When Michael Carneal walked into his West Paducah, Ky., high school this week and fired 10 shots at classmates gathered for a prayer meeting, he not only sent shock waves through his small community. He also renewed a debate about the safety of schools nationwide.
Are schools as safe as they could be? Could metal detectors have kept this slight ninth-grader from toting a mini-arsenal of guns onto school grounds? Could a violence-prevention program in an earlier grade have quelled whatever motivated Michael to shoot his classmates?
In actuality, schools are among the safest places youths can go - and they're getting safer.
Most experts say that bizarre crimes like the West Paducah shootings are difficult to prevent, that unpredictable outbursts of violence sometimes occur in an open society. But they also say that schools have curbed crime on campus over the past five years with an array of new safety measures - from increasing the police presence to training parents to counter societal messages about violence.
"Many of the programs schools have put in place have helped reduce delinquency and violence," says Bill Modzeleski, director of the US Education Department's Safe and Drug Free Schools Program. "But this is a complex problem. No activity in and of itself will be the solution."
School violence has dropped in the past two years, according to the National School Safety Center, a Westlake, Calif., group that tracks crime in schools by compiling newspaper accounts. So far this year, it has documented 25 student deaths. In 1993, the first year the center began its tracking, more than twice as many students were killed at school.
Those numbers mirror an overall drop in juvenile crime, which has plummeted some 30 percent since its peak in 1993. Moreover, youth crime is still most troublesome in a half dozen inner-city cores, not mainstream America.
ALMOST all youth violence takes place on the streets - not the schools, criminologists say. "Most of the motivation behind what goes on has to do with gang rivalries and related issues," says David Kennedy, a professor specializing in gun violence at Harvard University's JFK School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. "There's a lot of weapon-carrying, especially in core urban areas. But not because schools are dangerous. These kids have got weapons to protect them on their way to and from school."
This was not always the case. In the late 1980s and early '90s, youth crime was so bad that it was spilling into the schoolyards. Some 3 million crimes a year were taking place on or near school property. Four of 5 school districts nationwide cited an increased concern about school violence. Between 1987 and 1991, juvenile arrests for murder soared 85 percent, according to data collected by the National School Board Association in Arlington, Va.
Why the numbers have turned around is as much a subject for debate as why the nation has seen adult crime drop over the past three years. But educators and criminologists cite strict antigun policies at schools, antiviolence courses in early grades, and crimefighting programs that address community problems as well as campus ones.
What doesn't work, they say, are quick-fix solutions sometimes put in place after an incident like the shooting in West Paducah, which killed three students and injured five others, or like the Oct. 1 shooting spree in which a high-schooler in Pearl, Miss., allegedly killed two students and his mother and injured seven other students.
Schools districts where violence has dropped have done more than install metal detectors: They have focused on prevention. In Fairfax County, Va., for example, parents of repeatedly disruptive students must take part in a three-day suspension program with their children. In Philadelphia elementary schools, children learn to be "peace seekers" and to intervene when fighting erupts. In Wichita, Kan., violence-prevention specialists hold conflict-resolution workshops, meet with gang groups, and respond when violence occurs on campus.
"It's human nature to want to respond immediately after something happens," says Mr. Modzeleski at the Education Department. "But ideally, schools respond before something happens. For the most part, they've done a pretty good job of that."
While no measure can guarantee that a child will not harm others at school, experts say the best form of prevention may be the most basic: listening to youths and taking their problems seriously.
"We tend to minimize the impact that daily activities have on adolescents," says Gene Stephens, a criminal justice professor at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. "Adults are a lot tougher on adolescents than they were in the past."