Violent school year ends, search for solutions begins

Educators seek keys to safer campuses

May 31, 1999|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

The collective sigh is almost audible, exhaled in relief by educators across the country as a particularly violent school year finally comes to an end.

"This will be a good year to get behind us," said a rueful William Kimball, superintendent of the Port Huron, Mich., school district, which was among many to face a copycat threat after the shootings April 20 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

"I feel like I've been holding my breath waiting for June," agreed Richard Lieberman, a psychologist with Los Angeles schools.

But even as they gratefully begin closing up shop for the year -- if school is out, there can be no school shootings -- many educators will be spending the next several months addressing the issue of safety on their campuses. Consultants on school safety and youth violence say they've received more requests for seminars and training sessions for this summer than ever before.

In western North Carolina, for example, school personnel will attend a seminar on how to handle bomb threats. In Kansas City, Mo., teachers and principals will participate in a conference with a guru of the so-called boys movement, therapist and writer Michael Gurian, who believes the rash of school shootings is a symptom of the failure to focus on youths during their tumultuous adolescence.

"We're just shaking the trees to find out what is causing all of this violence," said Robert Henley, a University of Missouri education professor and an organizer of the conference that will feature Gurian. "It's still a work in progress. But people are very interested because Lord knows we have to stop this."

The depth and breadth of interest in school safety is reflected in the number of phone calls that the Center for the Prevention of School Violence in Raleigh, N.C., has received recently: "More than 1,000 requests from 46 states in five weeks," said Pam Riley, executive director.

The center serves as a clearinghouse for research on the subject and offers consultation to schools seeking to improve security. Created by the state in 1993 after an off-campus shooting in which one student killed another, the center always receives an influx of calls after a school shooting, but never as many as in the wake of Littleton, Riley said.

Battle Creek, Mich., for example, sought help writing a grant proposal for a safe-schools program, while Killeen, Texas, asked for a speaker to address a conference of municipal officials.

In July, a representative of the group will speak to Maryland's Safe School Interagency Steering Committee, a task force co-chaired by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

"Obviously we're saddened and horrified by what happened in Littleton. But we're also hopeful because there is now an awareness that we can no longer just assume schools are safe places," said Riley, a former high school principal. "Here it is, five weeks later, and we're still talking about it."

Influence of shootings

The attention paid to the Columbine shootings -- a recent survey found that the incident is one of the most closely followed news events of the decade -- speaks to the lingering effects of the shootings as well as the complexity of issues it raised.

"Because of the prolonged media exposure of Littleton, there probably isn't a school district in America that has not been affected by some sort of contagion, whether it's bomb threats or an increase in absenteeism," said Lieberman, who is part of a national team of psychologists that responds to school shootings.

The fear of becoming the next Columbine has school districts exploring a range of measures that they might adopt for the next school year.

In Port Huron, a task force was looking for ways to improve the school district's security plan when officials learned of an alleged plot by four middle school students to launch a Columbine-style massacre at their school.

The four boys, who are going through pretrial hearings, allegedly had made plans to steal weapons and shoot teachers and students at an assembly. Other students alerted authorities to the boys' talk, and officials immediately closed all schools in the district for the day.

"In a sense, our system worked," said Kimball, the Port Huron superintendent. "The kids felt comfortable coming forward, we were able to lock down the schools and our custodians were able to search the grounds. The thing you hope would happen, did."

Still, he said, the district's task force plans to spend the summer reviewing the security plan and make recommendations for improvements by August.

"We're looking at what we can do in the classroom, how we can make kids feel more included in the schools, any parenting classes we can offer, what happens if you do have a crisis," he said. "We're going to look at everything."

More than security

Other school districts similarly are looking beyond any physical changes they might make on their campuses -- such as adding metal detectors -- and focusing more on the students themselves.

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