Are High Schools Safe?
Littleton, Colorado. A bedroom community outside Denver. Population 41,737. April 20, 1999. Sky is blue. Colorado Rockies glistening in the distance. 11:19AM. Two students go on a shooting rampage.
Thirteen kids died that ugly day. Twenty-four were wounded. Two senior students – Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold – opened fire inside Columbine High School. They had also rigged 99 explosive devices around the school, and propane bombs in the cafeteria. Luckily, all of these bombs failed to explode.
Harris and Klebold wore trenchcoats and allegedly called themselves the Trenchcoat Mafia. They felt like outcasts, listening to angry music like Marilyn Manson, Rammstein and KMFDM, and playing violent video games like the first-person shooters “Doom” and “Quake.”
The incident sparked a major dialogue over school safety, gun violence, bullying, violence in movies and video games, and the effect of student cliques.
Since Columbine, Harris and Klebold’s legacy (for lack of a better word) lingers.
“Rather than live as nobodies, they’d rather become dead celebrities,” says Ralph Larkin, author of the book “Comprehending Columbine.” And dead celebrities they became. “Still today, there are Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold worship sites on the Internet. Still today many school shootings refer back to Columbine.”
In the past 15 years, we’ve even seen Columbine used as a verb. A shooter named Andy Williams in Santee, CA said ”I’m gonna do a Columbine on you” before shooting and killing two, and wounding 13 others, according to Larkin. Two kids were killed and one wounded.
And new anecdotes about Columbine High have emerged since then. Harris and Klebold were called fags by the wrestling and football team in the middle of the cafeteria while squirting packets of ketchup at them, according to Larkin.
It’s been 15 years since that dark day. Columbine was a school security wakeup call. And unfortunately, there have been many school shootings since. Notable recent ones include Sandy Hook Elementary, in which shooter Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adult staff members. And Virginia Tech in 2007, during which shooter Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and injured 17 others.
But what does this all mean for you? Is your high school safe? Sonic Cereal did some research and talked to some experts to find out. Has security improved?
“I’m not sure that I would use the word ‘improved.’,” says Glenn W. Muschert, who co-edited a 2013 book titled “Responding to School Violence: Confronting the Columbine Effect” He is a professor of sociology at Miami University in Ohio.
“Metal detectors and surveillance cameras don’t do much to increase the peace and harmony among the individuals in the schools,” he says, adding that they are more for a visual security presence and almost cosmetic.
The trifecta of school security has been – surveillance cameras, guards and metal detectors. According to Professor Lynn Addington, Associate Professor, Department of Justice, Law & Criminology at American University in Washington, DC, these measures have only seen “limited evaluation” and have an “unknown effectiveness.”
The use of surveillance cameras has spiked 300 percent since Columbine. The employment of security guards has also risen from 31.8 percent to 42.8 percent. All of this according to Addington’s research.
Other methods of security include making it mandatory for students to sign in with student IDs at the front desk. And locking all doors during the school day.
What else has changed?
“The police have changed their tactics,” Muschert says. “At Columbine they used the approach where they would’ve responded to a hostage crisis like at a bank or something like that, where they surrounded the building. And they don’t do that anymore. They just basically rush in and try and confront the [shooter]”
Another new tactic that’s emerged is what’s called “threat assessment.”
“Threat assessment is when we hear about threat or threatening behavior, we gather information to figure out If the person that people are worried about is on a pathway to violence,” says Marisa Randazzo, managing partner at SIGMA Threat Management Associates, which trains school officials in threat assessment. She is also former chief psychologist with the U.S. Secret Service.
Threat assessment teams are made up of faculty, administration, law enforcement, guidance counselors and mental health professionals. They keep their ear to the ground and listen to students. “Students come forward and tell someone, they’re worried about them, they’re talking about wanting to hurt other people, they’re talking about not wanting to live anymore,” Randazzo says. “Other students are usually the ones to know first if a student is engaging in threatening behavior. Or they’re worried about their friends.”
There is no research on this technique, but there is anecdotal evidence.
In 2001, three teenagers in New Bedford, MA had planned an attack modeled after Columbine. Their plot was foiled by a threat assessment team.
According to the PBS documentary “The Path To Violence,” more than 120 attacks have been averted using threat assessment.
And just last year, a student in Roy, Utah spread the word among her school’s threat assessment team that she had received alarming text messages from a friend that said he wanted “revenge on the world” along with a fellow student, and “we have a plan to get away with it too.”
Coping mechanisms are an additional factor.
Founded in 1998 – prior to Columbine – TeenCentral.net is an online meeting spot for high-schoolers to get in touch with their feelings and their lives. In ’98, there were only a few thousand users. Now there are more than 500,000. Whether it’s suicide or school violence, one of the goals of the site is intervention and prevention.
“If they feel that need to hurt themselves or hurt someone else, there’s a place that they can go and vent and nobody knows who they are,” says Julius Licata, director of TeenCentral.net and ParentsCentral.net. “So they can say whatever they want, they can tell you how they’re afraid, whatever. And that’s the beauty of Teen Central. They can be as honest as they want and not worry about being bullied themselves, that they can really get the help they need. And we’ll guide them to where they can get more help if they need it.”
With cutbacks, many school social workers and guidance counselors have gone by the wayside, but with Teen Central, there is free online, anonymous help.
Students can post a question or concern on the website and a volunteer counselor will respond within one day. But those counselors don’t have the final say. The message is checked by an M.D. or Ph.d. before going out.
In the age of social media, it’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, teens can vent through blogging. On the other hand, Facebook and Twitter can be venues for cyber-bullying.
Bullying continues to thrive and is a focus of Teen Central. “Kids today, they don’t see hope because they can never get away from this bullying,” Licata says. “It’s one thing when it happens at school, it’s another thing when it happens on the way home from school, but when you walk in your only sanctuary, your home, and it’s reaching you in your bedroom, it’s reaching you all over because of social media, it is a very dangerous, harsh reality for these kids.
So down to the million-dollar question: is your high school safe?
“Largely schools have been and still are among the safest places for youth to be,” Muschert says. “Students are more likely to be victimized at home than they are at school.”
Randazzo agrees that schools are safe.
“I think one of the things we’ve seen in the 15 years since Columbine is a major change in the way students think about their own safety at school,” Randazzo says. ”Before Columbine, we saw case after case of students hearing about threats and never telling anyone at all… Post-Columbine, we see this after every major attack, but we see this real sea change in students’ awareness and willingness to come forward and tell someone of behavior that they think is scary or they’re worried about a friend. They will now step up and do something.”