Secret Service moves to stop school violence

Protectors of president try to identify patterns of motive, behavior

June 21, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The people who protect the president have turned their attention to school violence.

Prompted by the slaying of 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School near Littleton, Colo., in April, a Secret Service team has begun a detailed review of the Columbine shooting and those at more than a dozen other schools, interviewing as many of the killers as it can.

The team is looking for patterns of motive and behavior. The goal is to help schools and the police recognize which students are moving from interest in killing to weapons acquisition.

"It would be so much easier if all the people who did this dressed weirdly or were outcasts," said Robert Fein, a forensic psychologist.

What the Secret Service has learned from a detailed study of American assassins poses several conundrums for school principals, the police and public officials struggling to respond to the school shootings.

Consider the most common responses to school violence: armed guards, surveillance cameras, metal detectors, dress codes and telephone numbers for reporting threats.

While more schools are hiring police officers to patrol the hallways, the Secret Service warns that a motive of many killers is to be killed. Heightened security may be a deterrent, and it may be a magnet for suicide.

While schools are installing video cameras, many killers said their motive was to become famous. A camera may be a deterrent, and it may offer a video yearbook of a killer.

While schools are prohibiting trench coats, many killers told the Secret Service that they tried to blend into the crowd.

While schools are encouraging the reporting of threats, the Secret Service takes all threats seriously, but it found that not one assassin in the past 50 years had made a threat.

While Congress is financing a national phone number for anonymous reporting of concerns about students, nearly all schools and the police have been given no training in assessing which people are planning an attack.

"We think that some of the same ideas used to help protect the president may also help keep our nation's schoolchildren safe," said Brian Stafford, the new director of the Secret Service. "We want to offer any assistance we can to prevent [such shootings] from happening again."

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