The shots that killed 15 people April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School were heard throughout the nation -- but the changes prompted by that tragedy were still unable to prevent another school killing. On February 29, 2000, a first-grader shot and killed a classmate in a Michigan elementary school. What have we learned from the Columbine tragedy? What do we still need to do? Are our children safe in school? Included: Experts' suggestions to prevent school violence!
In Flint, Michigan, six-year-old Kayla Rolland had a playground scuffle with one of her classmates. The next day, that classmate took a gun to school, hidden in his pants. While the other students were lining up in the hallway for morning recess, Kayla's classmate shot her in the neck with the one bullet that was in the gun. She died.
Last April 20 started like any other school day, but it ended like no other for people at Columbine High. Sunshine warmed Littleton, Colorado, as students readied for the end of the school year and senior graduation. Before noon, two male students wearing trench coats had set off homemade bombs and walked through the school in a murderous rampage. One teacher and 14 students died.
The countless improvements in school security prompted by last year's Littleton tragedy were still unable to prevent Kayla's murder in Flint. Although there is a downward trend in the number of violent school incidents and students who take guns to school, school security continues to be a concern as it has been for the past decade.
However, it is a mistake to believe that security hardware alone can prevent more school shootings, said Dr. Scott Poland, the newly elected president of the National Association of School Psychologists and director of psychological services for Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Texas. Poland, who led three crisis teams following school shootings last year, including the one at Columbine High School, warns school officials that additional changes are necessary to prevent more violence.
Many schools missed the chance to make sure the people killed at Columbine High did not die in vain, Poland told Education World. "We've missed a very teachable moment," he said. "Teachers should have put their desks in a circle and talked about what students could do to make their school safer."
Although many school districts spent millions of dollars on security hardware, many made the decision to invest in hardware in isolation and without student input, Poland added. "They [students] are the absolute keys to the process."
"We need to have regular classroom units on [violence] from elementary school all the way through," Poland said. "I believe that what is done in an individual classroom is the key. Teachers need to model appropriate and respectful behavior toward everyone and stop harassment when they see it and be in the hallways and all places in the school where it happens. You have to talk about it every day and with every student."
Students must learn to recognize the serious danger of guns, Poland emphasized. They must report students with guns immediately to an adult. He discovered after talking to students about shootings that occurred in their schools that, in almost every case of a suicide or school violence, someone knew before it happened. "Students don't want to be snitches," he said, even when if they understand the gun could be aimed at them.
"An encouraging sign is that students in many locations have come forward and foiled plot to commit violence in their schools. Some of these stories have even been in the news, which is good," Poland said. "It personally embarrasses me that I live in a country where a six-year-old or seven-year-old can bring a gun to school," he continued. "We must teach even little kids that guns are dangerous and that if someone gets out a gun, run! Tell an adult!"
At a press conference the same day, President Bill Clinton questioned how the Michigan tragedy could have happened. He recommended that Congress pass tougher gun-control laws and safety measures, including childproof locks.
"I totally agree with Clinton," Poland said. "We have to have gun responsibility." He thinks many gun owners' failure to take full responsibility for keeping guns out of the hands of children is part of the problem. If children take guns to school, the owners of those guns must be prosecuted. Guns must be locked up so children can't get them, Poland insisted.
The solution in those large high schools is to personalize them by having wings or teams with groups of students who have the same teachers, Poland suggested. Schools should make it their goal to increase extra-curricular participation by 50 percent within the year, to improve the personalization of the school.
Zero-tolerance policies have been around since the 1980s, when states began to adopt zero-tolerance laws pertaining to illegal drug use. In 1994, the Safe- and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act was adopted. The federal government funds state and local efforts to reduce school violence. Schools that accept such funding must expel students who take weapons or drugs to school, explained Dr. Gerald N. Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
"Zero-tolerance takes the discretion out of the hands of the principal, and it is not discriminatory," Tirozzi said. "Zero-tolerance is a non-discriminatory act across the board."
"The secret to a good policy is to clearly articulate the expectations of student behavior and what the violations are and what the penalties are," Tirozzi said. "I do think everyone is on full alert [since Columbine]," he told Education World. At a recent national convention of the NASSP, he had the sense that schools across the country have taken a number of steps to institute tougher rules and more security measures.
This zero-tolerance policy lets teachers focus on teaching instead of law enforcement, said Dr. Pam Riley, executive director of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence. Violent altercations belong in the district attorneys' offices, she added.
"Schools reflect what happens in communities -- [their] guns, drugs and violence," Riley told Education World. "Administrators are reacting to that. If something goes wrong, they must treat it like a serious issue." Educators must use also common sense and have fair procedures in place, Riley advised.
"We do need to have limits. School officials must have the ability to have consequences for these violations, but there must be due process and respect for individual rights of children," Riley said. The zero-tolerance policy is just one component of the many changes made to improve school security since the Columbine High tragedy.
"After the Columbine tragedy there was a more concerted effort to show a physical security presence," explained Riley. Added security measures included metal detectors, surveillance cameras, fences around school property, and more lighting in stairwells and areas outside the school. Those measures were important because they helped make parents and students feel safer, she said. Many schools also added either professional security guards or a police presence.
Requirements that students wear uniforms and use mesh (see-through) book bags were among common changes. School uniforms were especially recommended in schools in which gangs operated, which eliminated gang colors or emblems on clothing.
The study surveyed a random sample of 10,449 students between the ages of 12 to 19 who attended a primary or secondary school. It also found that students were subject to school violence whether they attended urban, suburban, or rural schools.
School violence has not only affected changes in school security and added anti-violence curriculum but also changed people's perception of schools. "Schools had traditionally been safe havens," said Timothy Neville, Kennedy Middle School principal in Enfield, Connecticut. "I think things are different now because we had kids that were scared." "There has always been some fighting in schools," he continued. "But there is a big difference between two kids duking it out and kids getting blown-up and shot."
Article by Diane Weaver Dunne
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