Bridging the divide

Knowing kids well is a key part of education - and it can make the difference in a school's atmosphere.

Watch. Report threats. Control guns, video games, and the Internet. Ask questions when students want to copy school keys marked "Do Not Duplicate."

"Alert" is the watchword across the United States since the April 20 killings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. Many schools are closing early or often this spring in response to a spike of bomb threats. Tips on alleged copycat plots led to arrests of teens in Wimberly, Texas, and Port Huron, Mich.

But some school officials caution that communities should not rush to break out junior-sized prison jumpsuits when kids start to talk tough. Overreacting to Littleton could undermine a key educational asset: schools where students see that they are known and that someone recognizes in them a potential for good.

The value of strong and high expectations is one of the most consistent findings in educational research - and the quality most at risk if a siege mentality settles in.

"After each incident of school violence, we'd hear about the need to do a better job of screening our kids ... and keeping guns off the premises," says Laura Lee Geraghty, director of national initiatives for the Minneapolis-based Search Institute.

"But after Littleton, we're hearing a larger voice than we've ever heard beginning to talk about the need for a total culture change in this country around youth. This isn't just about blaming the schools. We need to take a new look at the way young people are treated and respected in this country."

Fewer than 1 in 5 high school seniors say that their schools are encouraging or that they can share concerns with parents, according to a 1999 Search Institute survey.

But, Ms. Geraghty says, that culture can change. She ticks off anecdotal evidence that even small steps, such as learning the names of the kids on your block, or greeting the kid with green spiky hair, can make a difference. "We are finding that communities can rebuild the assets around children. We can change how kids are treated, how they are perceived, and ... how they see themselves as valuable members of their communities."

Rebuilding such connections is part of how many big-city schools are solving security problems.

"I hope districts and school boards don't react by making high schools hard, cold places just like prisons," says Jeffrey Miller, principal of Braddock High School in Miami. With 5,200 students, Braddock is one of the largest schools in the US and making sure that each student is known and feels respected is a top priority.

"The [Littleton] shootings opened our eyes more to the fact that there are a lot of kids out there on the fringe," says Braddock's activities director David Lenoble, who graduated from Columbine High School in 1979 and lost a friend in last month's shooting. "It's really hard. You can look at kids that exhibit different behaviors and never guess they would take it to that extreme level," he adds.

In the 1980s and early '90s, you might have been able to spot potential shooters by gang insignia. But the boys firing on small-town and suburban schools in recent years didn't look like killers.

*The 14-year-old who shot a teacher and two classmates in an algebra class in Moses Lake, Wash., on Feb. 2, 1996, was a straight-A student. He had told friends that it would be "cool" to go on a killing spree like the characters in the film "Natural Born Killers."

*The ninth-grader who fired 10 shots at a school prayer group in West Paducah, Ken., played the baritone saxophone in the Heath High School band. Teachers said he was bright and unremarkable. "It was kind of like I was in a dream, and then I woke up," he told his principal, after the Dec. 1, 1997, shooting.

*The 13- and 11-year-olds who fired on teachers and classmates from the woods along the schoolyard in Jonesboro, Ark., on March 24, 1998, ran around in camouflage gear and made threats. But no one took them seriously. Nor did anyone pay much attention when a 15-year-old in Springfield, Ore., bragged about torturing animals or gave a speech in class on how to build a bomb. He was suspended after bringing a gun to class on June 12, 1998, then released by police. The next day, he fired on his school cafeteria.

"There is no sure way of identifying who the shooter might be. And we don't want to spend all our time on symptoms. We need to get at the root causes. We need to make sure kids are known," says Ron McGee, the principal of Bethel High School in Bethel, Ala., where a 16-year-old killed the former principal and another student on Feb. 19, 1997.

"Teachers and staff are picking up on overt problems. The challenge is to find out if somebody is getting teased or harassed outside of the school building or when they are not being observed. We have to keep pushing this notion with students that there is a way to address inappropriate behavior," says Mr. McGee.

"What's changing at Bethel High is the willingness of students to share their concerns about what is not going well in school," he adds.

In both the Jonesboro and Springfield cases, some students knew about threats, but did not pass this information along to adults. In response, some schools are hiring private companies to set up tip lines to make such exchanges less threatening.

For example, in Seminole County, Fla., student calls to the Save a Friend tip line are transcribed by a third party before being passed along to the school.

More private companies are getting involved. "There's probably a whole cottage industry that's going to be developed to help schools be safer," says June Arnette, associate director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake, Calif. But "the problem is that while we have more information now, we're not really sure what to do with it."

Parents and courts are sending mixed messages about how much probing schools should do into the personal lives of students. There has been a flood of cases by allegations of sexual harassment involving school officials in the last five years. In addition, some parents insist that any questions to children involving family life or parents are a violation of privacy and parental rights.

"It's not an easy process anymore. There's a movement that feels that there should not even be counselors in school, because it is an invasion of privacy to families," says Nancy Perry, executive director of the American School Counselor Association, based in Alexandria, Va.

Teachers can also find a world of trouble by trying to figure out whether references to guns and coffins in a creative essay are the tip of a massacre plot or just another school assignment.

(Jefferson County School officials say that teachers had flagged disturbing essays written by the two students who went on to shoot up Columbine High School. Their parents were informed. A counselor spent considerable time talking to one student and concluded that his essay "was just a story," according to reports in the Denver Post.)

"Teachers are getting ... mixed messages about what is expected. But it's obvious that teachers need to pay attention to what kids are feeling as well as ... learning," says Kathleen Lyons, spokesman for the National Education Association.

This issue is about to heat up, say conservative groups such as the St. Louis-based Eagle Forum. In the 1980s, the group circulated form letters challenging schools for probing too deeply into the private lives of students.

"These letters haven't circulated in many years, but we're about to open a new front," says Eagle Forum leader Phyllis Schlafly. A recent Texas case (Lisa T., et al. v. San Antonio Independent School District, et al.) gives parents the option to refuse consent to personal journals or any other method of obtaining information about the beliefs and feelings of children, especially concerning subjects potentially embarrassing to families.

The case, which was resolved by voluntary mediation on April 27, is not binding outside of the San Antonio School District. But the agreement could set "an important precedent" for activists in other school districts, Mrs. Schlafly says.

What's needed is an approach to knowing kids that both caring teachers and parents can support, educators say. "I came back from Littleton [funerals] hugging my kids a lot more," says Braddock's Mr. Lenoble. "The kids know it's not inappropriate. [But] there are teachers who have a genuine caring and want to show that to students and don't, because of what others may perceive."

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