Schools using many lessons of Columbine

Despite this week's tragedy in Minnesota, school safety has improved.

By , Staff writer

When teens in Marshfield, Mass., started fantasizing about a massacre in their high school, a few began to have doubts. Fortunately, there was an adult they trusted, a school resource officer, who was alerted to details about the plot last fall.

The officer quickly investigated. Police later found maps, lists of guns and ammunition to buy, and bomb-building instructions. In the end, Tobin Kerns and Joseph Nee were charged with conspiracy to commit murder, promotion of anarchy, and threatened use of deadly weapons at school.

Instead of a headline-grabbing tragedy, the Marshfield incident is simply one more tale of what might have been if someone had not talked and someone else had not listened.

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Yet creating those relationships and spotting warning signs can be difficult, as residents of Red Lake, Minn., now know. The attack there Monday is the worst school shooting since Columbine. But even as the nation mourns the tragedy, experts on school violence are calling attention to how much has been learned in the six years since Columbine, and how much better prepared schools can be to avert such disasters - if they have the will, the time, and the resources to do so.

Certainly, school guards, emergency plans, and metal detectors can help when violence is attempted. But preventing attacks often comes down to the same things that helped at Marshfield: good relationships, listening, spotting warning signs, and persuading students to overcome the hallway code of silence - that it's OK to report threats. "These shootings are not spontaneous. They're not random. This happens over time," says Paul Viollis, president of Risk Control Strategies, a security consulting firm.

Experts say a common thread in nearly all the major incidents is that the shooter tells a few friends or others of his plans. There are also often warning signs that seem, in retrospect, like red flags. Mr. Viollis, in fact, says many shooters have said afterward: You should have listened. "This is about reengineering our cultural thinking as it pertains to security," he says. "We have to embrace our responsibility."

The facts in the Red Lake case, and insights into Jeff Weise, the shooter, are still emerging. But early signs indicate commonalities with other high-profile school shooters in the past: grisly artwork and writings, struggles with depression and loneliness, mentions to friends that he'd like to shoot up the school, a threat to kill himself.

He also reportedly wore a trench coat and dark eye makeup, listened to violent bands like Marilyn Manson, and posted messages applauding Hitler on Nazi.org and other websites. But experts caution school officials against being too quick to create "profiles" of potential shooters based on external traits. "There isn't any profile," says William Modzeleski, a security specialist at the US Department of Education (DOE). "Some are brilliant, many aren't. Some of them have intact families, some don't. Some are alpha males. You can't look at those characteristics. You have to look at behavior traits."

A collaborative study between the DOE and the US Secret Service of 37 acts of violence in American schools found that the incidents were rarely impulsive. It showed that someone almost always knew of the plot. The perpetrators had often been bullied, experienced a significant personal loss, and exhibited striking changes in behavior.

In the case of Weise, friends said that he had been haunted by his father's suicide several years earlier. He left Minneapolis to live with his grandfather after his mother was hospitalized with head injuries following a car accident.

Mr. Modzeleski and others are convinced the answer lies not in more metal detectors or school guards, but in a shift in culture. "It's easy to focus in on shootings, but we also need to look at what we're doing about harassment, teasing, bullying," he says. The real key is "putting adults in there that kids can talk to them when they have a problem, making sure they can listen, that they have the willingness to listen, and can provide them with guidance."

But even when warning signs exist, it can be hard for a school to piece the information together and recognize a kid in trouble. Often adolescents and adults don't communicate enough, says Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm in Cleveland. "The pieces never seem to come together until after the tragedy."

He's seen a few schools start "child-study teams," in which staff and faculty meet regularly and share concerns about certain kids. "Everyone is typically so stressed for time, that if you don't make a conscious effort, it's very easy to lose a kid," he says.

Since fellow students are often the ones to say afterward that they had heard about plots but didn't take them seriously, schools are making efforts to convince them that notifying a staff member isn't "snitching." It's a way to save lives.

In many of the cases in which plots were uncovered before an attack - from Cedar Park, Texas, to Lovejoy, Ga. - the key was students who came forward. After the conspiracy was discovered in Marshfield, the school put in place an anonymous tip line. "A student can alert us to the fact that another student might be saying bizarre things or acting weird, 24 hours a day, seven days a week," says Thomas Kelley, superintendent of the school system.

One challenge, say experts, is that resources for antiviolence programs are scarce. Trump notes that President Bush's 2006 budget proposes eliminating the state grant allocations from the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, a main source of antiviolence funds for states.

Nationally, the office works in some 150 communities, with programs that target students for mental-health treatment and try to promote a culture of safety. By tackling the little problems early on, they hope to keep the Jeff Weises of the world from ever getting to such a desperate place.

Other schools are trying a program modeled after Secret Service techniques. Administrators and students are trained to investigate and deal with threats, both big and small. In a pilot project in 35 schools, authorities resolved 188 student threats without any being carried out, notes Dewey Cornell, director of a youth violence project at the University of Virginia.

"One concern is that after a shooting like this there will be a backlash in schools. They'll tighten up zero tolerance, and begin expelling or suspending students who make any kind of threatening statement," he says. "That would be counterproductive, since it closes off communication."

Indeed, many experts note that the threats and interest in violence are often cries for help that go ignored. Weise is "part of the tragedy," says Viollis. "He's not just the villain here, he's a victim."

Staff writer Sara B. Miller contributed from Boston.

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