States Experiment With Schoolhouse Safety


Despite the fact that the violent loss of life at American high schools declined as the 1990s came to a close, the recurrence of jarring multiple shootings has forced policy makers to tackle an assignment that none of them ever wanted: how best to ensure student safety and prevent future massacres.

Prior to the attack at Colorado's Columbine High School in April 1999, mass shootings like those in Paducah, Ky., and Jonesboro, Ark., prompted bursts of legislative activity on the issue. Columbine brought these concerns to the national level. Analysts say that, in the year since, state lawmakers have climbed a steep learning curve toward comprehensive, preventive solutions already experimented with in states like California, Kentucky and North Carolina.

"There seems to be a greater awareness and push in states (for school safety) because of Columbine," said Mary Fulton, policy analyst for the Education Commission on the States (ECS).

But Columbine confounded lawmakers. The most convenient responses appeared to have been tried and to have failed. In the rush to do something, some states increased funding for local school districts to monitor school campuses, even though gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were able to kill in the presence of a security guard and under the watchful eye of surveillance cameras.

Jane Grady, assistant director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, dismisses the quest for easy answers. "Just gun control or mentoring programs or conflict resolution are not going to solve the problem." Solutions need to be "comprehensive, and that is unfortunate, because in this society we are looking for a quick fix."

There was a point in the mid-90s when the government thought zero-tolerance toward violence would be enough to stop gun-toting youths. The federally-mandated laws that treat unacceptable behavior harshly and expel students who bring guns to school have been in place in every state since 1995.

But fear of expulsion didn't stop Columbine or earlier incidents in Springfield, Ore., Jonesboro, Ark., Paducah, Ky., and Pearl, Miss.

Columbine further inspired the federal government to set up a bipartisan Congressional panel to study solutions to youth violence. The panel's March 2000 report on youth violence blames factors from abusive homes to the violent media and seems to reflect conclusions emerging from state task forces and anti-violence summits that the hope for solutions lies in more comprehensive planning.

U.S. Representative and panel member James C. Greenwood (R-Penn.) told Education Week that "while superficial, knee-jerk reactions may focus on guns, a more thorough analysis would lead us to focus on the emotional state of America's children. If a faculty member had just reached out to these schools' shooters, these awful acts would not have happened."

The panel's conclusions confirmed findings by the National Governor's Association (NGA) that prevention, rather than simple punishment, is key to combating school violence. The report highlighted the early identification of troubled teens, intervention and prevention programs like Head Start and Schools Within Schools, smaller classes, funding for more police and counselors, and classes on media literacy as components of a comprehensive school safety strategy.

States Coordinating Efforts

Combinations of these ideas surfaced slowly as states moved to firm up their plans. One month after the Columbine shooting, Maine Gov. Angus King signed a comprehensive school safety package. The Maine law encompasses much of what states have considered doing to address school violence:

  • A statewide code of conduct for school districts, spelling out appropriate discipline. Local school districts were told to adopt plans for responding to violent situations.
  • Improved communication among teachers, administrators and parents. The records of children charged with juvenile crime are now shared among school officials and law enforcement agencies.
  • Required collection and maintenance of files concerning violent incidents and expelled students.
  • A task force to study how to educate and manage chronically disruptive students. Many states set up alternative schools for these students.

North Carolina and Kentucky Plans Lauded

Policy experts praise similar statewide efforts in North Carolina and Kentucky to improve school safety.

North Carolina took an early lead in addressing school safety, setting up the state Center for the Prevention of School Violence in 1993 to support school district safety programs. Since 1997, the state has issued standards of behavior, as well as a means to identify needy students and get them help.

After Columbine, North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt authorized rewards of up to $10,000 for information leading to the conviction of anyone who makes threats against a school or students. He also increased the criminal penalty for making a bomb threat and made parents liable for children who do so.

In Kentucky, lawmakers were developing a statewide safety plan when a 14-year-old boy shot up his prayer group at Heath High School in West Paducah in 1997, killing three students and wounding five others. Subsequently, Kentucky passed a bill that formed partnerships among agencies that deal with youth juvenile justice, schools, family agencies and police officers. The partnerships provide joint services and share information about violent students. Mary Fairchild, an educational policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), attributes the success of Kentucky and North Carolina's school violence programs to the fact that they look at things much more holistically. "You have to connect with the community. Many legislators are including incentives or mandating that schools work with other agencies mental health, child welfare, police."

The safety programs in Kentucky and North Carolina have paralleled and encouraged statewide school safety centers in other states. Part of the inspiration for the centers was a perceived need for cooperation after the groundswell of responses from schools and districts that arose in response to Columbine: fines for threats, tip lines for reporting danger, dress codes and debates over uniform policies, required student ID tags and transparent book bags.

To date, California, Connecticut, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Washington orchestrate local districts' school safety efforts and keep them informed through central offices, according to NGA.

Fairchild thinks the trend will be for more states to provide a framework for local school districts to set up effective prevention plans. "School safety centers are trying to provide an infrastructure to help schools. They provide the best information, research and techniques," she said.

"This isn't just a school problem, this is a bigger issue and legislators are trying to connect the pieces of the puzzle," Fairchild said.

In the past, when high-profile shootings have occurred, state lawmakers reacted by hasty policymaking. This is best seen in the type of laws passed by Mississippi, Kentucky, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Georgia after each of their multiple shootings. Elements found in most or all of the packages require:

  • Character education to be taught in the schools.
  • Teacher training in management skills and behavior identification.
  • Reports on student behavior and incidents of violence and the establishment of school safety centers
  • Codes of student conduct and standard discipline established by local school districts.
  • Increased penalties for students involved in felonies. In Mississippi's case, killing on school property is now a capital offense.
  • Firearms banned in schools, school buses and bus stops.
  • School district votes on uniforms or dress codes.
  • Protection for teachers from civil suits brought against them for appropriately disciplining students.
  • Funding for schools districts to beef up security including hiring safety officers and security equipment such as video cameras and metal detectors.
  • Establishment of a school violence task force to study school violence and report back to the governor and legislature with proposals for legislation.

But events at Columbine magnified the issue and quickened the pace of these proposals throughout the nation. As lawmakers resumed their lengthy learning process, they also had to address the rash of copycat threats and hysteria that followed Columbine.

  • To deal immediately with the deluge of threats, a number of states established tip lines and set fines for people who make threats. Colorado, Georgia, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina and Wisconsin went this route.
  • Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore also set up a tip line and made a deal with Bell Atlantic and GTE to create an Internet site for online school crime reporting.
  • Lawmakers also responded with bills that forced schools to set up crisis response plans, including providing school blueprints to local law enforcement officials in Alaska, Florida, Maine, New York, Ohio and Virginia.
  • California Gov. Gray Davis directed $100 million into a comprehensive school safety package that included funding for more school counselors and security officers and to help school districts purchase surveillance equipment and metal detectors.
  • Virginia enacted a bill that will put a student who brandishes a firearm in school behind bars for 5 years. The Texas Senate followed suit, passing a bill that requires officers to hold a gun-packing youth for 48 hours, while authorities assess how the child got the gun, what is happening in the child's life and why the child might be committing such a crime.
  • Nevada, Florida and Washington require mental health professionals to analyze students caught bringing a gun to school. After Columbine, Connecticut, Louisiana and Maine were among states that debated bills that would require psychological evaluations of disruptive or violent youths.
  • Georgia and Louisiana have given teachers more authority to discipline students without fear of civil lawsuits. Alaska is currently deliberating a similar measure.
  • Louisiana and Florida have drafted student codes of conduct and aligned them with their disciplinary policies.

Balancing Safety And Students' Rights

The desire for tighter security has met resistance. Opponents say that aspects of the school safety legislation are oppressive and make schools look like police states.

Emily Whitfield of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argues that the prison-like atmosphere of some schools is heightening student fear. "It is possible to have a safe school and take certain safety measures without making students feel they have no rights or that they are constantly under supervision," she said.

Since Columbine, the ACLU says it has received an increasing number of complaints from parents who report that school officials have harassed their children for dyeing their hair, wearing a nose ring, or donning the sort of black trench coat worn by the young shooters at Columbine during their assault.

What civil libertarians find most egregious is the practice of profiling student killers. Some states, as well as the US Department of Education, have drawn up lists of characteristic behaviors that, when taken together, may indicate that a youth is about to lash out.

Whitfield says these lists have had a devastating effect on students who turn out to have been falsely targeted. "It's hard to shake that kind of reputation when you get it. The problem with things like profiles is that they are notoriously unreliable."

John Mitchell of the American Federation of Teachers, a one million-member union, says that while he is glad that groups like the ACLU exist to raise caution and defend students' rights, educators can't play games with students who exhibit threatening behavior.

Mitchell disputes the charge that profiling and increased use of zero-tolerance laws, when used with a measure of "common sense," create a prison-like atmosphere for students.

But a brawl at a Decatur, Illinois football game drew national attention to zero-tolerance laws last fall as parents argued that the students were dealt with too severely. More recently, parents in New Jersey howled after four kindergartners were suspended for playing cops and robbers during recess.

Still, Mitchell says, "I don't think it has become an extreme in the schools. There's got to be a middle ground that allows the schools to get the help to kids that they need and also protect the kids in the school."

For a listing of school violence incidents since 1993, click here.


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