School Climate & Safety

In the Wake of Tragedy

December 10, 1997 6 min read
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The mass shooting at a high school in West Paducah, Ky., that left three students dead and five wounded last week has policymakers again pondering the grim but sadly familiar question of what can be done to prevent other such tragedies.

As students returned to class at Heath High School on Dec. 2, a 14-year-old freshman who allegedly fired a stolen .22-caliber semiautomatic pistol into a circle of praying students there one day earlier stood charged as a juvenile with three counts of murder and five counts of attempted murder. The suspect will find out in a hearing this week whether he will be tried as an adult.

Last week’s incident was the first shooting ever to occur in the 7,000-student McCracken County district. But it was the nation’s second shooting rampage by a student gunman this fall.

In early October, a 16-year-old sophomore at Pearl High School outside Jackson, Miss., was charged with with the shooting deaths of two students and with wounding several more. Five other Pearl High students and one graduate of the school were subsequently charged with conspiracy in connection with the shootings.

“We have transitioned in our schools from fistfights to gunfights,” said Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif., which tracks school violence. “It shouldn’t require an act of courage for parents to send their children to school.”

Since January, 25 students have been slain in U.S. schools, the same number as were killed in calendar year 1996, according to the center. That count is less than half the total of on-campus killings of students in 1993, when the center--which relies solely on news accounts--first started keeping track.

But just three months into the 1997-98 school year, 13 students, including the three female students in West Paducah, have been slain at school. During the entire 1996-97 school year, 19 students were killed while at school.

Creating alternative schools for disruptive students, establishing student discipline codes, and implementing conflict-resolution programs are some of the more common measures school districts have taken to respond to and prevent violence, according to a survey conducted in 1993 by the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va.

Some districts have also put security cameras on school buses, installed metal detectors at school entrances, and conducted locker searches.

Safety and security policies are best decided at the local level, said Gary Marx, a spokesman for the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va. “There’s not just a template that you can put down on every school district and say, ‘This is what you should do,’” he said.

Kentucky Safety Efforts

But deference to local control hasn’t stopped state legislators from adopting laws that they believe will increase safety in all schools. And even before last week’s shootings, Kentucky educators and lawmakers were considering changes to make their schools safer.

State lawmakers are hoping that a school safety bill would help schools better work with students who, on or off campus, have been or have the potential to be violent. Recent school safety campaigns in New Jersey and North Carolina have, through prevention and support, managed to curb teen violence, said Vicki Reed, a youth services specialist for the Kentucky Cabinet for Families and Children in Frankfort.

The proposed Kentucky measure, which will go before lawmakers during the legislative session that begins next month, would require the state education department to collect and analyze data related to school safety, including the number of arrests, the charges, and whether civil charges were pursued by the injured person. One of the major obstacles in assessing the juvenile-crime problem in Kentucky, experts there say, has been a lack of state data tracking juvenile violence or weapons possession on school campuses.

“Parents need assurance that they are sending their kids to a safe environment,” Sen. Ernesto Scorsone, a Democrat and a co-sponsor of the measure, said in an interview last week.

The bill would fine-tune a 1996 measure requiring the state’s juvenile courts to inform teachers when one of their students has been convicted of a felony, such as murder, rape, robbery, or assault. The proposed revision would give court caseworkers five days to notify teachers that a student had been convicted of such a crime. The current law gives teachers who have the student in a class access to the student’s criminal record, but does not set a deadline for notifying the teachers.

Accused Had No Record

In the West Paducah case, the accused student, identified as Michael Carneal, had never had any serious discipline problems in school and had never been suspended, school officials said. He also had no criminal record, so it’s unlikely that the current or proposed legislation could have prevented the shootings.

“It’s hard to say what could have stopped this one,” Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education, said. “I don’t know if anything could.”

But she added: “We support anything that would keep violence out of schools. We’ll hire more people or give people more work to do. We don’t want anyone to be afraid to come to school.”

The Kentucky School Boards Association, which supports the school safety proposal, would also like to see the bill expanded to include state funding for specially trained school resource officers, as well as a state school safety center, which would serve as a clearinghouse on school crime and offer training to school employees.

“Things that your big-city school districts may be prepared for can just as easily happen in a rural setting,” said Brad Hughes, a spokesman for the association.

Mr. Stephens noted that having access to a student’s disciplinary and juvenile records can be helpful since the “typical profile” of a student who commits a violent crime is of someone who has had previous problems in school and with the law. But there are also students, he said, “who fall through the cracks.” Mr. Stephens added that it’s “critically important to simply know the students.”

Others argue that even if all teachers and administrators were aware of the criminal pasts of their students, little good would come of it. Debra Miller, the executive director for the Frankfort-based Kentucky Youth Advocates, a private advocacy organization, expressed concern that teachers would lower academic and behavioral expectations for students whose records were disseminated.

In McCracken County, situated in western Kentucky, a special school board meeting was held last week in the wake of the Heath High School shootings. District leaders decided to form a committee that will review existing research and recommend security procedures for the 12-school system.

Mr. Carneal, the accused student, who was a member of the school band, entered the school through an unlocked door to the band room, as he did every morning, according to school officials.

According to the McCracken County sheriff’s department, the accused student, who has also been charged with burglary, stole weapons--the pistol, two shotguns, and two rifles--from a friend’s house on Thanksgiving Day and brought them to school wrapped in a blanket, saying they were props for a science project.

Immediately after the shooting, Mr. Carneal told authorities he didn’t know why he fired on his fellow students. He later told a prosecutor that he had watched a 1995 movie called “The Basketball Diaries,” in which a high school basketball player dreams about shooting classmates and a teacher. Mr. Carneal’s attorney, Chuck Granner, was still reviewing the case and had not issued a statement as of late last week.

County Sheriff Frank Augustus also speculated publicly last week that other students might have been involved in planning the shootings, but he did not provide evidence to support that theory.

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