New guide draws on lessons from school attacks

Evan Ramsey told friends to stand in the school's mezzanine above the lobby if they wanted to watch him shoot the principal. Word spread, and 24 students showed up.

But no one told any staff member. Evan was sentenced to life in prison for killing the principal and another classmate five years ago in Bethel, Alaska.

A new government study confirms what this case illustrates: Most school violence comes after warning signs.

Government officials are currently using a related guide, prepared by the United States Department of Education and the Secret Service, in one-day training sessions across the nation to help schools stop potential student attackers.

"Threat Assessment in Schools" recommends how to build trust between students and adults to create channels for the flow of crucial information. That may involve making sure that every teen on campus is personally known by at least one teacher or counselor. And students should be taught that any inhibitions about "squealing" are less important than saving lives.

The agencies examined 37 school attacks over 25 years, including the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Colorado. The study found similarities in the perpetrators' approach and personalities. Violent students usually discussed plans beforehand, had experience with weapons, and had been bullied, but did not all have poor grades or mental-health history, as was previously assumed.

The study was the final report of the Safe Schools Initiative, set up in response to Columbine. It built upon the Secret Service's research into the behavior of people who have attempted lethal attacks on prominent figures.

In 30 of the school incidents, an attacker had told at least one person beforehand. Nearly all the cases were planned at least two days in advance, with half planned for a month or longer.

Even attackers who didn't mention their plans showed clues in their behavior before the attacks. For instance, one student asked friends to help him obtain ammunition and went shopping with his mother for a long trench coat, which he later used to conceal a sawed-off rifle.

The guide recommends that schools set up threat-assessment teams to follow up on suspicions that a student poses a risk. Teams should include an administrator, a teacher, a mental-health worker, a nurse, and a school-resource officer; at least one of those people should know the student well.

Together with police, they can decide the consequences for pre-attack behavior, such as expulsion, arrest, or referral for psychological help.

"Many schools approach the issue of threat assessment in an ad hoc manner," says Bill Modzeleski, director of the Education Department's Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program. "If you don't plan, you don't practice, you don't do this as a team, you're not going to be successful in preventing violence."

Officials emphasize that the guide provides a framework that schools apply in varied ways.

"We're aiming to change the way prevention works by changing the culture and the climate of schools," says Mr. Modzeleski. "[Often] people want an easy answer or a shortcut, but there isn't any way to cut corners on this."

The guide is available at www.ed.gov/offices/OESE/SDFS/publications.html.

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