The Monitor's View

Fort Hood killings and the red flags for violence

The Pentagon can learn from post-Columbine schools and from gang-ridden cities how to see warning signs for would-be killers.

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The Fort Hood massacre has opened a nationwide debate over the motives of the shooting suspect, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan. Was he traumatized by tales of wounded soldiers? Was he a Muslim fanatic? Or was he simply a disgruntled employee who went "postal"?

By determining motives for the killings, the military might be better able to train its people to discern the red flags for similar homicidal behavior among soldiers.

Should Hasan's gun purchases have been noticed? Could his e-mails and Web readings on Islam been better detected? What else might have connected the dots?

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Even Congress may act to push the Pentagon to improve its ability to detect potentially dangerous individuals. Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent who chairs a Senate panel on homeland security, plans to investigate how the Army "missed the warning signs."

Before the Pentagon moves too quickly, however, it needs to learn lessons from US schools, which have made big changes since the 1999 Columbine killings and the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre in preventing child-on-child violence. And it can also learn from US cities on successful ways to prevent youth killings.

Researchers have long studied the many warning signs of an individual who later commit violence – everything from poor relationships to a gun fetish to mental illness. A rise in youth violence in recent decades has led to programs to address troubled teens and to teach students how to resolve conflicts.

The result, at least in the 1990s, was a drop in youth homicides. Nationally, the youth homicide rate began to drop steeply in 1993. The end of the crack cocaine epidemic as well as demographic changes contributed to the decline. But so did an intense effort in mostly poor, urban, and minority areas to step up law enforcement and build nurturing communities for at-risk kids.

The effort amounted to an all-hands-on-deck coordination among parents, teachers, police, faith groups, social workers, health officials, and others. It was imperfect, but it made a big difference.

In Chicago, for instance, public schools partnered with the religious community to mentor kids and help with homework. The schools taught parents how to teach other parents to prepare preschoolers for kindergarten. Teen moms learned parenting skills while they stayed in school, and students got lessons on how to deal with anger and confrontation.

Metal detectors entered Chicago's schools; part-time police patrolled streets after school hours. A program called CeaseFire employed street-level workers to defuse gang rivalries.

CeaseFire, for instance, focuses on individuals who are seen as "transmitters" of violence. They are then approved by trained "violence interrupters," such as reformed gang members who can perceive the warnings for potential violence.

"These kids are generally more concerned about what their friends think than about whether they're going to go to prison or even whether they're going to die," CeaseFire's executive director Gary Slutkin told the Monitor.

Efforts like this were duplicated all over the country, and researchers gathered many "evidence-based" success stories.

But success lulled cities into apathy.

By 2000, the youth homicide rate had fallen by nearly half from its peak in 1993. Budgets for special programs were cut, and police forces reduced. Cities had other priorities. Now, the recession means tighter budgets (state-funded CeaseFire took a hit).

The national youth homicide rate is creeping up, and it has surged among young black people – up by 31 percent since 2002, according to a report last year by Northeastern University in Boston.

And then earlier this fall, a cellphone video caught the fatal beating of a 16-year-old honor student in Chicago, Derrion Albert, on his way home from school. The video was broadcast on YouTube, a brutal reminder that violence of all kinds is the second-leading cause of death among America's young people.

Some cities have realized their mistake.

Boston, for instance, is returning to its 1990s "Boston miracle" model, which was a city-wide effort to reach at-risk youth, led by religious leaders. Lately, the city has hired ex-convicts with street savvy to discourage violence.

Chicago plans to identify 10,000 at-risk high school students who will get lavished with attention from adults – mentors, counselors, employers – in a new program started by federal stimulus money. It relies on many of the same principles, including safe-passage zones to and from school, from the 1990s.

Such efforts – and the lesson of letting programs lapse – would be useful for the military as it tries to help prevent another Fort Hood-style massacre. Shifting behavior in huge institutions such as the Army takes years. And US schools have been there, done that.

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