School Climate & Safety

In Schools, a Sigh of Relief asTense Spring Draws to a Close

By Caroline Hendrie — June 23, 1999 10 min read
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More than two months have passed, but Principal James E. Fish is still feeling the shock waves sent forth by the deaths of 14 students and a teacher in a high school 1,700 miles away.

First came the emotional jolt of the event itself: the April 20 shooting spree at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., by two disaffected students who then turned their guns on themselves.

Then came the fallout. As copycat threats and incidents rained down on communities around the nation, Sherwood High School in this village 20 miles north of Washington was hit with bomb scares, vandalism, and raging rumors of impending catastrophe. The net effect on the school, Mr. Fish said, was “great pandemonium.”

“It was extremely tough,” he said in a recent interview. “I will be deliriously happy to put this school year behind me.”

The veteran principal, who stayed up all night on two successive weekends last month scouring his 1,600-student school for nonexistent bombs, is scarcely alone in his feelings.

Few schools escaped the aftershocks of the Columbine massacre, the most deadly in a succession of multiple-victim shootings by students over the past two school years. Looking back on a season of uncommon disruption and emotional strain, educators across the country said they were glad to be kissing the spring of 1999 goodbye.

“It’s changed the life of school administrators and the landscape of school settings across the country,” said Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif.

Turmoil Becomes Commonplace

As educators, students, and parents struggled to cope with the bomb scares, death threats, and heightened insecurity, their faith in their schools and in one another was sometimes profoundly shaken. Many believe that the Colorado killings have left scars that only summer will start to heal.

No other school suffered more in Columbine’s aftermath, of course, than the one in suburban Atlanta where six students were shot one month to the day after the Colorado murders. A 15-year-old sophomore stands accused of those May 20 shootings, none of which proved fatal.

James E. Fish, the principal of Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, Md., spent two sleepless nights at the school this spring after receiving bomb threats. He says he’s happy the school year is ending.

Close behind were schools in which students were accused of plotting similar mayhem, including a Michigan middle school where four students were arrested on charges of hatching such a conspiracy.

Those students were among hundreds arrested in the weeks following the Columbine killings, many for threatening bombings or shootings. Countless others were suspended or expelled for words or deeds perceived as menacing. (“Arrests Top 350 in Threats, Bomb Scares,” May 26, 1999.)

And in many cases, rumors of imminent violence proved nearly as disruptive as the real thing, prompting panicked parents to pull their children out of class and students to stay away from school in droves.

Taken together, the turmoil was the most extensive that many experts could remember. Repeated evacuations, early closings, upended testing schedules, and ruined end-of-the-year rituals were just some of the costs. At a time of year that tends to be hectic under ordinary circumstances, such disturbances have proved especially trying.

“It’s not just staff and administrators who are frustrated, it’s the teachers and the parents and the students,” said Michael J. Magnusson, a consultant in the Ohio education department’s safe and drug-free schools program. “They don’t want to go to school wondering, ‘Are we going to get anything done today?’ ”

Fallout Varies

To be sure, the impact of the Columbine tragedy has struck with varying intensity.

At Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School outside Boston, Principal John M. Ritchie said he had been spared the threats and copycat incidents that have plagued so many schools this spring. In general, he said, students and staff felt little more than the usual eagerness to begin the summer.

Still, there was much about the Colorado killings--including the widely noted habits of dress and behavior of the young men who carried them out--that seemed uncomfortably familiar, Mr. Ritchie said. “Everybody began to say, ‘We have kids like that in our school. Does that mean we’re vulnerable?’ ”

Elsewhere, students and staff members have had more immediate reasons for feeling insecure.

In West Palm Beach, Fla., a high school’s prom night was ruined after a nail-studded pipe bomb was discovered and dismantled just as the May 15 event was getting under way in a local hotel.

In the Dallas suburb of Allen, Texas, a rash of 11 bomb threats and the resulting evacuations prompted officials to halt regular classes last month two weeks early. “There was lots of unfinished business,” said Tim Carroll, a district spokesman. “It was really a strange time.”

And in Newton Grove in southeastern North Carolina, Hobbton High School Principal L. Stewart Hobbs presided over the graduation ceremonies in a bulletproof vest after police received a death threat against him.

Mr. Hobbs said he never truly believed someone was out to kill him. But he viewed the extraordinary security precautions as imperative, and admitted to some fearful moments while addressing the stadium crowd with a police bodyguard stationed beside him. “You’ve got to take every kind of threat like this very seriously,” he said.

Climate Shifts

That attitude--that school officials must construe all potential threats as the genuine article--has become seemingly universal this spring. No one wants to shrug off words or actions only to realize later that they were a portent of disaster.

“If a student says, ‘I could just kill you,’ that is now taken very seriously, and students are having to learn that,” said Pamela K. Gabbard, the elementary school counselor for Ballard County, Ky., who serves on a statewide crisis-response team. “There are extreme consequences that weren’t there before.”

A trend toward harsher discipline for perceived threats was discernible last year following a string of campus shootings. This spring, in the wake of Columbine, that trend has intensified.

Last year, the tough stance led to scattered complaints that school officials were blowing minor infractions out of proportion. This spring, such charges have been widespread, as both administrators and police have been accused of getting caught up in post-Columbine alarmism.

Many students and parents support a firm stance toward possible threats. Some, though, are tiring of precautions they perceive as overreaction.

“What I’m beginning to hear is almost a backlash to the excessive security measures, with students saying, ‘Our picture of going to high school was not going into an armed camp,’ ” said Nancy S. Perry, the executive director of the American School Counselor Association, based in Alexandria, Va.

Few educators want to foster such an atmosphere in their schools.

But many feel caught between the sometimes competing goals of safeguarding their campuses and respecting individual students’ liberties. That dilemma has made it a spring fraught with tough calls.

“We’re in this bind where on the one hand, in order to provide safety, we want to be able to find out what kids are at risk,” said Cheri J. Lovre, who advises schools as the director of the Crisis Management Institute, a private consulting firm in Salem, Ore. “Yet as soon as we do that, we may be setting ourselves up for criticism for labeling and accusing kids of doing something they haven’t done.”

Anxieties Abound

In many places, the crackdown on possible threats is part of an atmosphere of heightened suspicion--especially of students seen as outsiders--not only by authorities but also by those youngsters’ classmates. Such suspicion contributed to the apprehension that pervaded many schools in the weeks after the Colorado killings.

“It made you aware of people around you,” said Annie M. Sullivan, an 11th grader at Sherwood High. “You wonder if they could do something like that. It was kind of scary.”

Similar sentiments have become commonplace this spring, said Larry Sullivan, the associate executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists in Bethesda, Md. “People are unsure and uncertain about a place that they had believed to be safe,” he said.

On a purely emotional level, some places hardest hit by such anxiety after Columbine were those that had experienced similar ordeals in the recent past. Those communities include Jonesboro, Ark., and Springfield, Ore., the scenes of deadly shooting sprees by students last year.

“For kids in any school to look at these things, there’s a sobering realization that this could happen here,” said Ms. Lovre, who has counseled students at the Arkansas and Oregon schools. “But for kids in a school where something like this has happened, it disrupts the equilibrium of their recovery.”

That may also extend to nearby schools and communities, as has occurred in Ballard County in Western Kentucky. The school district is only a few miles from Heath High School in West Paducah, where three students died and five more were wounded in December 1997 after a 14-year-old freshman opened fire into a circle of praying students.

“It was definite that kids relived it,” said Ms. Gabbard, the counselor. “Our students are particularly anxious.”

Parents there, too, have proved sensitive.

In early May, false rumors about a bomb threat prompted parents to yank their elementary school children out of class in midday.

“We had more than 300 of the 760 students pulled out of school between about 10 o’clock and 1 o’clock,” Ms. Gabbard said. “Parents were rushing to the doors and screaming, ‘I want my child!’ ”

Rumors Run Wild

Unfounded rumors have wreaked havoc with routine elsewhere as well.

In some parts of the country, predictions abounded that disaster would strike on April 30, the 54th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s suicide.

The student killers at Columbine had left behind writings suggesting that they had pegged their attack to the German dictator’s birthday on April 20.

In and around the nation’s capital, rumors of looming school violence on May 10 led to widespread absenteeism. Maryland school officials delayed annual statewide testing that had been slated to start that day.

At Sherwood High here in Sandy Spring, the weeks between the Colorado shootings and May 10 were fraught with fear.

“You had kids coming in crying, saying, ‘I don’t want to die in this building,’ ” Mr. Fish, the principal, recalled. “That’s how intense the rumors were that May 10 would be our day of doom.”

In the end, more than half of Sherwood High’s students stayed away that day, even though Mr. Fish and other administrators had joined parent volunteers in an all-night search of the school. The day proved uneventful.

Temma S. Kanowith, an English teacher at the school for 32 years, said that many teachers were as traumatized by Columbine and its aftermath as students, but that their needs were sometimes not recognized. “It’s our loss of innocence too,” she said.

Year’s End Welcomed

For educators in the Mount Healthy district in suburban Cincinnati, meanwhile, the last day of school earlier this month brought a huge sigh of relief.

A month after the Colorado shootings, an outside wall of a local elementary school was defaced with graffiti warning that everyone inside would “die on June 1.”

Following the warning, Principal Robert E. Kelly came back to Frost Elementary School to address worried parents, despite having undergone surgery hours earlier.

“Things were tense,” Mr. Kelly said. “I knew parents would want to talk to me.”

For the four nights leading up to June 1, police patrolled the building all night. But absenteeism still hit about 50 percent that day.

David J. Horine, the superintendent of the 4,000-student district, said he was relieved to be free of the constant worry that had plagued him before school got out for the summer.

“This is the first year in a long time that I’ve looked forward to the last day of school,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 23, 1999 edition of Education Week as In Schools, a Sigh of Relief asTense Spring Draws to a Close


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