In another school shooting, a pattern holds

Andy Williams made no secret of his hatred for nearly everyone at Santana High School.

Repeatedly and openly, the wisp of a ninth grader told those around him that one day he would steal his father's revolver, go to his suburban San Diego school, and start shooting.

Surely it was just a joke, people thought. Many times, Andy, too, said he was kidding. Yet the threats became so frequent and specific that friends searched his sweatshirt and pants for a gun Monday morning.

An hour later, Andy allegedly took his father's revolver from his backpack and opened fire in the school's bathroom, killing two and wounding 13 others.

As with other school shootings from West Paducah, Ky., to Littleton, Colo., there were warning signals. But Monday's tragedy is also highlighting how difficult it is to distinguish between idle threats and murderous intent.

So far, it appears that the 15-year-old suspect had no arsenal - no diagrams or master plans.

Moreover, he had made the threats for months and nothing had come of them. Now, parents and school officials are left to wonder where they should draw the line when students fume about their teenage frustrations.

"There's a danger in erring in both directions," says Dewey Cornell, a professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville who has studied school violence. "We've tended to overreact when children make nonserious threats, and then we tend to overlook some of the more serious situations."

Without question, people are paying more attention. At least seven violent plots by students have been uncovered and thwarted in the past month alone.

In some cases, teachers have simply done a better job of listening to their pupils. In others, students themselves have come forward to report classmates. One attempt was even foiled by a photo lab clerk, who alerted police when she developed a picture of a community college student with his cache of weapons.

"There are a lot [of these events] that have been stopped," says Peter Sheras of the Virginia Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia.

A recent study by the Secret Service that looked at school shootings since 1974 showed that students overwhelmingly told people about their plans before they carried them out. The renewed sensitivity to these threats has meant that violent attacks in schools have declined. Nine years ago, there were a record 52 school killings. In 1999, the study reports, there were only 13.

The events at Santana High School, however, show the difficulty of quelling every threat. Indeed, everyone involved in studying school violence stresses that the factors that lead a teen to kill are enormously complex.

But several common threads among many of the cases have led experts to focus on several particular areas - from bullying to the prevalence of guns.

Similar profiles

In many ways, the profiles of each student shooter in recent years are similar: white, middle class, male, and mostly suburban. In addition, most have fit into one telling category: They've been outcasts.

Those who knew Andy say he hung out with friends in a local skate park, sometimes drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. A policeman once came across Andy when he had several 40-ounce bottles of beer, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Small and even called scrawny, Andy was mocked by classmates and bullied by upperclassmen, students added. It's this bullying that has caught many people's attention.

"I can't tell you how many calls I get a year about bullying as a precursor to these kinds of episodes," says Ted Feinberg, assistant executive director for the National Association of School Psychologists. "We need to make sure that we don't allow bullying any more than we tolerate sexual harassment."

Indeed, many researchers say bullying has been cast off as an inevitable - and not necessarily bad - part of growing up. Increasingly, however, psychologists and school officials are seeing bullying as an unacceptable phenomenon that leads to deeper and more damaging violence - especially among boys.

"Boys bully each other with direct physical aggression, while girls do it through exclusion," says Barri Rosenbluth of SafePlace, a domestic-violence center in Texas.

The solution, many say, lies in a broad effort to eradicate the problem, which can be difficult in large schools. There is often a greater sense of detachment between students and faculty. Indeed, many of the recent school shootings have occurred in big schools.

Experts say staff need to be trained in how to handle bullying without making the situation worse. Parents need to be informed and involved.

"More and more schools are instituting bullyproofing groups," says Joshua Miller of the Smith College School for Social Work in Northampton, Mass. "[They] teach ... strategies - who to talk to and what to do - because kids get bullied so much."

Missing the point

To others, though, focusing on bullying as a trigger to school violence is missing the point.

At its heart, these experts say, school violence hints at a much deeper societal disconnect. More than at any time in the past, children are not developing a sense of belonging to their families or communities.

The reasons are well-documented: Parents' mounting work schedules mean kids are increasingly spending more time without supervision. In essence, adolescents are treated like adults before they're ready for the responsibility. "We are leaving them out there to themselves, while living our own lives," says Patricia Hersch, author of "A Tribe Apart," a book on adolescence. "We don't pay attention until something like this happens."

Add the improved access to guns and the images of violence portrayed in film and television, and ill-adjusted American teens too often resort to violence when beset by deep-seated frustration.

"The common element here is guns," adds Laurence Steinberg, a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. "How many events like this do you get in Britain, France, Japan, and Canada? They have kids and bullies there, too."

Schools still safe

Statistics confirm that American schools remain safe. These shootings are anomalies.

But schools and researchers agree that more can be done to overcome the "conspiracy of silence." They say there is a balance between acting responsibly and overreacting, and that boundary must be defined better.

"But how many times does this have to happen?" asks Ms. Hersch. "We must take them seriously, whether they say they are kidding or not."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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