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Ending School Violence

Since the tragedy at Columbine High School last spring, schools have been rushing to add new security measures. Will these work? Or are other changes needed to protect students?

By Alexandra Hanson-Harding | October 4 , 1992

Since the tragedy at Columbine High School last spring, schools have new security measures. Will these work? Or are other changes needed been rushing to add to protect students?

The bullet holes have been plastered over. The halls have been repainted. Bloody carpet has been replaced with tile. But for many students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, no amount of redecoration can wipe away the bitter memory of the massacre that took 15 lives there on April 20, 1999.

School shootings from Pearl, Mississippi, to Springfield, Oregon, have left many students feeling afraid for their safety in school. Littleton was not the first such tragedy. But it was the most violent in recent years. According to Ronald Stephens, president of the National School Safety Council, "Littleton changed the landscape," on school safety issues.

Since April, politicians, school administrators, parents, and students have been searching for answers about how to prevent tragedies like Littleton from happening again. How Violent Are Schools?

Although the stories from Littleton and other schools have been horrifying, crime in schools is actually declining. In 1993, there were 164 crimes for every 1,000 students ages 12 to 18. In 1996, the number had dropped to 128 per 1,000. Furthermore, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), less than 1 percent of all homicides (murders) among schoolchildren ages 5-19 happen in or around school grounds or on the way to or from school. Still, many experts believe that is not good enough. The CDC study warns that "the prevalence of youth violence and school violence is still unacceptably high."

Stronger Security

What are schools doing to reduce violence? "We've been in numerous meetings with school psychiatrists, SWAT team leaders, police, and other principals to develop a plan to meet the needs of [our schools]," Bert Ammerman, a high school principal in New Jersey, told JS.

He's not alone. At Williams Bay High School in Wisconsin, the police held practice school-shooting drills over the summer.

In Coweta County, Georgia, students must carry books in mesh or see-through bags so that they can't hide guns.

Other schools are adopting strict dress codes and requiring that backpacks be checked at random. Some schools are setting up hot lines or are encouraging students to tell a teacher if a classmate threatens to hurt him or herself or others. "Our kids are still our best eyes and ears," said Ammerman.

Sometimes, school security measures conflict with personal rights. Debra Jacobs of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said the organization has been "flooded" by calls from parents and students who complain that schools have been violating student First Amendment rights to free expression. For instance, a high school student in Marble Hill, Missouri, was failed for a whole semester because he posted a Web site on his home computer that was critical of his high school. "Banning all extremist (radical) expression will make it difficult to identify kids who really need help," Jacobs told JS.

Helping Troubled Teens

Many experts say that adding more security measures is not enough. Ronald Stephens of the National School Safety Council said that one good way to stop crime is to help kids before trouble starts. "Teachers need to look for early warning signs and provide counseling and support for kids who are at risk."

One example is mentoring (helping) programs that pair a troubled teen with a caring grown-up. Such programs have been shown to reduce the risk that troubled students will become criminals. Programs that give young people a place to hang out after school have helped to reduce crime, because most criminal acts by juveniles take place between 3:00 and 8:00 p.m.

Many schools are putting antibullying programs in place. According to experts, children who are bullied, and those who are bullies, are at higher risk for emotional problems. Columbine High School, which has had bullying problems in the past, is adding an anti-bullying program. Frank DeAngelis, the school's principal, said, "At Columbine High School, we will have zero tolerance (no acceptance) for cruelty, harassment, excessive teasing, discrimination, violence, and intimidation."

Society's Responsibility

Many experts believe that the shootings at Columbine and other schools are not just a school problem. They say that problems in American society also play a role. Some experts say there is too much violence in the media, including movies, music, and TV The American Academy of Pediatrics has urged a limit to the amount of TV kids watch because it is too violent.

President and Mrs. Clinton recently made a series of public service announcements for television. In one ad, the President tells parents: "Our children need our help to deal with tough issues like violence. Please talk to your kids. Help them understand." President Clinton also announced $15 million in grants to schools and organizations that fight school-related crime.

Not everyone agrees that media violence is a major cause of violence by kids. "Many young people view violent movies and video games, but the vast majority do not shoot up their schools as a result," Debra Jacobs of the ACLU told JS. Sociologist Bonnie Berry agrees. "I think the problem is guns," she said. "A lot of people are saying that young people today are more alienated than they were. I don't think so. But they do have access to lots of guns, and to dangerous guns."

The statistics paint a grim picture. Nearly 90 percent of homicides of people ages 15 to 24 are caused by guns. In June, a bill was proposed in Congress to limit selling guns at gun shows. The measure failed to pass.

Bob Levy of the conservative Cato Institute told JS that he doesn't believe we need new gun laws. "We have all the laws we need, but we don't enforce them," he said. Education Secretary Richard Riley said, "This country has really created a culture of violence in which it is very easy to have access to guns. Americans really do need to stop and think about what is happening."

Inexcusable Behavior

Many experts say that no matter what provoked the Littleton shooters, the massacre is inexcusable. Bert Ammerman said, "You don't shoot people because your parents are divorced, or you're bullied, or your girlfriend broke up with you. It's unacceptable!"

Students Take Action

Students are taking action to stop school violence.

Ms. Heather Beck's sociology classes in Lakewood, Colorado, have started a campaign to collect "I will" pledges from students around the country. Students who sign the pledge promise, among other things, to "be part of the solution" and to "do my part to make my community a safe place by being more sensitive to others."

After the Columbine massacre, kids in Colorado started an organization called Sane Alternatives to the Firearms Epidemic (SAFE) Colorado, which lobbies for an end to loopholes in gun-control laws. They are trying to expand their organization across the U.S. As Ben Gelt, 18, one of SAFE Colorado's founders, told the Denver Post,"I believe that if students can organize, they can effect (bring about) change."

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