School Climate & Safety

Tenn. Killing Underscores Job Dangers for Leaders

By Jessica L. Tonn — November 11, 2005 5 min read
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The school shooting at Campbell County Comprehensive High School in Jacksboro, Tenn., Nov. 8, which left one assistant principal dead and the principal and another assistant principal seriously wounded, is an extreme example of the dangers school leaders can face on the job.

Called on to discipline disruptive students, mediate arguments, and, as in Jacksboro, confront individuals carrying weapons, administrators put their own safety on the line to protect students and teachers.

Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center, a nonprofit group in Westlake Village, Calif., that offers administrators training in how to deal with school violence, said “school work is a dangerous business.”

“If we want to make our campuses safe for our children,” he said, “we first have to make them safe for the adults who supervise them.”

But exactly how risky a building administrator’s job can be is unclear. Neither the federal government nor major national administrators’ associations track data on the number of assaults against school administrators.

The federal government does track incidents of violence involving teachers and students. According to “Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2004,” a report by the National Center for Education Statistics, 9 percent of public and private school teachers reported that they had received threats of injury from a student, and 4 percent said they were victims of assault by a student, during the 1999-2000 school year.

Victims of Violence

Even though statistical evidence of the dangers that school leaders face is lacking, news reports and testimony from administrators themselves illustrate the potential risks.

William Murphy, a former vice principal at Seaside High School in Seaside, Calif., is one of those administrators.

After a basketball game in February 2005 at his high school, a 20-year-old man who was taunting the opposing team beat up Mr. Murphy after he told the man he was calling the police. Mr. Murphy, who was knocked unconscious and then hit repeatedly by the man, missed six weeks of school after the incident. His injuries were so severe that several titanium plates had to be put in his face, and his jaw was wired shut.

The incident also dramatized what many see as an increasingly fractious atmosphere surrounding youth sports competition, with school administrators as well as coaches among the targets of parents’ and fans’ verbal and physical assaults. (“Angry Parents Place Coaches in Tough Spots,” April 20, 2005.)

James Anderson, the man who beat Mr. Murphy, is serving six years in state prison for the crime, according to the Monterey County district attorney’s office.

Now the principal at Central Coast High School in Monterey, Calif., Mr. Murphy said that the incident at Seaside High was unfortunate, but that he doesn’t believe anything similar will happen again.

“I never expected to be a victim of anything,” he said in an interview. “I guess it goes with the territory.”

Fortunately for Mr. Murphy, his attacker did not have a gun. Several other administrators have not been so lucky.

In the Nov. 8 incident at 1,400-student Campbell County High, a 15-year-old student allegedly shot and killed Assistant Principal Ken Bruce and wounded Principal Gary Seale and Assistant Principal Jim Pierce. The men reportedly were shot while trying to wrestle a handgun away from the boy.

A few moments later, despite suffering a wound in the lower abdomen, Mr. Seale managed to get to a building intercom to order a lockdown at the school, according to students.

In recent years, other deadly or serious assaults on administrators have occurred.

For instance, in April 2003, a 14-year-old boy shot and fatally wounded the principal of Red Lion Area Junior High School in York County, Pa. The boy shot the principal in a cafeteria full of students before killing himself. (“Pa. Student Kills Principal, Himself,” April 30, 2003.)

Safety Tactics

Kenneth S. Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm, works with many school districts across the country. He recommends simple steps that school leaders can take to protect themselves, such as situating their desks so that they sit close to the door in case they have to make a quick exit.

Mr. Trump also stresses the importance of not sending students to a principal’s office if they are suspected of having a weapon.

“While the facts of each situation will vary, the best practice is for the adult authorities to go to where the student is located,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Curt Lavarello, the executive director of the School Safety Advocacy Council, a Florida-based group that works throughout the state and nation, agrees.

“In a case where someone could be armed, the only person that you should send in is an armed person,” said Mr. Lavarello, a former school resource officer, as campus safety officers are often called. He added that most school resource officers carry firearms.

School safety experts urge administrators to prepare for potential incidents by updating their crisis plans annually, reviewing them with staff members and students, and practicing drills. And school leaders should not be the only people responsible for campus safety, those experts say.

Mr. Trump recalled a training session he was leading in which an administrator said, “ ‘I’m not worried about having a crisis plan in my school—I have it all here,’ ” pointing at his own head.

“What we want to see ideally is that support staff and teachers are prepared if the building leader is not there,” Mr. Trump said.

Or, as was the case in Campbell County, if the building leader is a victim.

Interim Principal Named

In the wake of the shooting at Campbell County Comprehensive High School, district officials have named Assistant Principal John Turnblazer as the interim principal, according to a school official. The Tennessee Department of Education has also dispatched counselors and other help to the 6,100-student county district, located 35 miles northwest of Knoxville, for students and staff members. The school did not hold classes for the remainder of the week after the shooting.

Both injured principals were in stable condition as of Nov. 11, according to a spokesperson for the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville.

The fact that three administrators were shot “adds an extra component” to the counseling process, said Rachel Woods, a spokeswoman for the state education department.

“[Administrators] are almost like a parent,” Ms. Woods said. “[Students] rely on them to keep [them] safe.”

Mr. Murphy, the California principal who was beaten up, wanted to get back to his school duties as quickly as he could. He said that he worried that his students would think: “If I’m in a school where the principal can be taken out, what chance do I have?”

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This article includes reporting by the Associated Press.

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