Students Urged to Break `Code of Silence,' Make Schools Gun Free


DEBBIE CARLOS, a senior at Reseda High School, knows all about the ``code of silence.'' She knows the possible risks involved in ratting on a student who has done something wrong.

Loss of friends. Ostracism. Retaliation.

None of that, however, will keep her quiet on one subject: guns. If someone brings a weapon on campus, she is going to make sure a teacher or administrator knows.

``Ever since we were little, we were taught tattling is bad,'' she says. ``I would much rather lose a friend than lose a life.''

Debbie is part of a novel program in this suburban Los Angeles community aimed at stemming the growing problem of violence in schools.

Called WARN, for Weapons Are Removed Now, the program at Reseda High School encourages students to speak up whenever they see a peer carrying a gun or other weapon on campus.

As school doors swing open for another year, districts across the country are dealing with the new three R's: reading, 'riting -

and revolvers.

At least 45 people were killed in incidents on school campuses last year - 70 percent with guns. Roughly three-quarters of the 50 largest school districts in the country now use metal detectors in some way.

In a recent survey by the National School Boards Association, 82 percent of schools reported an increase in violence in the past five years. Sixty-one percent reported incidents involving weapons.

To cope with the problem, schools are trying different approaches. Some, such as the Los Angeles Unified School District, are enforcing ``zero-tolerance'' policies in which students found in possession of firearms are automatically expelled - usually for a year.

Congress appears poised to pass legislation that would deny federal assistance to any school not requiring expulsion for firearm possession. Other districts are creating special disciplinary schools for youths caught with guns. In most classrooms, ``conflict resolution'' has become as common a topic as the Magna Carta.

``The whole weapons area is one of the biggest concerns out there,'' says George Butterfield of the National School Safety Center, a nonprofit group in Westlake Village, Calif.

RESADA High's approach is unusual because the students themselves are taking the initiative - and attacking one of the biggest bugaboos of adolescence, peer pressure. In this case, it is the pressure to remain silent.

Like many innovative programs, this one was born of tragedy. In February 1993, senior Michael Ensley was shot dead by a 15-year-old classmate in the hallway of this brick-and-stucco school in the heart of the San Fernando Valley.

It stunned the community. This wasn't supposed to happen at Reseda High. Coming less than a month after another student had been killed in a Los Angeles classroom, it quickly spurred change. Administrators began equipping all schools in the district with metal detectors, and random weapons checks were stepped up.

While all this was going on, Jay Shaffer, a teacher and adviser at Reseda High, wondered what else could be done. He was moved, in particular, by the knowledge that at least six students at the school said they knew the youth who shot Ensley was carrying a gun that day.

Thus WARN was launched. The program isn't aimed at high school students as much as those in junior high and elementary grades. The idea is to reach students before their attitudes about the ``code of silence'' harden - using upperclassmen, not parents or teachers, as speakers and role models. ``If someone really wants to bring a weapon into school, they can,'' says Pedram Torbati, a senior and one of about 25 WARN members at Reseda High. ``What we're trying to do is change attitudes - make them think about not bringing a gun to school.''

WARN members put on skits, read poetry, and perform rap songs that point out the tragedies that can occur and be prevented if students speak up about what they see. Last year, the group visited more than a dozen schools in the area and fielded inquiries from a hundred others around the country. They have printed up ``Break-the-Code-of-Silence'' buttons, T-shirts, and bumper stickers.

The students know, however, that getting youngsters to come forward is as hard as a calculus quiz. They were reminded of this during one appearance last year in which audience members pointedly told them they would never ``snitch'' on a fellow student.

``It is the fear of retaliation,'' says Mr. Shaffer, an affable educator with a Richard Dreyfus mustache. ``If you are going to urge these kids to come forward, then schools have to guarantee them anonymity.''

Apathy is another problem - some students like the idea but don't have time to get involved or don't feel guns are a problem in their school. Debbie Carlos, WARN president, has a rejoinder: ``That's great, but they shouldn't have to wait until a shooting occurs before doing something.''

WARN, even its altruistic young members know, is not going to solve America's school-violence problem. But the kids at least feel they are making a difference, one tip at a time. As senior class President Danielle Schneider puts it: ``I want to keep schools safe - if not for me, than for my kids in the next 10 or 20 years.''

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