Taking Aim at Violence – preventing school violence

Michael Easterbrook

In the wake of recent deadly school shootings, educators have been taking drastic actions to increase student safety. But will their efforts prevent more trouble–or promote it?

Tension in the classroom had been building all year. The English teacher was fresh out of college and her pupils, about 15 of them, were seniors on the advanced-placement track at South Fayette High School outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. These stellar students weren’t accustomed to pulling grades below an A, but the teacher was infuriatingly tough, frequently returning papers marked C and D. “It was kind of like a little war,” says Matt Welch, the class president and one of the students. “It just seemed like she was out to get us.”

If there was one person the teacher really seemed to have it in for, it was Aaron Leese. A bold 18-year-old with short red hair, Leese was popular with his classmates, if not exactly your model student. Police had busted him in the park with a bottle of bourbon. In school, he had a habit of embarrassing the teacher by asking her questions in front of the class that she found hard to answer. Leese also didn’t take kindly to low marks on his assignments. Once, he was so riled by a grade that the teacher asked him to leave. As he was walking out he muttered something like “troglodyte bitch,” which earned him a three-day suspension.

The relationship between the two became increasingly strained. One morning in spring, she handed back one of the year’s last big assignments, a 10-page essay on a book of one’s choice. Leese had written his on Thomas Moore’s Utopia. He needed an A to pass the class, but he received a D. “I said, `Man, if I don’t pass this class, I’m going to be mad enough to kill,’ “Leese recalls. “It was something I said out of frustration. After that the teacher said, `That could be misinterpreted, you know?’ I said, `Yeah, my bad. I take it back.'”

The exchange went so quickly that a student who sat directly behind Leese didn’t even catch it. But it made a distinct impression on the teacher. After class ended, she reported it to the principal, who pulled Leese into his office and phoned the police. By noon, Leese was being escorted off school grounds by two officers from the South Fayette Township Police Department. He was now facing criminal charges. “I was in tears,” Leese says.

Had Leese made his comment just five years ago instead of in spring 1998, it might well have gone unnoticed. But a string of deadly shootings at schools around the country is radically altering how these institutions interact with their students. Since February 1996, the massacres, seven in all, have left a total of 35 students, teachers and principals dead. In the latest tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, two youths killed 13 before taking their own lives.

Alarmed by such incidents, educators are changing the way they go about their mission–and the steps some are taking go far beyond a heightened sensitivity to violent language. They’re installing spiked fences, metal detectors, emergency alert systems. They’re hiring security guards and imposing searches of students’ bags, lockers and desks. And they’re insisting that teachers learn skills not included in any syllabus: how to run lock-down drills, how to strip a student vigilante of his weapon.

No one would deny that educators have a right–make that an obligation–to do all they can to protect themselves and their charges from what has become a prime threat to their safety: students themselves. But worrisome questions have arisen about the effects such measures are having on the education which is the schools’ purpose to provide. More disturbing still are suggestions that the efforts may not be effectively preventing trouble–and may even be promoting it.

The change most immediately apparent to students has been the move to punish those who use violent language. It’s hard to fault administrators for paying close attention to such outbursts. Reporters delving into the lives of the young killers invariably have surfaced with tales of suspicious remarks made before the carnage. Like Barry Loukaitis, the 14-year-old who killed two students and a teacher at Frontier Middle School in Moses Lake, Washington, who told a friend how cool it would be to go on a shooting spree. Or Kip Kinkel, accused of killing four people at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon, who talked frequently of shooting cats, blowing up cows and building bombs. And more recently still, Eric Harris, one of the Columbine shooters, who posted a message on the Internet saying, “You all better hide in your houses because I’m coming for everyone, and I will shoot to kill and I will kill everyone.”

Remarks like these, recalled with remorse after the fact, have led principals and teachers to be on the lookout for more of the same. But when do such comments represent an actual intent to kill, and when are they merely the product of an active fantasy life?

Robby Stango, for example, was a 15-year-old freshman at Kingston High School in upstate New York in May 1998 when school officials were alerted to a poem he had written for a class assignment. Titled “Step to Oblivion,” the poem is about a divorced man who decides one night to jump off a cliff and end his life. “Here I am/Standing here on this gloomy night/Minutes away from my horrid fate,” the verse begins. The precipice is only seven feet high, however, and the man survives the fall. “Maybe my prayer was answered/Or it could have been just luck/But I was given a second chance at life,” the poem concludes.

Despite its positive ending, the verse convinced school officials that Stango was headed for trouble. Although the teen was seeing a counselor at the time about problems he was having at home, he didn’t pose a danger to himself or others, according to therapists familiar with his case. Yet the school’s discovery of the poem set off a chain of events that resulted in Stango being forced, against his mother’s wishes, into a five-night stay in a psychiatric ward. Alice Stango has since filed a lawsuit against the school district and the county.

It was also writing assignments for English class that got eighth-grader Troy Foley, from the California coastal town of Half Moon Bay, in trouble. In an essay titled “The Riot,” Foley, then 14, wrote of a kid who is so enraged with school rules, especially the ones forbidding him to wear a hat and drink soda during class, that he incites a student riot that ends with the principal getting bludgeoned to death. Two weeks later, Foley handed in “Goin’ Postal,” an equally violent tale about a character named Martin who sneaks a pistol into school and kills a police officer, the vice principal and principal. Though he had no history of violent or even disruptive behavior, Foley was suspended for five days for making a terroristic threat. Foley’s mother, assisted by the American Civil Liberties Union, managed to have the record changed to state that Foley was suspended for two days for using profanity in school assignments. Foley has since skipped high school and is enrolled at a two-year community college.

Parents and lawyers of both boys contend that the schools overreacted in these cases, punishing children whose only crime was a vivid imagination. But even if that’s so, it leaves an important question unanswered: how do principals and teachers know when a violent story or remark signals a real threat? Those who turn to psychological research will find only equivocal answers at best.

“These things may be indicators, and they may not,” says Kevin Dwyer, Ph.D., president-elect of the National Association of School Psychologists. “To try to predict an individual’s future behavior based on what they say or write isn’t really possible.” His view is shared by Edward Taylor, Ph.D., professor of social work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an expert on childhood mental illness. “I don’t know of any study that has empirically examined whether the use Of violent language in creative writing can actually predict those who are going to commit a crime,” declares Taylor. Such language so permeates American popular culture, he notes, that its use doesn’t necessarily indicate a predilection for the use of force.

Mindful of the complexities involved in predicting which students will become violent, many school districts are attempting to circumvent the threat entirely by altering their physical landscapes. Located in the small town of West Paducah, Kentucky, on the banks of the Ohio River, Heath High School was dragged into the national spotlight in the winter of 1997 when 14-year-old Michael Carneal gunned down classmates, killing three girls. The school quickly convened a security committee, which authorized a $148,000 security plan.

Today, Heath requires visitors, teachers and students to wear identification tags around their necks at all times, like soldiers. It has students sign consent forms authorizing staff to rummage through backpacks and cars for weapons; each morning before entering school, students line up to have their bags searched. Heath also has hired a uniformed, armed security guard. Officials have prepared should a weapon slip by security. They’ve purchased two-way radios for staff members to wear on their belts, in case they need to communicate during an attack. And they’ve placed emergency medical kits and disaster-instruction manuals in each classroom.

The new environment at Heath High School dismays many parents and students. “They made my son sign papers so they can search his possessions, his lockers anything, anytime,” says one unhappy parent. “From what I understand, the Constitution is still in effect. I don’t like the idea of my child going to school and having school officials search him at their discretion. They’re trying their best, but they don’t seem to be getting it right.”

Heath’s principal Bill Bond defends the measures. “We have restrictions on everything we do,” he points out. “I’ve never thought about carrying a bomb on an airplane, but I pass through airport security just like everybody else. The very concept of security is always going to reduce freedom. That is a trade-off people have been dealing with since the beginning of time.”

Schools around the country are following Heath’s lead. In April 1998, an Indiana school district became the first in the country to install metal detectors in its elementary schools, after three of its students were caught bringing guns into the buildings. This past January, the U.S. Department of Education reported that nearly 6300 students were expelled in the 1996-1997 school year for carrying firearms: 58% had handguns, 7% rifles or shotguns and 35% other weapons, including bombs and grenades.

Faced with such statistics, more schools than ever before are buying security devices like spiked fences, motorized gates and blast-proof metal covers for doors and windows. Administrators are also signing up in droves for the services of security experts. Jesus Villahermosa Jr., a deputy sheriff in Pierce County, Washington, expects to run 65 sessions for educators this year, double the number held in 1997. “I’m completely booked,” says Villahermosa, whose curriculum includes how to disarm students and how to run lock-down drills.

Such measures may make schools feel less vulnerable, but how do they affect the learning that goes on inside? Here again, research provides only tentative answers. Citing neurological and psychological research, Renate Nummela Caine, professor emeritus of educational psychology at California State University-San Bernadino, maintains that when students feel threatened or helpless, their brains “downshift” into more primitive states, and their ability to think becomes automatic and limited, instinctive rather than creative.

Regimented classrooms, inflexible teachers, an atmosphere of suspicion, can all induce feelings of helplessness, contends Caine, author with her husband Geoffrey Caine, a law professor turned educational specialist, of Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain (Addison-Wesley, 1994). “What schools are doing is creating conditions that are comparable to prisons,” she declares. “Where else are people searched every day and watched every minute? They want to clamp down and they want control. It’s based on fear, and it’s an understandable reaction given the circumstances, but the problem is that they’re not looking at other solutions.”

Psychologists say that surrounding troubled young people with the accoutrements of a police state may only fuel their fascination with guns and increase their resistance to authority. Likewise, punishing young people for talking or writing about their violent musings may just force the fantasies underground, where they may grow more exaggerated and extreme. “It’s a response that says, `We don’t know how to react, so we’re going to respond harshly,'” says Patrick Tolan, Ph.D., professor of adolescent development and intervention at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “If you’re a child, would you come forward and say you’re troubled in that atmosphere? Are you going to rely on adults if that is how simplistically they think about things? Rather than saying something to a counselor, you might well keep quiet.”

Suspending or expelling a student, moreover, strips him of the structure of school and the company of people he knows, perhaps deepening his alienation and driving him to more desperate acts. Kip Kinkel, for example, went on his rampage after being suspended from school for possessing a stolen handgun.

Yet there are punishments more severe and alienating than suspensions and expulsions. As schools begin to resemble police precincts, school officials are abdicating their duty to counsel and discipline unruly students and letting the cops down the hall handle the classroom disruptions, bullying and schoolyard fights. And the cops aren’t taking any chances. They’re arresting students and feeding them into a criminal justice system that sees little distinction between kids and adults. “Once that police officer is on the scene, the principals and teachers lose control completely,” says Vincent Shiraldi, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute in Washington. “I think it will make students a more litigious group and much less able to solve their problems peacefully and reasonably.”

There may be a better way, and educators are beginning to look for it. Instead of building schools like fortresses, architects are experimenting with ways to open them up and make them more welcoming. Designers are lowering lockers to waist-height and in some cases eliminating them entirely, so students can’t hide behind them or use them as storage spaces for guns. Instead of being built on the outskirts of a school, administrative offices are being placed in the middle, enclosed in glass walls so officials can see what’s going on. Gymnasiums and auditoriums are being opened to the public, serving as meeting places for the local chamber of commerce or performing arts group. “The kids feel nurtured by this,” says Steven Bingler, a school architect in New Orleans who participated last October in a symposium on making schools safer that was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education and the White House Millennium Council. “School doesn’t feel like a prison to them anymore.”

On a more personal level, some schools are offering increased access to counselors; others have hired a “violence prevention coordinator” to whom students can give anonymous tips about classmates in trouble. In accord with this less punitive, more therapeutic approach, students who use threatening language are being steered into anger-management programs, intensive therapy and to other support services.

As for Aaron Leese, he was charged with making a terroristic threat and thrown in a holding cell for the afternoon. “My thought was that they wanted to scare me a bit so that I would bend to the system,” he says. The charge was dropped after he submitted to a 90-day probation and a psychiatric evaluation. Leese was ordered to stay off school property, forcing him to miss all the senior activities planned for the end of the year–a banquet, a picnic, a dance. Then his principal, Superintendent Linda Hippert, relented. “I felt that Aaron needed to be punished, but my assumption after the investigation was that the punishment did not fit the crime,” says Hippert. “I know Aaron very well, and what he was denied was above and beyond what he had done.” With her blessing, Leese was allowed to graduate with his class.

MICHAEL EASTERBROOK worries that educators’ plans to secure schools against future deadly shootings may actually backfire (page 52). As freedoms are taken away and pranks are treated with expulsion and arrests, educators may be making difficult kids more alienated and more rebellious. “There’s a knee-jerk reaction going on,” he says. “Educators are punishing kids for things that they previously wouldn’t have been punished for.” Easterbrook, a freelance writer, lives in Brooklyn, New York. His work regularly appears in the on-line health magazine HealthScout (www.healthscout.com).

COPYRIGHT 1999 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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