After rampage killings like the one at Red Lake, Minn., the words that parents and students really want to hear from school officials - "We know how to prevent savage attacks and shootings" - are words no one can say with confidence.
Still, that doesn't mean officials don't have various ways to make schools as safe as possible. They do, and since Columbine, many approaches have been tried. But a new report by the Advancement Project, a national racial justice organization which studied schools in Denver, Chicago, and Palm Beach, Fla., contends that many districts have focused too narrowly on security and discipline. This is especially true in urban schools, where much of school violence takes place.
The study, "Education on Lockdown: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track," zeroes in on the catch phrase "zero tolerance." It finds that school districts have overreacted to juvenile crime. Students were both expelled and sent to juvenile courts for misconduct that, prior to Columbine, would not have been punished as severely. Such actions, claims the study, are not likely to prevent more Columbines.
Public schools are incredibly complex social and cultural institutions, and overly legal procedures are not the answer to school violence. Something is amiss when battery charges are filed against a 14-year-old girl for pouring a carton of chocolate milk over the head of a classmate, or a 10-year-old girl is handcuffed and taken to a police station for bringing a pair of scissors to school that she intended to use on a school project.
Typically, punishment means ostracism. Schools exclude students from the group: by detention, suspension, or expulsion - solving the school's problem, but not always the student's. What's lacking is prevention long before violent behavior occurs.
Educators should make early connections with all students, and do so without the threat of punishment. Students heading for trouble know if someone is fighting for them. Tough love is respected, and that credibility can be lost if, by word or deed, schools readily abrogate discipline to police and prosecutors. A constant dark cloud of impersonal authority can easily be seen by students as "We're not going to support you."
A supportive atmosphere is much more likely in smaller schools, where more personal relationships are possible. For large districts, that can be achieved by adapting a school-within-a-school approach: Three thousand students can be broken down into six units of 500 with a core faculty assigned to each.
School officials are all too aware of the negative forces on children today. But they can't go into a student's home and check out posters on the wall, guns in the dresser, or hate mail on a computer. Still, they know that kids often know kids better than they do. It was no secret in Red Lake that the 16-year-old assailant was troubled. One legacy of that tragedy might be a willingness by more students to speak out - to put "two and two together," as the boy's step-aunt lamented - and focus on getting help for troubled kids.
Administrators need students on the front line to notice when a peer's behavior is more than just strange or aloof. But will students trust adults enough to say so-and-so said he wants to blow away people? The cultural norm of not squealing is a great obstacle, especially with teen boys. Also, kids on the periphery don't easily mingle with kids in the mainstream.
School officials who make it known they care - and ask all students to care for others as well - create schools where awareness about a troubled student can lead to counseling. Like much of education, there's no formula for bringing this about. But it's as essential as routine fire drills.
And when a student displays major problems, such as a mood swing after a family crisis, schools need to sit down and talk through such issues with the student. One school superintendent, for instance, at the end of each intervention, asks the student to pick from a list of teachers and counselors for further talks. He makes it clear "we care, and here is someone you can go to who cares about you."
If schools went beyond mere policing and disciplining, they'd call 911 less often.