Schools using many lessons of Columbine
Despite this week's tragedy in Minnesota, school safety has improved.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.