Two months into the school year educators across America are struggling with the implementation of get-tough safety rules meant to stop a string of tragic student shootings.
Sifting real threats from false ones - while trying to keep classrooms bastions of learning - is not an easy task. In Cleveland, authorities have been praised for shutting down South High School after discovering an alleged bomb and gun plot. In Ponder, Texas, law-enforcement officials have faced tough questions after they jailed a teenage boy for writing a Halloween story in which classmates were shot.
The problem is that even rigid discipline has to be imposed with common sense, say experts. Administrators need to judge individual infractions in a larger context of knowledge about their school's rhythms and personalities.
"It goes back to one of the lessons we learned after Columbine: We really need to know our students better," says Joanne McDaniel, assistant director of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence.
A steak knife in the backpack of an average student may be just an implement to cut a lunchtime apple. A steak knife in the backpack of a frustrated student may be something more. With the spread of "zero tolerance" policies toward weapons and violence, however, it is the fact of the knife, and not the context of the person, which is the most important aspect of the situation. "It's how you put zero tolerance into practice every day that makes it difficult," says Ms. McDaniel.
The sad roll call of recent shootings, from April's tragedy at Columbine High School in Colorado to previous incidents in Springfield, Ore., Jonesboro, Ark., and West Paducah, Ky., has made safety in schools one of the most important issues in American public life.
Incidents of multiple-victim homicides in schools are indeed on the rise. In 1994-95 there was one such shooting. In 1997-98 there were five, according to the Department of Education's 1999 Annual Report on School Safety.
Yet the number remains small enough so that the rise does not necessarily constitute a trend, statistically speaking. And overall school violence continues to decline. In 1993, there were about 155 school-related crimes for every 1,000 students age 12 to 18. In 1997, that figure fell to 102.
Perhaps more important, the report found a significant decrease in the number of students carrying weapons of all sorts into school. Some 3,930 children were expelled for carrying guns in 1997-98 - down from 5,724 in the previous school year.
Despite the relative good news of safety statistics, school officials across the US remain leery of potential problems, as a scan of the news of only a few weeks shows.
Early last month a Columbine high schooler was arrested for threatening to "finish the job." On Oct. 27, officials in Prairie Grove, Ark., filed charges against five junior-high students who called themselves the "Prep Killers." On Tuesday, a four-year-old was suspended for a year after he took his parents' loaded pistol to his Oklahoma City preschool. He thought it was a toy.
Then there are incidents that parents say are overreactions, such as the well-publicized jailing of a Texas youth for his story. In Lowndes County, Miss., the parents of a boy expelled for carrying a pocket knife to class have sued, saying his rights were violated. In Nevis, Minn., a senior can't have her picture of choice in the high-school yearbook. It is of her standing next to a flag-draped howitzer. (She joined the Army.)
Earlier this week, GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush said that if elected he will expect all federally funded school districts to implement zero tolerance. He would also push legislation designed to protect teachers and administrators from "meritless" lawsuits filed as a result of enforcing discipline rules.
Some educators agree that in the current climate they need more legal protections. Gerald Tirozzi of the National Association of Secondary School Principals says states should perhaps consider legislation that clarifies discipline guidelines.
"There is no question that schools have become much more legalistic," he says. "Teachers and principals are constantly looking over their shoulder, and it's not a good climate to run a school."
Others point out that zero tolerance is already widespread, and that it is not a solution by itself. It works best, they say, as part of a multifaceted program that allows principals some leeway to define what "zero" is, and includes increased counseling and training resources.
Whatever direction federal policy takes, local officials are likely to continue to move quickly against reported threats, despite possibility of overreaction - closing a school due an a hoax Internet message, for instance, as happened recently in Seattle.
"I don't think any threat can be taken lightly, especially in the light of what has happened in the last few years," says Bill Modzeleski, director of the Safe and Drug-Free schools program.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society