School Climate & Safety

Student Tips Called Key To Avert Violence

By Darcia Harris Bowman — March 14, 2001 8 min read
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Like most of the school shooters before him, Charles Andrew Williams apparently made no secret of his desire to open fire on his classmates. In fact, the Santee, Calif., youth reportedly invited several friends to join him in the shooting spree last week at Santana High School that left two students dead.

Revelations that the bloody scene might have been prevented if word of Mr. Williams’ dark musings had only reached the right adults troubled violence- prevention experts and school officials around the country.

“It’s just déjà vu—I’ve been there, done that, seen that,” said Bill J. Bond, the principal of Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky., where three students died and five others were wounded in December 1997 after a 14-year-old freshman opened fire into a circle of praying students.

“In order for us, the principals, to really protect kids, kids have to help us—because it’s the kids who know,” Mr. Bond said. “In my case in Paducah, 12 kids saw that gun, and no one came forward.”

Mr. Williams, a freshman at the 1,900-student high school 10 miles north of San Diego, had told at least one adult that he was going to take a gun to school, according to subsequent accounts. And several friends said they unsuccessfully searched him for a weapon before the start of classes on Monday of last week. But no one took the 15-year-old seriously enough to report his threats to school or law-enforcement officials.

“He was telling us how he was going to bring a gun to school, but we thought he was just joking,” Santana High student Neil O’Grady, 15, told CNN. “We were like, ‘Yeah, right.’”

But Mr. Williams wasn’t joking. At about 9:20 a.m. on March 5, he allegedly started shooting in a school restroom with a .22-caliber revolver smuggled into the building in his backpack. The gun belonged to his father.

In the few minutes it took San Diego County sheriff’s deputies to reach him, 15 people were shot. In addition to the two students who died, 11 teenagers and two staff members were injured. Classes resumed on March 7, the same day that Mr. Williams, who faces being tried as an adult, made his first appearance in court.

Authorities ordered heightened security at the school on March 8 after several student saw a message posted on a chat line that threatened “to finish what Andy began,” according to a San Diego County Sheriff’s Department spokesman.

Telling on Friends

The explosion of violence at Santana High School was the latest in a series of schoolhouse shootings that have rocked suburban and rural communities across the country in recent years. It was the worst such episode since the April 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., in which two teenagers shot and killed 12 fellow students and a teacher before turning their guns on themselves. (“A Colo. Community Looks for Answers After Deadly Attack,” April 28, 1999, and “Colorado District Copes Amid Grief, Fear,” May 5, 1999.)

Though law-enforcement officials have warned against forming a profile of the “school shooter,” the descriptions last week of the Santana High student known as “Andy” to his friends were eerily familiar: male, slight of build, a target of bullies, a teenage outcast relegated to the fringes of high school culture.

And like others before him, Mr. Williams reportedly aired his plans for violence before he showed up in school with a gun.

The FBI calls it “leakage.” Young people contemplating violence often reveal thoughts and fantasies to those around them that serve as clues. Getting wind of those “leaks” is critical in enabling schools and police to head off potential tragedies, but teenagers have proved to be reluctant informers.

In a recent review of 37 school shootings, the U.S. Secret Service found that the teenage gunmen in nearly three-quarters of the cases had told someone—a friend, a classmate, or sibling—about their interest in mounting such an attack. (“All Threats Aren’t Equal, FBI Cautions,” Sept. 13, 2000.)

Better than half had told more than one person. In one instance, an attacker made comments to at least 24 friends and classmates about killing other students. But the report said only rarely did anyone report the threats.

Persuading young people to talk to adults—especially if it means snitching on a friend—is no easy task, experts say, and school officials will have to work hard to win their trust.

“There is a long history in youth culture of seeing adults as adversaries, and keeping secrets from adults and not ratting on your friends,” said James Garbarino, the author of the 1999 book Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How WeCan Save Them and the director of the Family Life Development Center at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. “Kids need to feel confident that if they come forward, their friends will be helped, and not just punished. Schools need to make sure every kid hears that message.”

Even when school officials are clear about their policies, however, students still may feel they alone shoulder the responsibility for deciding whether a threat is serious.

Evan F. Kuehn, 16, a junior at the 1,500-student Yorktown High School in Arlington, Va., learned the hard way about the consequences of keeping quiet when one of his friends attempted suicide last year. The boy had constantly spoken of killing himself and was often depressed, but friends didn’t think the problem was serious enough to tell an adult.

“It didn’t seem to me he would take action on it,” Mr. Kuehn recalled. “I thought, ‘He just gets into bad moods sometimes, and I’ll just try to be a good friend.’ ”

Mr. Kuehn still isn’t sure he would turn to an adult—especially a teacher or principal. “If you think about it hypothetically,” he said, “I guess you should always be too careful, and you should say something, but it’s hard.”

Russell J. Skiba, an associate professor of education and the director of the federally financed Safe and Responsible Schools Program at Indiana University Bloomington, said the barriers that prevent youths from trusting authority figures are many and formidable. Teenagers’ fear of retaliation by their peers and their resentment for what they view as stifling, adult-imposed rules keep them silent, he said.

Possibly compounding the problem, Mr. Skiba suggested, are the tough responses many schools have adopted to even the mildest-seeming threats.

“There is an overwhelming sense of ‘us and them,’ and ‘the administration doesn’t understand us, and they’re just out to enforce meaningless rules.’ Even the kids who are school leaders feel this way,” he said. “Zero-tolerance policies probably exacerbate this. Kids rely on us to react wisely in these situations, but as they look around the country, I think they see adults acting rather foolishly.”

Getting the Message

The good news, many officials say, is that some students are coming forward.

In the aftermath of the Santee shooting, police arrested at least eight students at five Southern California schools for planning similar attacks after students tipped off authorities.

Laura M. Comeau, who is a freshman at Yorktown High in Virginia and part of Mr. Kuehn’s circle of friends, said she’s learned not to take any chances. “It’s important to tell an adult, because you can never tell when someone is joking,” the 14-year-old said. “We all feel safe at Yorktown, but it could happen anywhere.”

Nationally, school officials have gone to great lengths to make students feel secure. The Columbine tragedy focused intense public interest on the issue of school safety and spurred government agencies and districts to invest heavily in violence prevention. Santana High School was apparently no different.

Last year, the 22,000- student Grossmont school district, which includes Santana High, received $1.1 million in state safe-schools funding. And like other California school systems, it employed safety officers and counselors, provided peer-mediation and conflict-resolution education, and encouraged students to report violent threats made by their peers.

“From a planning standpoint and a programmatic standpoint, they were well-prepared,” said Bill White, the administrator of the California education department’s Safe Schools and Violence Prevention Program. “If one kid had gone to the administration, all our programs would look like a success.”

In the end, though, the district’s efforts weren’t enough to ward off last week’s violent incident. That has led some experts to conclude that too little attention is being paid to teaching children how to communicate.

Beyond Metal Detectors

“We need to get beyond the metal detectors to put a human face on school safety, and get people to talk— the earlier the better,” said Stephen R. Sroka, a retired Cleveland teacher and an adjunct professor at Case Western Reserve University’s Center for Adolescent Health.

“Kids know more about what’s going on [than adults], but the problem is we have this culture where you can’t snitch or rat on somebody,” said Mr. Sroka, who conducts crisis-intervention seminars around the country and was scheduled to visit Santana High School this spring. “The research shows elementary school kids can mediate, so we need to teach them at a young age to talk it out, rather than hit it out.”

If schools hope to break teenagers’ unwritten code of silence, experts say, they will have to convince them that they will be protected if they report threats or other problems, and that the information they provide will be acted on quickly and with compassion.

“First, adults need to get across [to students] that it’s not ratting on friends, but it’s a matter of taking responsibility for their own safety,” said Joanne McDaniel, the acting director of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence in Raleigh, N.C. “But there’s also a fear of retaliation, and adults need to create safe avenues of reporting for students. There needs to be a mechanism in place and then that needs to be made known to everyone.”

But hot lines for anonymous tips are no substitute for caring relationships between adults and young people, Ms. McDaniel advised.

“It’s really a personal approach,” she said. “We have to be persistent and reach out and make sure every student in a school feels like there’s an adult who cares about them.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as Student Tips Called Key To Avert Violence

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