Schools derailing violence

The biggest education story of 2001 may be what didn't happen during school hours.

In the past month, almost-weekly plots to violently disrupt schools have been foiled. From Kansas to New York, pipe bombs have been discovered, arms caches unearthed, and incriminating photos turned in.

These attempts at mass disruption - at least seven since late January - are disturbing. But perhaps more noteworthy is the newfound vigilance that has taken root in urban and suburban classrooms alike - heading off the kinds of school-based tragedies that have grabbed attention in recent years.

In the wake of Columbine and other school shootings, a profound culture shift has hit the nation's classrooms and hallways. Educators have set up everything from video surveillance to zero-tolerance expulsion policies for threats and weapons possession. More police officers have been assigned to wander halls and monitor entrances.

Some say such a response could turn schools into police states. Zero-tolerance policies in particular have come under attack for being too rigid.

But these no-nonsense measures are increasingly being twinned with subtler initiatives. What's emerging is an approach to safety in which educators put a premium on informal interaction between adults and children, and show greater sensitivity to incidents that might once have been shrugged off as innocuous.

Perhaps most notably, kids themselves are developing a sense of responsibility for a safe environment, including being willing to talk more openly with adults about what they know.

"There is better reporting, better awareness," says Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Thousand Oaks, Calif. "Staff and parents are more observant, and individuals are learning that it is in their self-interest to report some of the early warning signs."

Most schools, of course, have had general safety policies in place for decades. But numerous multiple shootings have resulted in greater attention to details that run the spectrum from student taunting to the number of freely accessed doors in a school.

Experts note that the new emphasis on engaging everyone can make a real difference. In Hoyt, Kan., where three teens were charged this month with planning a school attack, a tip on the school hotline led to a search of one boy's home. But teachers had already been monitoring his activities.

"We had done a lot of crisis training and [raised the] awareness of our staff, and it helped, because one of the things that alerted us was [his] inflammatory writing" in class, says Marceta Reilly, superintendent of the Hoyt schools. "We might have dismissed it before this. There's a big difference now in taking these matters seriously."

When it began to address the issue three years ago, the Hoyt community had been firm about not turning the 900-student school into an armed camp. So in addition to training teachers, the district focused on a key area that has helped schools nationwide avert tragedy this winter: making it easier for kids to speak up.

One initiative was to add a "resources officer," a policeman who comes twice each week to the school. "He interacts with kids informally, and provides security at events. Kids can tell him things," Ms. Reilly says.

The hotline also started up, offering students a way to raise problems without fear of repercussions. In this case, the combination of teachers' concerns and the hotline tip led to the discovery of bomb-making materials, floor plans of the school, and white-supremacist materials.

But if anonymity encourages students to inform adults of potential danger, it fits into a larger picture of encouraging students to take more responsibility for their school's well-being.

In Elmira, N.Y., a senior lugged 18 bombs and two guns to school last week - and passed a note detailing the contents of his duffel bag to a friend. Like Hoyt, the school had a resource officer, who was familiar to the gunman. After the friend alerted the administration, the officer confronted the student, who surrendered.

Similarly, when three boys in Fort Collins, Colo., threatened two weeks ago to "redo Columbine," two girls who overheard them tipped off police. The officers found sketches of the plan and weapons at one boy's house. And in Cupertino, Calif., last month, a student photo clerk alerted police when she developed pictures of a weapons-bedecked student who, it turned out, was planning to attack his community college.

To Bill Modzeleski, director of the Safe and Drug Free Schools program at the US Department of Education, the change in the behavior of students, long disdainful of "snitches," is a natural outgrowth of more-sophisticated discussions of safety that are now commonplace.

A report last year by Mr. Modzeleski's department and the US Secret Service pointed out that most attackers planned their assaults, and more than half told at least one person of their plans.

But those confidantes were what Modzeleski calls "pre-Columbine:" students who saw no reason to pass information on to adults. That phenomenon is far more rare now. "After the series of multiple shootings [in 1997 and 1998], kids began to see firsthand the consequences of kids bringing guns to schools," he says. "Students are waking up and realizing they have a role in this, that they're not powerless."

Sustaining the vigilance may prove a challenge as schools confront the tension between alertness and the crush of everyday activities.

Still, experts are encouraged by the broad range of strategies schools are taking - a mix of law enforcement, high standards, after-school programs, and family involvement. And, says Modzeleski, "if you cut through all this, what kids want are responsible adults they can talk to, who know their names, who are trusted."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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