A radical step for school safety

Districts begin to use psychological profiles of students in a

His profile is the Classroom Avenger: a boy from a "dysfunctional" but "superficially normal" middle-class family who goes on a shooting spree in a school. He's sensitive to criticism, blames others for his problems, fights with his parents and siblings, obsesses on violence, and knows his way around a gun.

In a new and controversial move, US schools are beginning to use such psychological profiling to ferret out students likely to cause violence in the classroom.

To supporters, the technique, which has been widely used in law enforcement to track odious criminals such as Ted Bundy and the Unabomber, could prove invaluable in bringing a greater sense of security to schools.

But the move is also raising questions about whether such forensic dragnets could undermine the climate of learning in an institution that aims to nurture kids. Critics argue that rumors and suspicions can quickly harden into stigmas in the halls and lunch rooms of a public school, and few tags are as hurtful as that of suspected shooter.

"We don't want to turn schools into airports. We want schools to be places where people trust each other," says Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia.

School homicides are extremely rare events. A student has less than a 1 in million chance of a school-associated violent death, according to the US Department of Justice.

Nonetheless, since the 1999 shootings in Littleton, Colo., administrators have scrambled to reassure parents and the community that safety is a priority - and Columbines won't happen in their schools. As a result, a cottage industry of school safety products is emerging, including psychological profiling.

Until recently, the technique has been virtually a taboo subject in many public schools, since it has been often associated with racial bias, especially in law enforcement. But there are signs that it is now moving more into the mainstream.

*One of the most ambitious is Mosaic-2000, a computer-assisted program that promises to equip schools with the same law-enforcement methods used to evaluate threats to Hollywood stars and US Supreme Court justices. It is currently field testing in 25 public schools, mainly in the Los Angeles area.

*The FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime in Virginia will soon issue an analysis of school shootings that targets "risk factors" to help schools identify potentially violent students.

*Schools in Granite City, Ill., now require staff to report students who fit an "at risk" profile, including writing essays that "reflect anger, frustration, and the dark side of life" and a "preference for television shows, movies, or music expressing violent themes and acts."

School districts in Wallingford, Conn., and Dighton-Rehoboth, Mass., are also developing districtwide profiles to target potentially violent students.

"School is the workplace of children ... [and] the strategies learned by industry and government should be available to school administrators," says the promotional material for Gavin de Becker Inc., a Los Angeles-based firm testing the Mosaic-2000 program. The product claims to give school officials an objective way to evaluate threats to school safety. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms is also participating in the project.

Mosaic developers call their program an "artificial intuition system" or "mental detector." When a student makes a threat or "otherwise comes to the attention of the school," officials can use the program to ask questions and code an assessment. In an early version of the program, students were then ranked on a scale of 1 to 10 as a potential safety risk.

"Any kid who ends up scoring in a particularly critical dimension on Mosaic-2000 is someone who is clearly struggling and needs help," says James McGee, a developer of Mosaic 2000. If parents disagree with the assessment, then the school has to decide whether to let the student back in school, he adds.

Mosaic-2000 field tests are just beginning and developers are months from knowing what modifications are needed. Company officials say the program profiles situations, not individuals - and could even prevent schools from overreacting to a threat.

What troubles other risk-assessment experts is that the science behind the weights and rankings in Mosaic 2000 is not available for peer review. Because school shootings are rare, there's also a danger of falsely identifying students who fit the profile but will never commit a violent act.

"Research shows that it is virtually impossible to identify which kids are going to commit violent acts without mistakenly pointing to kids that won't," says Mr. Steinberg.

Such possibilities worry civil libertarians as well. "We're concerned about decisions made to discipline students based on the fact that they fit a profile that might include information as disparate as what movies they watch and books they read and whether parents have guns in the home," says Ann Beeson of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York.

Some experts credit such programs with forcing people to consider questions they might otherwise miss and to think more systematically about threats. But they question whether there is a valid research base for programs such as Mosaic-2000.

"The true test is whether they have any validity to predict who goes on to commit these crimes or not. I don't know of any research that has been done on that," says Edward Mulvey, professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh.

School psychologists also caution that technology and forensics are a poor substitute for better human relations in schools.

"Teasing in school today is far more dangerous than it was in 1960. There is more of it, and our society really communicates to kids that violence is the way to react when you are picked on," says Kevin Dwyer, president of the National Association of School Psychologists.

Still, a growing number of school officials believe profiling is not only appropriate, but necessary. In Wallingford, officials are trying to glean a list of behaviors that can identify young people with a "predisposition" to committing violence. The profile will circulate among staff, parents, and older high school students, who will be urged to report anyone who fits the profile.

"It's profiling. I don't shy away from that word," says Joseph Cirasuolo, Wallingford superintendent of schools. "We don't think we'll be identifying many young people at all. But it is useful for us to help identify youngsters who may have difficulty where we can."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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