Lessons from a town that forestalled a school attack

In Wimberley, Texas, kids' trust in adults waylaid student plot to bomb

Ask people why they live in this small central Texas town, and they'll mention the rolling hills and gnarled oaks, the generosity of neighbors and the good public schools.

So it came as a shock to almost everyone last Friday, when a student overheard four eighth-grade boys allegedly talking about blowing up Wimberley Junior High School, and quickly told authorities, who promptly put the boys into detention.

Coming so soon after the shootout in Littleton, Colo., the bomb plot caused somewhat of a panic among Wimberley parents and their children.

Most troubling for folks here was the news that this was no copycat attack: The boys allegedly had been planning it since January. Now, many residents have started to wonder why their safe little town has started looking like the world many of them wanted to leave behind.

"I grew up in Detroit, and when I got out of there, I was looking for a place to raise my kids that would be safe," says Rose Burke, whose eighth-grade daughter attends Wimberley Junior High. "A lot of people are looking for a place like this. But where do you go from here?"

While the plot has sparked a collective soul-searching in Wimberley, it also underscores what it takes to prevent another violent attack by disenchanted youths. Experts say the steps taken in Wimberley are a model for how schools and towns must respond to threats of violence, and how to encourage communication between parents, principals, students, and law-enforcement officers.

"In this case, people did get involved and they paid attention to a threat," says Rodney Hammond, director of the violence-prevention division at the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta. "This sounds like a very good response. You have to strongly encourage different groups of people to feel comfortable communicating and uncomfortable not communicating."

But if Wimberley is a model, it may take a nation of Wimberleys to reverse a troubling trend toward multiple homicides in America's schools. During the past decade, while the overall violent death rates at schools have decreased significantly, the number of multiple-victim incidents has actually increased. According to an ongoing CDC study, there have been an average of five multiple-victim incidents per year from 1995 to '98.

In Wimberley, parents left their ranch houses and subdivisions to gather at the rough-hewn limestone school that was the alleged target. At a packed evening meeting in the cafeteria, school officials were quick to credit the small size of the school and the trust of students who felt comfortable telling authorities about what they'd heard.

"The smaller number of students we have greatly enhances a school's chance at being aware of something that could cause harm," says David Simmons, Wimberley's school superintendent. "We take all of this very seriously, and we're proud of the students and principals who responded to this so quickly."

The swift response drew praise from Wimberley parents.

"The administrators who handled this did it very professionally, so the kids didn't get freaked," says Gloria Ibarra, who moved to Wimberley from Austin 13 years ago, when that city decided to start busing students. While she still thinks Wimberley is "the perfect place to live," she worries about how children and society have changed. "When I heard the news, I thought, 'I put a girl through school here.' "

Even so, many parents said they wanted more to be done. Some called for metal detectors. Some promised to volunteer as hall monitors or mentors. Some blamed an influx in big-city outsiders, and some wanted to know how to spot the warning signs in teen behavior.

"My daughter knows all these kids, they're her friends," says Mrs. Burke, who works with troubled youths as a psychiatric nurse. "So now my daughter is telling me, 'I want to go back to school, but how can I trust it's going to be OK?' "

Scott Kidd, a psychology doctoral student at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, says warning signs for kids reaching the breaking point are easy to see.

IN a survey of the five most recent student rampages - Pearl, Miss., Paducah, Ky., Jonesboro, Ark., Moses Lake, Wash., and Springfield, Ore. - Mr. Kidd has found patterns of behavior that parents, teachers, and students can look for.

*Each offender felt teased by and isolated from his peers.

*Each made threats before the attacks, some via written assignments, others over the Internet.

*Each enacted violent fantasies. Some played role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, while others watched violent movies or music videos, played video games, or obsessed over horror novels.

Of course, not all kids who read Stephen King or listen to Marilyn Manson have murder on their minds, says Kidd, but a preoccupation with any of the above could be cause for concern. Making the task more difficult is the fact that the attackers had little or no contact with the juvenile-justice system - all were middle-class, with good grades.

In the meantime, some Wimberley longtimers wonder when they'll get their old town back.

John Gibbs, a heavy-equipment operator for a construction company, moved here 17 years ago because it's the kind of place where "if you show up to someone's house, you're expected to show up hungry, because they're going to feed you."

"We've got good, well-mannered kids - that's how we raise them," says Mr. Gibbs, a burly, bearded man with a braided ponytail tucked under a dusty baseball cap. "It's just that we've got too much bad outside influence coming in. People bring their money to buy homes, and they bring their kids with their bad attitudes." He pauses. "This town's changed."

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