School Climate & Safety

Officials Take No Chances After Killings

By Jessica Portner — June 03, 1998 6 min read
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Educators are dealing aggressively with student threats as a school year marked by a succession of campus shootings nears its end. Even seemingly idle threats are being taken more seriously than they might have been in the past, and administrators are dispensing swift punishment to students who even suggest injuring someone at school.

“We are in a heightened state of awareness,” Max Riley, the superintendent of the 2,600-student Plainville, Conn., schools, said last week. Mr. Riley suspended an 8th grader late last month after the 14-year-old said he intended to discharge a bomb at his school’s graduation ceremony.1

“We didn’t want to take a chance. Nothing’s going to happen in my schools if I can do anything to stop it,” the superintendent said.

Worried that nationally reported incidents elsewhere may inspire their students to engage in copycat violence, many schools are employing tactics such as expulsion, calls to police, and tighter security in response to students’ threats.

  • On May 23, police in Little Egg Harbor, N.J., arrested a 15-year-old student and charged him with making terroristic threats after he showed a teacher at Pinelands Regional High School a drawing of a violent act.
  • Officials in the 1,435-student Gillespie, Ill., public schools canceled classes May 22 after police warned that a group of young people had threatened to use stolen firearms to pick a fight at one of the schools.
  • Concerned about recent rumors of violence at school last month, leaders of the Shawnee Heights Unified School District near Topeka, Kan., increased security and rescheduled an 8th grade dance from evening to daytime hours. “We didn’t want to have to wait to react,’' said Cleo Gardner, the principal of Shawnee Heights Middle School. “We wanted to be proactive.’'

While a strict response to campus threats is important, administrators and other experts say, it’s often difficult to distinguish between youthful bravado or adolescent joking and a serious intent to inflict harm.

“Despite all the high-tech safety strategies, there isn’t a metal scanner that will determine whether a youngster is going to commit an act of violence,” said Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif. But tough talk and acts of intimidation are early warning signs that should be followed, he said.

“It makes a lot more sense to err on the side of caution than writing these threats off as meaningless and insignificant,” Mr. Stephens said.

Balancing Act

Administrators and teachers have not lacked for recent examples that violence can strike even in usually safe schools.

In Springfield, Ore., two students were killed and 22 others were injured in a shooting rampage May 21 at Thurston High School. Freshman Kipland P. “Kip” Kinkel, 15, has been charged in the shootings.

Mr. Kinkel, who reportedly talked to other students about committing a violent act, had been arrested a day earlier for bringing a gun to school. He was released to his parents, who were later found dead. Mr. Kinkel has also been charged with their murders.

A month earlier, a 14-year-old student is alleged to have shot and killed a science teacher at an 8th grade dinner dance in Edinboro, Pa.

In March, two heavily armed boys in Jonesboro, Ark., ages 11 and 13, allegedly opened fire on a crowd of students at their middle school, killing four classmates and a teacher.

Students also are accused of multiple, fatal shootings at high schools in West Paducah, Ky., and Pearl, Miss., this school year.

Most districts haven’t altered their disciplinary policies in response to such incidents, but are simply imposing the harshest penalties already at their disposal, which most often means expulsion.

In general, schools have not been held legally liable for failing to take steps to stop a crime from being committed, but they have been held responsible for violations of students’ rights when imposing penalties.

As a result, some school leaders are concerned that in their desire to protect students and staff members by responding vigorously to warnings of potential violence, they are making themselves vulnerable to lawsuits. Parents who believe that their child--who ultimately failed to follow through on a threat--was treated unfairly could take legal action, administrators fear.

“What schools worry about is going too far because there is a potential liability for expelling a kid without due process, and there are a lot of restrictions on how far they can go,” said Gwendolyn H. Gregory, an outside legal counsel to the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va.

“If schools respond too harshly, they can be sued under a variety of different laws because they acted too rashly against the student,” she said.

A 14-year-old student in the Cabrillo, Calif., public schools recently filed a lawsuit against the district after being suspended for five days for threatening an administrator. The suit claims school officials overreacted.

Emi Uyehara, the district’s lawyer, said the 9,000-student system “acted reasonably and appropriately and didn’t jump to conclusions.” A hearing in a state court is set for August.

Guns and Television

While expelling a student who threatens to commit a crime, canceling school events, or beefing up security might inhibit crimes in the short term, school mental-health experts say the long-term solution should be to help students learn how to manage their anger better.

Children watch movies and television programs that glorify violence and fail to teach them how to express their rage in nonviolent ways, said Kevin P. Dwyer, the assistant executive director of the National Association for School Psychologists in Bethesda, Md. “You’re watching Rambo and the message is: ‘I am emotionally angry; I’m going to kill someone,’” he said.

In general, staff members should work together to keep their antennae up when they patrol school corridors for signs of students in distress and should refer students to mental-health services if they display emotional problems, Mr. Dwyer said.

Another way to prevent campus violence is to make weapons less accessible to children, school safety experts say. Several of the students accused in the recent school shootings used firearms that belonged to relatives, according to news reports.

But Franklin Zimring, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, and an expert on juvenile crime, argues that the latest string of shootings cannot be blamed on any spike in youths’ access to weapons or an increase in violence in entertainment.

The pattern of the shootings suggests that they were copycat crimes spurred largely by news coverage that left the impression that the earlier assailants were forceful, rather than pathetic, characters, he said.

Most other homicides at schools have been gang-related or involved personal disputes, but these latest shootings appear to have targeted groups of people who had had no conflict with the accused assailants, Mr. Zimring said.

“These kids are imitating the news,” he said. “The shooters are portrayed as virile and destructive, and that’s just what a vengeful 15-year-old wants.”

Luckily, Mr. Zimring said, the end of the school year should dissipate the news coverage and decrease the likelihood of further imitators. “The good news is summer vacation,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 03, 1998 edition of Education Week as Officials Take No Chances After Killings

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