How the lessons of Columbine may have stopped a Tampa massacre
Authorities say they foiled a Columbine-style school attack in Tampa, Fla., thanks to an anonymous tip. The school had encouraged students to speak up about anything suspicious.
It’s a fine line that principals and other school staff have to walk: gaining students trust and respect while at the same time meting out firm and fair discipline. Though statistically not a dangerous profession, in the wake of recent school violence, teachers and school officials across the country are grappling with how to create safer schools for their students – and themselves.Skip to next paragraph
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Recent news headlines would make it seem that the teaching profession is fraught with danger:
- Jared Cano, arrested in Tampa this week, targeted specific administrators in a plan to bomb Freedom High School on its opening day, according to police charges. He had been expelled during the previous school year.
- Eduardo Marmolejo was charged recently with first-degree murder in the stabbing death of his principal, Suzette York, at Memphis Junior Academy, a small Seventh-day Adventist school. Police said that he told them he had planned to kill her because he did not like her and she had made him angry.
- Robert Butler Jr. was suspended from Millard South High School in Omaha, Neb., in January and later returned with a gun, killing Vice Principal Vicki Kaspar and injuring Principal Curtis Case before fleeing and killing himself.
Principals need to be alert and take seriously any threats to students or staff, but “a lot of times, [people] don’t make overt threats [and] the unknown is certainly something that’s always in our mind,” says Mel Riddile, associate director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va.
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School leaders wouldn’t be able to do their jobs well if they walked around seeing every student as potentially violent, he adds. When it comes to disciplining students, “some are low-risk situations, others are high risk, and you base that judgment on a combination of training and experience.”
Education is not a dangerous profession, statistically speaking. A 2009 US Department of Labor report on workplace deaths showed 57 fatalities in elementary and secondary schools, but only eight of them from violent acts. In retail jobs, by contrast, there were 170 violent deaths. That’s out of a total of 837 violent workplace fatalities that year.
There are no uniform standards for training school leaders in security matters. Some of it comes through school districts, but a lot of it comes less formally, from more experienced staff at a school or from school security officers who share information from their latest training.
In the 12 years since the mass shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, school systems have become more willing to invest in security, Mr. Riddile says. But perhaps more important, he says, is that “we put a lot more emphasis today at the high school level on relationships.”