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Responding to Tragedy

In the aftermath of crises, education institutions work to create an atmosphere that is safe and attuned to students' concerns.

One day last month, a handgun was hidden under a bush at Palm Middle School in Lemon Grove, Calif., and a deadly plan was about to unfold. After school, a student would retrieve the weapon, don a ski mask and shoot a teacher who had given him a failing grade.

But before the plan became reality, a student overheard talk of the plan, called home and told a parent. Police were notified and swooped in later that day to confiscate the gun and foil the plan. Three teenaged boys were charged in connection with the incident.

It was the latest example of a student with knowledge or suspicions about potential violence at a school speaking up to help prevent a tragedy. Five years ago, troubling information about Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris was available to authorities before the two students unleashed their bloody assault on classmates and teachers at Columbine High School, but it didn't reach the people who needed to know.

Since then, school officials and law- enforcement officers across the nation have worked to avoid similar tragedies. They have bolstered security on school campuses with physical measures, such as surveillance cameras, access-control systems, two-way radios and metal detectors. But the key to thwarting serious violence, officials say, is to create a climate in which students feel comfortable coming forward with information.

“Most of the serious incidents we have had in our schools have been brought to our attention by kids,” says Larry Borland, director of security for Douglas County, Colo., schools.

Getting serious

Whether it is violent crime or natural disaster, schools and universities must be prepared to respond to events that can disrupt and traumatize students, staff and the surrounding community.

Since the fatal shootings at Columbine High School in April 1999, schools throughout the nation take potential threats more seriously and are better trained to deal with problems.

“The climate has changed dramatically in terms of providing security in imaginative ways,” says David Gordon, superintendent of the Elk Grove (Calif.) Unified School District.

Those include greater use of video cameras, two-way radios for administrators, detailed emergency response plans, lockdown drills, increased training for security officers and greater reliance on school resource officers.

In the aftermath of the tragedy at Columbine, the Jefferson County, Colo., district reviewed and upgraded its security procedures. According to the district's safety plan, it has made several improvements:

  • Schools have limited the number of entry points to their buildings and keep other doors locked.

  • At Columbine and other schools, the district has installed a card-access system to control who is entering a school facility.

  • Every classroom in the district has a telephone.

  • Schools publicize and encourage students to use a statewide school-safety hotline to report threats of violence.

  • The district has established an emergency phone number to report major building emergencies.

  • Exterior lighting has been improved between parking lots and school buildings.

  • Most campuses have a school resource officer assigned.

  • The amount of training for security officers has increased.

  • Video surveillance has been installed on some campuses.

Improved technology and more affordable costs have allowed many institutions to use cameras to supplement their security presence in buildings.

“We have increased the number of cameras in our middle and high schools,” says Jim Gilchrist, director of security in the Topeka, Kan., district. “We've been pretty proactive. I think we're pretty well-equipped.”

Even more well-equipped is the Biloxi, Miss., district. The 6,500-student school system has placed surveillance cameras in every classroom.

“They are working well,” says deputy superintendent Robert Bowles. “They have become part of the woodwork. Kids go about their routine.”

The surveillance installation was not a specific response to Columbine, but that and other incidents created a climate that prompted the action.

“What was happening at Columbine and in other places made the cameras more acceptable to the public,” says Bowles.

A quick response

When fire in a residence hall took three lives and injured more than 50 others at Seton Hall University more than four years ago, the school in South Orange, N.J., moved quickly to assure students and their family members that the campus environment was safe.

School officials determined that the smoke detectors and fire doors in place at Boland Hall on Jan. 19, 2000, functioned properly, but the building did not have sprinklers that could have contained or extinguished the flames.

Two weeks after the fire, Seton Hall vowed to upgrade all student housing on campus with sprinkler systems in the two residence halls that did not have them and expanded sprinkler systems in the residence halls already equipped.

“One step in restoring the learning environment is to install sprinkler systems in those residence halls where they do not now exist and to expand the existing sprinkler systems in the other halls,” said Monsignor Robert Sheeran, the university's president.

By Aug. 30, 2000, all residence halls at Seton Hall had sprinkler systems installed. The fire also spurred change beyond South Orange. The New Jersey legislature passed a law requiring automatic sprinkler systems in every residence-hall room in public and private colleges, universities and boarding schools.

In a further step to let students, staff and parents know that the campus was safe, Seton Hall publicized the findings of an inspection of the campus by New Jersey's Department of Community Affairs. The department inspected 39 buildings on the 56-acre campus and found an average of 22 violations per building; however, none of the violations was classified as an “imminent hazard.” A little more than a month after the fatal fire, Seton Hall had corrected more than half of the violations, which included infractions such as burned-out light bulbs or doors needing repair.

The university also began conducting fire drills twice a year in each of its residence halls. Residence-hall staff members undergo at least eight hours of training related to fire safety; fire evacuation maps are displayed in all residence halls; and fire procedures are reviewed with students during regular floor meetings. Couches, chairs or futons are not allowed unless a student can provide manufacturers' certification that the furniture meets flame-retardant standards.

Targeting terrorism

Although only a few schools were directly affected by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the enormity of those crimes motivated schools and universities to review their procedures and step up their vigilance.

“In some respects, 9-11 is more of a watershed for schools,” says Borland. “After the attacks, schools had to be concerned about all kinds of hazards and how to mitigate them.”

Because college campuses, many of which have sensitive scientific research taking place, could become targets for terrorists, the Department of Homeland Security's Office for Domestic Preparedness issued suggestions to help higher-education administrators protect people and property.

It recommends that college administrators and public-safety officials establish a working relationship with the local office of the FBI and the regional Joint Terrorism Task Force to make sure that school officials are kept informed about any potential threats. Schools also should consider assigning an officer to be a liaison with international student groups to establish a feeling of trust.

The office urges schools to review its emergency operations plan and discuss “potential assets the campus can provide on its own behalf and that of the community in the event of an incident occurring outside the campus.”

Paying attention

Since Columbine, schools have redoubled their efforts to establish better connections with students so that potentially threatening situations can be addressed before tragedy strikes.

A guide developed by the Department of Education and the Secret Service on assessing threats in schools notes that in most cases of targeted violent attacks at schools in the last 30 years, other people were aware of the attacker's plans.

“In most cases, other young persons — friends, schoolmates, and/or siblings — knew about the attacker's idea or plan for a possible attack on the school before that attack occurred,” says the guide. “However, this information rarely made its way to an adult.”

In recent cases, students who have heard classmates talk about such plans have treated the threats seriously and notified responsible adults. Earlier this year, two students at a high school in the Elk Grove, Calif., district were arrested for allegedly plotting a Columbine-style attack on their school cafeteria. A parent of another student notified authorities. In Sunnyvale, Calif., an alleged plot to burn down a middle school was uncovered when two students came forward and told school officials.

Those results give security officials reason to believe these efforts are worthwhile.

“The things that we are working hard on are the people-to-people kind of efforts,” says Borland, “creating a good environment and developing rapport with students. Kids who feel connected to their schools are much less likely to act out.”

There is no foolproof method or technology that will eliminate violence or other disasters on school campuses — more than 40 violent school-related deaths have occurred since August — but steps such as anti-bullying programs, encouraging school resource officers to form bonds with students, and training staff to recognize potentially troubled students can reduce the chances of another Columbine.

“This isn't rocket science,” says Borland. “It's a lot of common sense, but you have to pay attention to this stuff every day.”

Sidebar: Reporting trouble

At an early stage, children learn that they don't want to be labeled a tattletale. Those fears can intensify as students get older and face greater peer pressure. Many students may know about planned violence or other criminal behavior among their classmates, but are reluctant to step forward.

“I still think there is great fear of being found out as a snitch,” says Larry Borland, director of security in Douglas County, Colo., schools.

Other students may hesitate to call a hotline that is affiliated with police or that records their voice.

Some schools have turned to technology to circumvent those concerns. Schools in 16 states use an Internet service called The website was established five years ago and provides students a way to anonymously report potential problems occurring at their schools.

“Hotlines have been around for many years, but students are more likely to use something more conducive to the youth culture,” says Anthony Lavalle, president of the service.

Although does provide the option of phoning in information via the Girls and Boys Town National Hotline, 95 percent of the tips provided to the service come via the Internet.

Students at schools that use the service can sign in and report what they know. The service funnels the information to a contact person at the school, so officials can respond immediately, if necessary. The contact may be a school resource officer or school administrator.

For to be effective, schools must make students aware it is available and encourage them to use it. A surprise benefit of the service, Lavalle says, is that many of the reports have alerted school officials about students with suicidal thoughts, and administrators have been able to provide counseling and other assistance for those students.

Lavalle says that many school administrators were hesitant to use the service because they feared they would receive a lot of false reports, but in its five years of operation, the service has not had that problem.

“The kids use it responsibly,” says Lavalle.

Sidebar: Helpful guides

Schools unsure of what steps to take to improve their security procedures and combat the forces that lead to violence can turn to the federal government for help. Since Columbine and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the government has produced numerous reports and guides to help schools and universities prevent trouble and respond appropriately when it does occur:

  • The Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have developed an interactive CD-ROM to help schools respond to bomb threats (

  • The U.S. Department of Education's “Practical Information on Crisis Planning: A Guide for Schools and Communities” provides schools with ideas on how to develop emergency response plans (

  • The “Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates,” from the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education, offers schools advice on detecting potential trouble and how to respond (

  • A Department of Education report provides descriptions of nine exemplary and 33 promising programs to establish safe and drug-free schools, and includes contact information for each program (

Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U.

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