School Climate & Safety

School Shootings in Policy Spotlight

By Lesli A. Maxwell — October 05, 2006 8 min read
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The three school shootings that left a principal and six students dead in less than a week have sparked a barrage of pledges from national and state political leaders to tighten campus security. But school safety experts urged caution against overreacting to the horrific, but rare, incidents in rural schools in Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

The spate of shootings has thrust school violence into a national spotlight not seen since the 1999 slayings at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo. President Bush said this week that U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales would convene a summit on Oct. 10 in Washington for educators and law-enforcement officials to discuss the recent events and how to respond.

The string of attacks—two by intruders, one by a student—began on Sept. 27, when a 53-year-old gunman took six female students hostage, sexually assaulted them, and killed one before shooting himself in a classroom at Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, Colo.

Two days later, Eric Hainstock, 15, fatally shot his principal at Weston High School in Cazenovia, Wis., a farming community about 70 miles northwest of Madison.

And on Oct. 2, a 32-year-old milk truck driver laid siege to a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pa., shooting and killing five girls, ages 7 through 13, before killing himself. Five other girls were seriously wounded in the attack, and one of them, a 6-year-old, was reported to have been discharged from the hospital to die at home. As members of the Amish community buried their dead, Pennsylvania lawmakers said last week that the state House and Senate education committees would weigh whether to impose statewide security measures for all schools. Among the proposals under consideration were requirements that doors be locked, security officers be hired, and school employees monitor all building entrances.

Shootings Leading Cause of School-Related Violent Deaths

Of the homicides, suicides, and weapons-related violent deaths that occurred at or near schools since the 1992-93 school year, the vast majority were the result of shootings.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Click to enlarge: Shootings Leading Cause of School-Related Violent Deaths

SOURCE: National School Safety Center

In Wisconsin, Gov. James E. Doyle, a Democrat, said last week that he would consider increasing state spending on security to help schools cover the costs of updating their crisis plans and training staff members in how to respond to acts of violence. Mr. Doyle on Oct. 4 attended the funeral of John Klang, the Weston High principal, who was credited with tackling and disarming his attacker after being mortally wounded. Classes resumed at the school on Oct. 5 with new security measures in place: volunteers to greet visitors and issue name tags.

In many communities, local law-enforcement officers stepped up their presence near schools and educators enforced security precautions, such as locking doors and checking in visitors, with renewed attention.

Classes also resumed Oct. 5 at Platte Canyon High School, which had been closed for five days following the shootings there.

Rush to ‘Do Something’

But aside from carrying out existing safety plans, experts urged a measured response to the shootings. Any new safety policies and increased security measures should be done in a thoughtful way, without turning schools into fortresses, they said.

“Understandably, there is a rush in these situations to do something and that gives the illusion that things will be safer,” said Dewey G. Cornell, an education professor and the director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “But the tragedy and distress of these events in our schools can make us lose perspective.”

The attacks by the armed intruders on schools were exceedingly rare, Mr. Cornell said. And, he said, the probability that people will be murdered by students at school is also extremely low.

Between the 1992-93 and 2001-02 school years, 116 people were killed in 93 incidents by students in U.S. schools, Mr. Cornell said, citing data compiled by the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif.

“If you divide those incidents by 119,000 schools, it turns out that the average school can expect something like this once every 12,000 years,” he said.

But, naturally, the brutality of the recent shootings has created new anxieties for students, parents, school leaders, and police, he said.

Locations of Killings at or Near Schools

The violent deaths associated with schools since the 1992-93 school year took place in the following locations.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Click to enlarge: Locations of Killings at or Near Schools

NOTE: The data are compiled from newspaper accounts and updated regularly.
*"On campus” deaths are those that took place at a school, but whose exact location was not reported.

SOURCE: National School Safety Center

“People need to remember that these two cases at two schools out of 119,000 public and private schools across the country is not a trend,” he said, referring to the killings by intruders in Colorado and Pennsylvania. “I don’t think we need to develop a whole new set of policies to deal specifically with this kind of threat. This is not a shortcoming of schools that these deranged men targeted them.”

Fostering an environment for students to talk about the recent shootings and their anxieties should be foremost for school leaders, said Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center, a nonprofit group.

“We have all just been reminded of how vulnerable our schools are, no matter where they are,” Mr. Stephens said. “It’s very important for the adults to keep in touch with the children, to remind them that there are many grown-ups there to protect them and keep them safe.”

On the security front, school leaders ought to review the policies they already have in place and make adjustments if needed, said William Modzeleski, an associate assistant deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Education and the second-in-command in the department’s office of safe and drug-free schools.

Most school administrators already have taken steps to limit outsiders’ access to their buildings, to have emergency plans, and to know what to do when something happens, he said.

“I think many of the tools for making schools safe are already in place,” Mr. Modzeleski said. “But violence in schools is not a static issue, it’s dynamic, so by the same token, it’s a good idea to update and tweak the crisis plans and do staff training.”

Gregory A. Thomas, a former security chief for the New York City public schools, said adults and students with watchful eyes are an overlooked resource.

See Also

Mr. Thomas acknowledged that keeping a determined, armed intruder out of schools may be impossible, especially in the case of the Amish school, which did not have the most basic conventions of school security, such as a telephone or a front-office staff member to greet visitors.

“But in the Colorado case, it’s clear now that the perpetrator had been seen outside the school, and when he came in, nobody challenged him,” said Mr. Thomas, who is now the director of a school preparedness program at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, based at Columbia University.

“That, to me, is a concern, and a lesson every school can take from these tragic events,” Mr. Thomas said. “It goes to the larger issue of having an awareness of your school environment. If a student, teacher, or staff member notices someone roaming around that doesn’t look like they have an association with the school, they should tell someone.”

“The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States” is available from the United States Secret Service.
“The National School Safety Center’s Report on School Associated Violent Deaths” is posted by the National School Safety Center.

Creating real and imagined barriers around schools is another way to deter intruders who are looking for a vulnerable target, he said. “Imagined” barriers are measures as simple as signs that tell visitors to report to the front office for a pass, or reminders that the school is in a “gun-free, drug-free zone that tells people there will be more dramatic consequences for certain behaviors,” Mr. Thomas said.

A real barrier would be the presence of more adults, whether staff members, principals, teachers, or parent volunteers, outside doors, in hallways, and in parking lots.

Keeping a Lookout

Mr. Cornell of the University of Virginia, who advises school administrators on security issues, cautioned policymakers and educators against measures to “fortify” schools, such as installing metal detectors and hiring police or armed security officers to patrol them. Those features tend to become more a pacifier than a panacea, he said.

“That should be the last resort,” he said. “Remember, in the school shooting at [Red Lake Indian Reservation in Minnesota], the first person to get shot was the school security officer.”

On March 21, 2005, a student gunman at Red Lake High School killed five students, a teacher, the security guard, and himself. Jeff Weise, 16, had also shot and killed his grandfather and his grandfather’s companion before arriving at the school.

Assessing Threats

In June 1999, after the shootings at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., the National Threat Assessment Center of the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education launched the Safe Schools Initiative.

The project involved a study of 37 “targeted” school shootings—defined as those where the school was deliberately chosen as the place of attack—since 1974 to determine whether such incidents had common threads or could have been prevented. The project’s final report, in May 2002, concluded that:

• Incidents of targeted violence at school rarely were sudden, impulsive acts.

• Prior to most incidents, other people knew about the attacker’s idea and/or plans to attack.

• Most attackers did not threaten their targets directly prior to advancing the attack.

• There is no accurate or useful profile of students who engaged in targeted school violence.

• Most attackers engaged in some behavior prior to the incident that caused others concern or indicated a need for help.

• Most attackers had difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures. Moreover, many had considered or attempted suicide.

• Many attackers felt bullied, persecuted, or injured by others prior to the attack.

• Most attackers had access to and had used weapons prior to the attack.

• In many cases, other students were involved in some capacity.

• Despite prompt law- enforcement responses, most shooting incidents were stopped by means other than law- enforcement intervention.

SOURCE: Safe Schools Initiative

Mr. Modzeleski, the federal education official, said Luke Woodham, the 16-year-old student gunman who shot and killed six classmates at Pearl High School in Pearl, Miss., in 1997, told him in an interview that a metal detector or police officer on duty would not have stopped his rampage.

The interview was part of a “threat assessment” conducted by the Secret Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Education Department after the Columbine massacre to help school officials and law enforcement identify students likely to become perpetrators of violence at school.

Looking for bullied, disenfranchised students—apparently like Eric Hainstock, the Wisconsin boy who killed the Weston High principal—should remain the priority for school leaders, said Mr. Thomas, the former security chief for the New York City schools. The teenager, abused by his father and teased by classmates who accused him of being gay, according to reports of contents of the criminal complaint against him, had been disciplined a day earlier by Principal Klang for bringing tobacco to school.

“I don’t want people to lose sight of the fact that sandwiched between these two events with armed intruders was another student shooting,” Mr. Thomas said said of the recent incidents. “The outsider stuff is very rare and may go away, but still there are students who are troubled and will use their schools as targets of violence.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 2006 edition of Education Week as School Shootings in Policy Spotlight


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