WASHINGTON — Shots in a schoolyard in Jonesboro, Ark., last week set off a nationwide search for new answers to the most basic of human questions - how to protect children from harm.
For some, the answer is gun control or tougher punishments for juveniles. Others call for electronic ID systems or more metal detectors in schools. At least 18 states now have legislation in some form recommending or requiring safe-school planning.
Since the safe-school movement began in the mid-1980s, there have been piecemeal attempts to solve the problem: the drug-free school zone, then the gang-free school zone, and most recently the gun-free school zone.
But educators who work with tough school situations argue that the heart of any safe-school strategy is to know students well.
"When a youngster starts pulling the trigger of a gun on a school campus, there's something else that happened prior to that circumstance," says Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake, Calif.
"It could be something subtle, such as a threat, a rumor, name-calling, or even frustration in an English essay or art project that should indicate to a school official that there needs to be a follow-up."
There is no single model of the disturbed shooter to guide teachers and school administrators. Some 40 percent of them have had a history of criminal charges, 24 percent used drugs regularly, and 35 percent were gang members, according to the National School Safety Center, which has been tracking school-related violent deaths since 1992. But many students don't fit this pattern.
What is striking about the Jonesboro case is the young age of the alleged shooters who killed five people on March 24. At 11 and 13, "These are some of the youngest offenders we've seen. Generally victims and perpetrators are in the age range of 15 to 17," says Mr. Stephens.
Educators in Jonesboro say it was the last place to expect such a violent incident. "This is a peaceful community, with not very many violent kids. If it weren't, we probably would have been much more on the alert. But you can be sure that threatening remarks in the future will not be treated with, 'Oh, you don't mean that....,' " says Ann Bauer, who teaches counseling at Arkansas State University and works in Jonesboro schools.
For teachers and staff at Accelerated High School in Fort Worth, Texas, any threat from a student is taken seriously. The ninth-grade alternative school accepts students who are two to three years behind classmates and often bring behavior problems with them.
"We have to be very proactive to catch problems before they escalate," says Principal Maryann Porter. Safety procedures include metal detectors, dogs that sniff out lockers, stiff penalties for weapons possession, and lots of adults on alert in the building. But the first line of defense is knowing students and helping them feel successful and loved.
"We insist on 1-1/2 hour interviews with each youngster. We want to know the parent and the child, not just write a name on a line and say, 'OK, here's your schedule,' " she says.
The school also depends on trust and communication among students and staff. The staff tries to identify students that other kids trust, and train them to be peer mediators. Teachers also pick up on threats of violence and any sign that a student may be being abused or lonely.
Situations that flag attention include: changes of behavior, such as a happy student who is suddenly not; leaders who dominate followers; boyfriend-girlfriend problems; changes in peer groups; or a child eating alone. Counselors also try to teach kids they can say "no" without losing face. "In the end," says Ms. Porter, "kids have to believe that people care about them. Teachers and caring administrators are our first line of defense."
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Suggestions For Safe Schools
Ideas from teachers and administrators include:
* Know children by name. Know their concerns. "It is tough enough to take care of two kids, so how could a principal or teachers care for 600? It involves team work," says Ronald Stephens of the National School Safety Center.
* Put together an action plan, including a discipline code that deals with abusive language and how students and staff treat one another.
* Take talk about weapons seriously. Make sure parents understand the rules and are included in discussions. Report violence and vandalism.
* Prepare a detailed list of agencies to be contacted in emergencies. Designate a media spokesman. "I would make sure that any school has a thorough plan," says counselor Ann Bauer in Jonesboro, Ark.