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Teachers' difficult role in preventing violence

After Colo. school attack, educators wrestle with ways to keep classes

By Jillian LloydSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 26, 1999



DENVER

During bowling class, they hailed strikes with Nazi salutes. They made a video that fellow students said foretold their act of violence, and one published a Web site filled with hateful messages.

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In the year before they went on a shooting spree in a Littleton, Colo., high school, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold left behind a host of clues. Now, as people in Littleton and around the United States ask why these warning signs were not heeded, some of the focus is shifting to teachers' role in quelling potentially dangerous student behavior before it turns violent.

Certainly, teachers are not solely to blame for incidents of school violence. In Littleton, law-enforcement officials have criticized the suspects' parents, saying that bombmaking materials were in plain sight at one home. Still, teachers are on the front lines of daily interaction with teens, and many here are already taking a deeper look at how they interact with their students - and what they can do to prevent such a tragedy in their own classrooms.

"This whole event has brought everyone back to ground zero," says Barbara Taylor, communications director of the Boulder Valley School District. "Everyone is so highly sensitized now to how kids are thinking and what's going on in their lives. They were doing this before, obviously. Now, even more so."

The challenges teachers face in trying to pay more attention to their students' behavior are myriad. During the course of any day, public high school teachers may instruct upwards of 100 students. The range of normal behavior they observe spans from outgoing and boisterous to quiet and bookish. And even when disturbing behavior becomes apparent, it's difficult for them to do anything without treading on privacy rights.

So how do teachers ferret out and deal with the often subtle clues that something is awry? Richard Ellsworth, a social-studies teacher at South High School in Denver, says the process is one of observation. "One of the first indications is when a kid doesn't act like a kid," he says. "I look for anything out of the norm - when they act very different from the way they acted before. I ask if anything is wrong, and if there is, I try to get help for them. But it doesn't always work."

With nine deadly school shootings in the US during the past three years, teachers and administrators have been searching for ways to improve the dialogue between students and teachers. Yet, at the same time, they are having to deal with expanding class size and shrinking funding. "In these huge schools, you don't have the luxury of developing close relationships with students," says Richard Kraft, an education professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "It's a tremendous challenge teachers face."

Steve Lantz, a science teacher at Cherry Creek High School, struggles with this daily. With a student body of 3,600, Cherry Creek is the largest high school in the Denver area - and one of the largest in the nation. "You do pick up on trouble spots, but on every single day you can't know what's going on in the lives of the 140 kids you teach," he says. "With 3,600 students, the statistical probability that you'll have someone with buried anger exists."

So in response to the shootings in Littleton, Cherry Creek has focused on prevention. "We're telling the kids, don't be afraid to tell us a rumor you hear," he says. "Even if they don't take it seriously, we want to know about it."

Indeed, over the weekend, investigators said the two suspects in the Littleton shootings had compiled for more than a year a diary plotting the attack, adding that others may have been involved as well. In light of these discoveries, many people here say it's likely that some students may have heard of the plan but didn't tell anyone.

At Cherry Creek, teachers are holding in-class discussions about student violence, and stressing the need for tolerance. "We teach kids that diversity is to be celebrated," says Mr. Lantz. "We tell them that they can't live in a modern world without respect for others."

WHEN a student is identified as a potential threat, though, "all the staff is put on alert," he says. Lantz recalls one student who seemed obsessed with the darker side of life: "His papers included sketches of death scenes, and for a research project, he chose the topic of death."

His parents and the school counselor were notified, and the staff kept an eye on him. He graduated without incident. "Teachers do know how to spot that sort of situation, and we look for it on a daily basis," Lantz says.

Yet teachers also must proceed with caution when they delve into personal areas, considering both privacy issues and legal liability, says South High teacher Ellsworth. For example, if a teacher is especially attentive to a student - or meets with one privately - it might prompt accusations of an inappropriate relationship. "The way the world is today, everything is controversial," he says.

Tim Hillmer, who teaches English at Monarch High School in Louisville, Colo., gets his clues on students from their writing assignments. At the beginning of each year, he asks students to write a report on their life history, charting the highs and lows. "I find that helps me get to know the kids real quick."

But identifying a troubled student can be the easy part of the solution. "It can't all be put on teachers or schools," he says. "It's got to be the parents, and it's got to be the community, too."