School Safety, 10 Years After Columbine

To protect schools better, students need to feel more comfortable to speak out, researchers say.

Columbine's renovated cafeteria.

Columbine's renovated cafeteria.

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Before murdering 13 people, injuring 23, and killing themselves 10 years ago in one of the nation's deadliest school shootings, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold broadcast their unthinkable intentions on frequencies to which their parents, peers and teachers were not tuned in. Eric maintained a website filled with lists of whom and what he hated. Dylan turned in an English assignment that described killing other students. Both boys had been suspended from school and arrested by local police during the academic year preceding the massacre. But no one took these and other warning signs seriously or, in some cases, even noticed them at all.

Harris and Klebold are not the only school shooters whose actions leading up to their devastating acts forecast their intentions. Research conducted jointly by the Secret Service and the Department of Education shows that, since the early '90s, the majority of the school shooters have given some kind of warning signal, however cryptic, prior to their attacks. This research also shows the total number of homicides at schools has declined sharply since Columbine and the rash of school shootings in the years preceding that attack in Littleton, Colo. About half as many students ages five to 18 were killed in the seven academic years after Columbine than in the seven years before and including it.

In the decade since April 20, 1999, schools perhaps have done a better job keeping students safe by identifying potential school shooters and foiling planned attacks, experts say. But many of those experts also say schools can be better prepared to prevent or handle future shootings if they do more to help students feel comfortable reporting potential threats, develop and maintain a positive school climate, and practice their crisis management plans regularly—tasks that not all schools have made top priorities.

Katherine Newman, a Princeton University professor of sociology who has studied the causes of school shootings extensively, says schools must make it easy for students to report the threats they hear in the lunchroom and any troubling behavior they see in the hallways if administrators hope to identify potential shooters before it's too late. Newman is a strong advocate of placing school resource officers—police who serve as liaisons between school and law enforcement officials—in schools. Students tend to trust and confide in these officers, she says. She also believes that resource officers can investigate tips more efficiently than school officials. But Newman worries that funding for school resource officers is frequently the first thing cut from the budgets of school districts that have not experienced a tragedy like a school shooting.

"These programs cost money," Newman says. "In communities that have had horrible things happen, they would spare nothing to ensure they've done everything possible to keep their students safe. But in communities that have not been touched by tragedy, officials can view these types of programs as an expendable budget item."

Before writing Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, Newman and her coauthors interviewed hundreds of students in two communities that were rocked by gun violence in the late '90s. They found that students knew something of the shooters' intentions before the attacks began. Some children in Paducah, Ky., did not come to school the day of the shootings because they knew something bad would happen, although they didn't know what. Some students in Jonesboro, Ark., knew the shooters' names before police apprehended them because the shooters had bragged about their plans in the lunchroom for months. "But no one ever came forward," Newman says. "This is why I emphasize making it possible for kids to do something that's difficult for them in adolescence—crossing the demilitarized zone between adults and kids with information that could implicate a school shooter and could also lead students' peers to label them tattletales."

Helping students feel connected to their school communities is a key piece of what encourages them to come forward and report troubling behavior, says William Modzeleski of the Department of Education's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. Students who feel valued by their teachers and peers are also less likely to perpetrate a school shooting, he says, pointing to the findings of the studies conducted jointly by the Secret Service and the Department of Education over the past decade. Before writing the reports, Modzeleski and his coauthors interviewed both school shooters and bystanders. Student after student told the researchers that they did not feel attached to their school, did not feel there was anyone they could talk to, and did not feel the adults in their school communities respected them.