety on the agenda, there are more safety officers in schools than ever before, and more staff, teachers, and students are working together on safety than ever before,” said Ronald Stephens, the director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif. “I think our schools and communities deserve a great deal of credit for the positive things they’ve done to reduce the more serious forms of school violence.”

The proof, Mr. Stephens and others argue, is in the fact that school and law-enforcement officials headed off alleged student plots this past school year that were modeled after the April 1999 attack at Columbine High.

Last fall, for instance, a group of teenage boys in New Bedford, Mass., allegedly planned to emerge from a high school restroom with handguns and shotguns hidden inside black trench coats. When the bell rang for the change of class periods, they would “come out shooting everyone in sight,” according to police reports. (“Lessons Seen in Handling of Alleged School Plot,” Dec. 5, 2001.)

But another student’s decision to alert school authorities to those plans, followed by five weeks of intense cooperation between police and school officials, was credited with foiling the alleged plot and preventing an incident potentially on the scale of the Columbine shootings, which left 15 people dead, including the two student gunmen.

“Over the last school year, we had several situations where potential events were prevented,” said Joanne McDaniels, the director of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence in Raleigh, N.C. “Climates have been created in schools where students feel comfortable reporting and the people working in schools are more responsive to those reports, and there’s more collaboration between schools and law enforcement and other community agencies.”

“I do think many of the efforts put forth by schools and communities are paying off,” Ms. McDaniels said.

Some experts also say twin efforts to rid school climates of bullying and to convince students that it’s right to tell adults about threats of violence were instrumental in making schools safer this year.

Both needs became priorities for schools in the months following the March 2001 shooting in Santee, Calif., a case in which some students—and even one adult—knew of the student attacker’s plans.

“Some of the prevention efforts, particularly those aimed at getting kids to report when they hear evidence of potential violence, seem to be helping,” said Rex Hagans, the director of the National Resource Center for Safe Schools, located in Portland, Ore. “And I think we know the trigger for these incidents is often the isolation of certain kids, so training people to prevent bullying and trying to change the school climate have also been important.”

‘How Long Will It Last?’

While heartened by the progress schools have made, leading school safety experts are unanimous in warning that one year free of major incidents is no reason to relax, particularly in light of the potential new threat to schools that are located near possible targets of terrorism.

“Many schools created security and crisis plans after the national shootings, but many [of those plans] have sat on a shelf without being scrutinized, used in staff training, and tested to see if what looks good on paper actually works in reality,” said Kenneth S. Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm in Cleveland.

“The good news is that schools are better at treating threats seriously, doing timely investigations, and working closely with police to prevent shootings,” Mr. Trump said. “But schools cannot afford to get a false sense of security. It’s when schools get too comfortable and let their guard down that they tend to be hit with tragedy.”

And this past year was not, after all, a violence-free one.

In October, a 17-year-old male student shot himself to death in a school hallway in Salt Lake City.

The following month, in Caro, Mich., a 17-year-old student armed with a .22-caliber rifle, a shotgun, and package of gunpowder, took a teacher and a 15-year-old female classmate hostage, shot at the principal, and then shot himself in the head.

And in December, a 17-year-old high school student stabbed a counselor several times in the stomach and chest in front of nine students and a teacher.

There may be other signs the wave of shootings hasn’t ended.

Katherine S. Newman, a co-author of a recent national study that likened school shootings to the violent rampages that hit American offices in the 1990s, sees a warning in several recent workplace attacks.

“I would say this epidemic [of school violence] was over had we not had in the past few weeks a spike in workplace rampages,” said Ms. Newman, the dean of social science at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. “It begs the question: If there was a prophylactic effect of September 11, how long will it last?”

And, despite the new focus on improving school culture, some observers believe that the same old tensions still reign in American schools, and that too many teenagers continue to suffer cruelty and abuse at the hands of other students.

For example, complaints about bullying and verbal threats still dominate a statewide hotline in North Carolina set up by Ms. McDaniel’s Center for Violence Prevention. And experts say recent surveys suggest many youngsters still wouldn’t tell an adult if they had information that another student was threatening school violence.

“To really feel complacent, you’d have to say all the angry, troubled kids are healed, and all the problems and violence in schools have been solved,” said Cornell University’s Mr. Garbarino, the author of Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them.

“It’s like a beach when the tide comes in, and the shore looks all nice and clean because the junk is hidden under the water,” he said. “It may be that all the post-9/11 patriotism and solidarity is the tide that has come in to conceal all the risk factors that are still there.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 2002 edition of Education Week as Experts Ponder Sept. 11 Effect On School Violence

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