Five years after Columbine, the insecurity lingers
Schools today are better prepared to foil a shooting. But have we really made them safer places?
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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."
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.