Five years after Columbine, the insecurity lingers

Schools today are better prepared to foil a shooting. But have we really made them safer places?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The sun is shining warmly on the quad at Thurston High School. Kids drift out of the cafeteria, enjoying a few minutes' break before heading back to class again. A poster announces cheerleader tryouts.

It's a peaceful scene, typical of a midsize high school in a small American town - and yet, at the same time, atypical in so many ways.

High up on one wall, a security camera quietly scans the area. Officer Scott Akins, armed and in uniform, moves among the students, relaxed but alert. Principal Doug Jantzi, munching an apple, is chatting with students, laid- back but letting them know he's around and very much aware.

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Five years ago Tuesday, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 fellow students and a teacher, and wounded 23 more students before killing themselves and finally putting an end to the worst school shooting in US history.

But a year before Columbine became the 9/11 of school shootings, Thurston High had already had its own 10 minutes of terror. A 15-year-old student named Kip Kinkel brought two guns to school.

By the time other students had wrestled him to the ground, two students lay dead and 25 others had been wounded.

Starting in the mid-1990s, a series of such school shootings shocked and bewildered the country.

How could it have happened and why, experts and the public wondered then? What could have been done to prevent it? Today, the questions remain: Are schools any safer now? Is there a better understanding of the roots of adolescent violence, how to detect it and how to treat it?

The picture is decidedly mixed.

There's more awareness of the issue and its complexities. Many more schools have emergency response programs in place, including better coordination with public safety agencies. Mental health programs are expanding. The federal government has funded 6,000 police officers assigned to schools. Twenty-eight states have passed "zero tolerance" and other laws regarding school violence; 32 states have specifically addressed bullying.

"I think one of the most significant things has been the increased recognition of the role of students in reporting threats and incidents of crime and violence," says Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif. "Tip lines have grown dramatically around the country."

"For the most part, students continue to be safer in school than anywhere else," says Dr. Stephens, a former teacher.

The latest federal studies do seem to indicate a decline in school violence since Columbine. But the most recent report by the US Departments of Justice and Education includes figures only through 2001. More up-to-date studies show a troubling spike in violence this academic year.

National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland tracks violence in and around schools. So far in the 2003-2004 school year there have been 43 school-associated violent deaths nationwide - more than the previous two years combined and more than any school year since before Columbine.

Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, also has tallied more than 60 additional non-fatal shootings this year plus more than 160 other incidents of high-profile violence, including stabbings and riots.

In Forsyth, Mont., last month, two third-grade boys brought a knife and loaded gun to school, allegedly intending to kill a classmate. A day later, a 17-year-old boy was arrested outside his Malcolm, Neb., high school with 20 bombs, a gun, and ammunition found in his car.

Mr. Trump, who's worked in school security for 20 years, sees three troubling trends: School budget cuts nationwide, pressure on administrators to concentrate resources on mandated test scores, and a "been there, done that" mentality regarding school safety.

"Perhaps the biggest threat is not the kid with the gun or the knife but our own complacency," says Trump. "As a nation, we've got some significant gaps and tremendous room for improvement."

Too few changes in schools

Other experts concur. "Schools by and large are pretty much as they were before Columbine," says Delbert Elliott, director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado.

"There have been some specific things that have taken place that are designed to make schools safer, and that's a very good thing," says Dr. Elliott. "But the level of preparedness and attention to doing what schools could do is still fairly low."

Last October the National Association of School Resource Officers surveyed its members. Seventy percent reported that aggressive behavior in elementary school children has increased in their districts in the past five years, and 87 percent of these school-based police officers believe school campus crimes are underreported.

For principals and administrators, it's a constant effort to keep the focus on school safety.

After class at Thurston High the other day, assistant principal Ed Mendelssohn chaired a new "positive behavioral support" team meeting of a dozen teachers and staff, including Officer Akins (who also coaches freshman football). The school has just got a grant to develop a program designed to improve school climate as well as focus on students inclined to skip school, drop out, or exhibit antisocial behavior.

Including as many responsible adults as possible in the day-to-day activity of students is part of the philosophy here.

"My mantra is 'every adult is in charge'," says principal Doug Jantzi, who was principal at a youth correctional facility before coming to Thurston High this year. "Students need to respect a classroom aide just as much as they do me... It's about people and relationships."

Mostly, that attitude applies to students and how they treat each other at an age when being excluded, bullied, or disrespected can hurt deeply. Some Thurston students have older siblings or friends who were here in 1998, and many have been reminded by adults in their lives that they bear some daily responsibility for preventing another tragedy.

"You have to treat people the way you'd like to be treated," says senior Nichole Lewelling. "That's how my parents broke it down."

More attention paid to boys

As is often the case with kids, "do what I say and not what I do" does not work.

"Children watch how their parents act when involved in road rage or other forms of rudeness," says Jack Spencer, a sociologist at Purdue University. "If parents modify their own behavior and talk to their children about respecting and being sensitive to others, we could reduce the number of these incidents."

In the wake of Columbine, many factors were blamed for school violence: cliques and bullying, violent video games and music, easy access to weapons and explosives, gang activity, overdependence on questionable drugs to treat adolescents diagnosed with mental or behavioral problems, disengaged and distracted parents.

Attention to all these things is good, says family therapist Michael Gurian of Spokane, Wash., but deeper issues need to be addressed. Mr. Gurian has written several books on boys and male development, most recently "What Could He Be Thinking? How a Man's Mind Really Works."

Some of this has to do with "emotional literacy," says Gurian, which means helping boys to understand and communicate feelings of fear, anger, and alienation without resorting to violence. Just as important, he says, has been the recent "boys' movement."

This movement recognizes that boys have character development and educational needs distinctly different from girls'; that what sometimes seems like rambunctiousness is not necessarily a "problem" that needs to be criticized or punished.

"I think we are better off now than we were five years ago, mainly because parents are insisting on better education for their sons and they're insisting that professionals don't just look at girls but look at boys," he says.

"They're also insisting that our responses aren't just that boys have to cry more but go deeper into 'where's Grandpa, where's Dad, where's Mom; who's attached to the kid; where are the aunts and uncles; who are the mentors; who's watching after my kids during latchkey hours; what's day care about?' Those bigger things are starting to get talked about, so I'm optimistic."

Back in the quad at Thurston High, senior Brett McEldowney drifts toward a conversation about school violence.

He's short and muscular, with a sweatshirt identifying him as a "power lifter." Asked what he thinks the answer is, he says quietly: "Treat people the way you want to be treated."

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