In his nearly 30 years with the U.S. Secret Service, Dennis McCarthy investigated hundreds of people who were thought to pose a threat to the president.
“I can't prove it to you, but I know we caught some people just in time,” he says.
Now McCarthy uses the same skills to defuse potential violence among students in the Blue Valley School District, Overland Park, Kan. As director of safety and security in the suburban district outside Kansas City, Mo., McCarthy works to identify students who may be on a path to violence and intervene before a tragedy occurs.
“I probably interview 60 to 70 kids each school year,” says McCarthy, “and three, four or five of them were at the edge of committing some type of violent act. The idea is to derail them. The underlying mantra is prevention, being proactive. I know in my heart that it works.”
In the years since the Columbine High School massacre in Jefferson County, Colo., schools and universities across the nation have stepped up their efforts to combat violence on their campuses. Most schools have pursued a two-track approach of providing some physical safety features — locks, alarms, identification badges, surveillance cameras — as well as stepping up efforts to identify potentially troubled students and address their problems before they lead to an eruption of violence.
“Schools should not deal with it in just one way,” says Larance Johnson, program director for the School Violence Resource Center at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock. “It has to be a combination.”
The enormity of the Columbine tragedy in 1999 jolted many communities that had a “can't-happen-here” attitude and persuaded school administrators to take the issue of security and violence prevention more seriously.
But as time has passed, the urgency about addressing school violence has waned among some. The School Violence Resource Center, which was established in 2000 to help schools identify and begin prevention programs, has not received the response it anticipated, says Johnson.
“For some people, it's out of sight, out of mind,” says Johnson. “So many schools have an overwhelming number of things to deal with that are academically oriented that they may not be able to address this issue.”
But the specter of violence continues to plague schools and universities:
In July, police in Oaklyn, N.J., said they foiled a plot for a Columbine-type shooting spree when they arrested three heavily armed teenagers. Authorities said the three had planned to kill three middle-school students and then use their weapons on random victims.
In May, a disgruntled former student and employee at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland killed one person and wounded two when he opened fire in the building that houses the university's business school. More than 90 people were trapped in the building during a seven-hour standoff before the alleged gunman was wounded and captured.
Last October, a man who was flunking out of the University of Arizona nursing school fatally shot one of his professors in a second-floor office and two other professors in a fourth-floor classroom filled with students taking an exam. He then took his own life.
Changing the environment
Equipment, technology, building design and law-enforcement officers can improve school security, not just through the functions they serve, but also by signaling to students and staff that their safety is a priority.
“People can see these things, and it gives them a sense of security,” says Johnson. “Students have to have a sense that the administration cares.”
Here are some ways schools try to improve their environment:
- Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED)
School designers have become more cognizant of how the physical environment can affect student behavior. Design choices that encourage positive behavior can create an enhanced feeling of security at a school site without seeming to inhibit students or staff.
“It could be something as simple as where you have bushes or trees planted,” says Johnson. “It looks at whether you have too many entrances to a building, or whether a teacher's desk is turned in the right direction to see when someone is entering a classroom.”
Technology improvements and affordable prices have made video surveillance feasible for more schools and universities. Digital cameras can record images more efficiently, and Internet access allows administrators and law-enforcement officials to view camera surveillance immediately from nearly any computer.
“We have four high schools and have nearly 200 surveillance cameras on those campuses,” says Blue Valley's McCarthy. “We also have some in our middle schools and in a few elementary schools.”
- School Resource Officers (SROs)
Police officers assigned to school campuses not only provide a law-enforcement presence that deters crime and mischief, but also are available to counsel students who might not feel comfortable confiding in a teacher or administrator.
“A lot of students use resource officers as someone they can tell things to,” says Johnson.
Other steps, such as metal detectors, access-control systems, identification badges, alarms, lighting systems and handheld radios, can give school officials better control of who and what gets into their facilities.
Improving physical security is valuable, but for those committed to education — even a converted law-enforcement official such as McCarthy — the more crucial element in school security is establishing programs to prevent violence.
“A metal detector is fine, but if a kid is bent on doing something, that isn't going to stop him,” says McCarthy.
To prevent a student from turning to violence, a school needs to have students, teachers, administrators and parents willing to communicate with each other and come forward when someone exhibits troubling behavior.
McCarthy, citing a threat-assessment guide created by the Secret Service and Department of Education (see sidebar, p. SS9), says the critical steps in preventing student violence are identifying a problem student, assessing the scope of the problem, and managing the problem before it comes to violence.
In most of the recent cases of deadly school violence, McCarthy notes, the attackers never directly threatened their victims. So members of a school community must be vigilant about looking for signs that a student is headed down the path of violence.
“It's not too difficult to identify someone who is exhibiting behavior of concern,” says McCarthy.
After identifying a student who might be showing signs of trouble, officials must try to assess how serious the threat is.
“It might be a quick chat in the hallway, or it could be a full psychological evaluation,” says McCarthy. “Sometimes just a simple pat on the back makes a big difference.”
For students who feel isolated because they are being bullied or tormented by other students, it's important to connect them with a person with whom they can talk.
“We want to make sure that some adult can have at least one casual conversation a day with the student,” says McCarthy. “The challenge is to find that person. Usually when we ask a kid if there is someone like that at his school, he says no.”
Making those connections with students can be time-consuming, but it's the only way to understand what they are feeling and experiencing.
“A lot of us don't want to listen,” says McCarthy. “We don't want to take the time. What we want is a neat little checklist to see who needs what. But there is no checklist — we're all different.”
For McCarthy, talking with a troubled student takes precedence over all his other duties.
“I'll cancel meetings or appointments to meet with a student,” he says. “It's a matter of adults in education realizing that one of the most important things to do is to listen. It takes a lot of time and patience, but it's really the crux of the matter. It's a lot to ask for some people, but the rewards are tremendous.”
Kennedy, staff writer for AS&U, can be reached at [email protected].
SIDEBAR: Preventing violent attacks
In “Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates,” the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of Education sought to compile information that would help school officials better understand prior acts of targeted violence in schools and avoid such incidents in the future.
“It may be possible to prevent some future school attacks from occurring, and…efforts to identify, assess, and manage students who may have the intent and capacity to launch an attack may be a promising strategy for prevention,” Education Secretary Rod Paige and Secret Service Director Brian Stafford say in the report.
The guide found that incidents of targeted violence at school rarely are sudden and impulsive; that in most incidents, other people knew something about the attacker's intentions; that most attackers did not threaten their targets directly before an attack; that there is no accurate profile of the “typical” student involved in targeted school violence; that most attackers exhibited some kind of troubling behavior before the violent episode; that most attackers had difficulty coping with failure and loss; that many attackers felt bullied or persecuted before turning to violence; and that most attackers had access to weapons before an attack.
The report identified several key steps for creating a safe school climate:
Assessment of the school's emotional climate.
Emphasis on the importance of listening in schools.
Adoption of a strong, but caring stance against the “code of silence” that prevents students from disclosing their concerns to adults.
Prevention of and intervention in bullying.
Involvement of all members of the school community in planning, creating and sustaining a school culture of safety and respect.
Development of trusting relationships between each student and at least one adult at school.
Creation of mechanisms for developing and sustaining safe school climates.
SIDEBAR: Cameras to combat vandalism
Violence on school campuses may attract more attention, but at most institutions, vandalism and theft are more widespread problems.
According to the National Center for Education's “Indicators of School Crime and Safety 2002,” more than half of the nation's middle and high schools reported incidents of vandalism and theft to police.
At Torrey Pines High School in Carmel Valley, Calif., concern over vandalism and theft convinced officials in the San Dieguito High School District that the school needed a camera surveillance system to deter vandals and thieves.
“We have nine schools in the district, and that campus alone accounted for half of the vandalism and theft in the district,” says Eric Dill, loss-control analyst in the San Dieguito district.
Dill says about a dozen cameras will be installed on the exterior of the Torrey Pines campus, which has five main buildings and several portable classrooms to accommodate its 3,300 students. The cameras will record digitally, and the images can be viewed on the Internet via a password-protected website.
School officials won't be monitoring the cameras as a rule, but they will be able to review video images if an incident occurs. The system can be programmed to send an alert to authorities if a camera detects motion.
“The primary reason for them is to protect property, not to spy on students,” says Dill. “We'll have them out there where everyone can see them.”