When I was a teenager growing up in Arkansas, I stored my 12-gauge shotgun under my bed. I took it out when I went with Dad to shoot clay pigeons. That wasn't back in the 1950s but rather the late '80s; even in that recent decade, I wasn't considered an outcast. Lots of kids drove to school with rifles they had forgotten to take from gun racks over the weekend. A teacher might cluck disapprovingly, but no one called a SWAT team.
Just 15 years later, my parents and my school must seem spectacularly negligent. In the past few years, 17 states have made it a crime to leave a loaded firearm within reach of a minor. And you don't have to bring a gun to school to get suspended. In the post-Columbine era, a fingernail clipper will do, or a pair of scissors, according to a Harvard report released last year on zero-tolerance policies against "weapons."
Of course, nothing could be the same after Columbine, and now Santee. As long as sad little boys can find guns, schools must be vigilant. But at what price? Today it seems as though an arms race has begun in American high schools: as a tiny number of disaffected kids stockpiles guns and home-made bombs to mimic Columbine's Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (or at least threaten to), communities are investing millions of dollars to bring armed cops--er, "resource officers"--to campus, along with metal detectors and security cameras.
Meanwhile, the culture of high schools is changing in a more subtle way. A kind of psychological arms race has broken out. Some teenagers identify with the killers and yearn for the attention they receive. These kids make lists of their enemies, set up websites memorializing Harris and Klebold, even warn they will "pull a Columbine." But a much larger group of teens is ever more watchful, ready to report any threat, no matter how ludicrous it sounds. It's unclear what kind of people graduate from high schools where some kids hurt so much they want to kill, while other kids fear so much they want to report harmless pranksters. But we already know that high school will never be the same.
Columbine was not the first mass killing at a school, but it was so ornately gory and so profoundly heartbreaking that it became a cultural reference point. "The anxieties and angers that used to be free floating in adolescents now simply attach to events like Columbine," says University of California at Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring. "Instead of just talking about it, now they have a model." Harris and Klebold would smile at their progeny not only in Santee but also in Lake Worth, Fla.; Fort Gibson, Okla.; and Deming, N.M. (see chart, page 30).
But in part because they have seen the survivors of school massacres weeping after the slaughter, many kids are helping to stop the shooting before it starts by sharing information about troubled peers. "The best metal detector is the student," says Ronald Stephens of the National School Safety Center. That's because in more than 75% of school-violence incidents, the attacker had told someone first, according to a post-Columbine study by the Secret Service that applied its threat-assessment techniques to school safety.
Snitches are becoming angels. Last month in Fort Collins, Colo., two girls warned police about three students who were then discovered with weapons and plans to attack Preston Junior High. Just last week in Twentynine Palms, Calif., Victoria Sudd, 17, watched the Santee horror unfold and then told her mom that she had heard two boys make comments on the bus about killing people. Sudd's father contacted the authorities, who quickly obtained a search warrant for the homes of the boys. The cops found a rifle and a list of 16 students whom the boys allegedly were going to target. Far from being ridiculed as a tattler, Sudd has been hailed as a heroine in Twentynine Palms, where fellow students hug her and the city plans to honor her.
Similarly, two boys were arrested last Wednesday after classmates at Friendship Christian School in Lebanon, Tenn., told teachers the boys had threatened them and talked of destroying Friendship. Students also turned in potential copycats last week in Miami, where two boys were suspended for 10 days after they said what happened in Santee was nothing compared with what they could do there.
But if all these incidents suggest that violence at schools has reached epidemic proportions, we should take a step back. It hasn't. According to the journal Criminal Justice Ethics, more than 99.99% of public schools have never had a homicide of any kind, let alone a mass killing. In the 1992-93 school year, there were 54 violent deaths on campuses; last year there were 16. "The data suggest that most schools are very safe places for kids, and they're getting safer," says Thomas Connelly, a safety consultant who has worked in schools in 22 states.
Schools are cracking down nonetheless, on the theory that lightning can strike anywhere. Cops are a fixture in many schools (Houston Independent School District alone employs a stunning 177 officers), and so are keycards for entry. And all over the nation, schools have installed phone lines for anonymous tips; administrators must spend hours following up on the calls. "We push the staff almost to the breaking point to investigate every one," says Tom Miller, a school official in Port Huron, Mich. At some schools--including Columbine, understandably--the tips lead automatically to a police investigation, even when they are benign comments taken out of context.
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That was the case with the high school student represented by Micki Moran, a family-law attorney in the Chicago suburbs. In 1999, nine days after Columbine, the student, a ninth-grade boy from Wheeling, Ill., was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, though the police considered more serious charges, including mayhem. Classmates thought of him as an "unpopular nerd," Moran says, and made fun of his black clothes. One day at lunch, a group of kids approached him; one said, "You're like those kids at Columbine." The boy responded, "I could be." On the strength of those three little words, Moran says, hysteria broke out at the school as rumors swirled about his possible intent. His locker was searched, and the baseball bat found inside was labeled a weapon. The entire school was evacuated. The boy spent six months in counseling and is now flourishing at another school. The school has said that under the circumstances, it acted appropriately.
But the post-Columbine story is not always about overreaction. Officials at some schools, including those that have witnessed tragedies, have found ways of persuading students to communicate calmly their worries to teachers they trust. At Deming Middle School in New Mexico, where Araceli Tena was shot in the head by a classmate in 1999, principal Mike Chavez has visited every classroom to talk about the damage of spreading baseless rumors. The Santee news didn't cause a flurry of bogus threats or panicky tips at Deming this week, as it did at so many other schools. Similarly, officials in Jefferson County, Colo., home of Columbine, say the results of two surveys--one taken last year and one just before the carnage--show that the district's students did not feel less safe a year after the killings. Which is sad in a way: you don't fear what you know intimately. It's the rest of us who are hysterical.
To be sure, some good has come as a result of the soul searching. In Hoyt, Kans., where three students were arrested last month after they allegedly planned to bomb Royal Valley High School, student-council president Tara Goodman, 18, says the barriers that once divided students from teachers have vanished. In Oxnard, Calif., where cops killed a Hueneme High School student who was holding a classmate hostage in January, principals throughout the district now have two-way radios to be used if the phone lines go dead. Those will come in handy during any kind of disaster.
Anything seems possible after Columbine, but should it? Students at our high schools may be the best authority on this question, and they are a lot less worried than their parents about getting shot. Although 70% of adults in an April 2000 poll said they believe a shooting was likely in their neighborhood's school, in a fall 1999 poll a similar percentage of students said they feel personally safe from campus violence. Says Joanne McDaniel, director of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence: "We still have a lot of people saying it could not happen here, but we have a lot more who are realizing they need to be vigilant." The question is, Can administrators and students be vigilant without being vigilantes?
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