After School Shooting, New Self-Examination

Tuesday's tragedy at an Arkansas school is aberration, studies on school safety show.

When two young boys opened fire on their fellow students in the rural Arkansas town of Jonesboro, they prompted an immediate national soul search over the causes of violence among youths.

The shooting Tuesday was the fourth time in six months that a student has killed classmates on campus.

"I do think we've reached the point where we have to analyze these incidents to see whether or not we can learn anything [and] what we can do to prevent further ones," President Clinton said yesterday from Africa, after learning about the tragedy in his home state. He called for Attorney General Janet Reno to gather experts and investigate the problem.

But in spite of this rash of shootings, statistical data show that schools are among the safest places for children to be.

"When you have all these incidents, there's a perception out there that violence is getting out of hand," says Bill Modzeleski, director of the US Education Department's Safe and Drug Free Schools Program. "The reality is not quite as dramatic."

The evidence is that schools, if anything, are becoming safer.

A study, released last week by the National Center for Education Statistics, found that a violent crime occurred in 1 in 10 schools. The survey, based on responses from 1,234 principals about crime on campus last year, found that elementary schools experience the least amount of crime - only 4 percent reported any serious crime. In contrast, 19 percent of middle schools - like the one in Jonesboro, Ark. - and 21 percent of high schools reported such crimes.

Furthermore, rural schools are typically safer than suburban and city schools.

A 1994 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that only 9.5 percent of rural schools reported experiencing crimes, compared with 60 percent of city schools and 30 percent of suburban schools.

Still, the Jonesboro shooting is part of a growing number of "multiple injury" crimes that are unlike the gang violence that began to be seen in schools in the 1980s.

"These incidents are more like a postal-employee shooting people when he gets fired than they are like any sort of gangs," says David Kennedy, a professor specializing in gun violence at Harvard University's JFK School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. "This is imitative behavior by what's inevitably going to be a small group of kids."

In looking for causes of these kinds of incidents, some observers point to society at large.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) said that such crimes shouldn't be a surprise "in a culture where children are exposed to tens of thousands of murders on television and movies."

But one of the unanswered Jonesboro questions was how two cousins, barely old enough to qualify as adolescents, came to possess a cache of weapons that included rifles and pistols. One classmate said the younger boy, 11, owned a gun and went deer hunting often.

Indeed, in the after-school world of the rural South, teenagers often dash home, swap books for a gun, and head out to hunt rabbits or duck. Passersby pay little heed to gun-toting youngsters. Firearms are a fixture of the heritage here, and Arkansas has no law prohibiting minors from possessing shotguns or rifles. Students who bring weapons onto school property, however, are suspended for a calendar year.

"It [firearms] may be a contributing factor," says Tom Cox, school superintendent in Newport, Ark., 25 miles south of Jonesboro. But he suggests other societal issues - such as dissolution of traditional family structures and glamorized gun violence on television and in movies - may also be at play.

Others discount any connection between the prevalence of guns in the rural South and shootings at four small-town Southern schools since October.

"Ninety-nine percent of all the young people in this area have grown up with guns and have been taught to respect them," says Danny Wright, assistant principal at the high school in Lonoke, Ark. Last January, Lonoke residents were stunned by a shooting in which a college student, home on vacation, gunned down his parents and sister when they returned home from a high-school basketball game.

Since then, the town of 4,000 has banded together to try to prevent teen violence. Youth-mentoring programs are in the works, and volunteers have signed on in large numbers to help create more after-school activities.

Some observers also suggest that the rebelliousness that is a part of Southern culture can give rise to violent tendencies.

In the Jonesboro case, "We can't overlook the fact that these boys were dressed in military fatigues," says Andrew Chishom, professor of criminal justice at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. "That may represent the conservative agenda that's in defiance of government and other authority - or anyone who has wronged them."

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