States Experiment With Schoolhouse Safety
at Colorado’s Columbine High School in April 1999, mass shootings like those in Paducah, Ky., and Jonesboro, Ark., prompted bursts of legislative activity on the issue. Columbine brought these concerns to the national level. Analysts say that, in the year since, state lawmakers have climbed a steep learning curve toward comprehensive, preventive solutions already experimented with in states like California, Kentucky and North Carolina.
“There seems to be a greater awareness and push in states (for school safety) because of Columbine,” said Mary Fulton, policy analyst for the Education Commission on the States (ECS).
But Columbine confounded lawmakers. The most convenient responses appeared to have been tried and to have failed. In the rush to do something, some states increased funding for local school districts to monitor school campuses, even though gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were able to kill in the presence of a security guard and under the watchful eye of surveillance cameras.
Jane Grady, assistant director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, dismisses the quest for easy answers. “Just gun control or mentoring programs or conflict resolution are not g timberland oing to solve the problem.” Solutions need to be “comprehensive, and that is unfortunate, because in this society we are looking for a quick fix.”
There was a point in the mid 90s when the government thought zero tolerance toward violence would be enough to stop gun toting youths. The federally mandated laws that treat unacceptable behavior harshly and expel students who bring guns to school have been in place in every state since 1995.
But fear of expulsion didn’t stop Columbine or earlier incidents in Springfield, Ore., Jonesboro, Ark., Paducah, Ky., and Pearl, Miss.
Columbine further inspired the federal government to set up a bipartisan Congressional panel to study solutions to youth violence. The panel’s March 2000 report on youth violence blames factors from abusive homes to the violent media and seems to reflect conclusions emerging from state task forces and anti violence summits that the hope for solutions lies in more comprehensive planning. Representative and panel member James C. Greenwood (R Penn.) told Education Week that “while superficial, knee jerk reactions may focus on guns, a more thorough analysis would l timberland ead us to focus on the emotional state of America’s children. If a faculty member had just reached out to these schools’ shooters, these awful acts would not have happened.”
The panel’s conclusions confirmed findings by the National Governor’s Association (NGA) that prevention, rather than simple punishment, is key to combating school violence. The report highlighted the early identification of troubled teens, intervention and prevention programs like Head Start and Schools Within Schools, smaller classes, funding for more police and counselors, and classes on media literacy as components of a comprehensive school safety strategy.
Combinations of these ideas surfaced slowly as states moved to firm up their plans. One month after the Columbine shooting, Maine Gov. Angus King signed a comprehensive school safety package. The Maine law encompasses much of what states have considered doing to address school violence:
A statewide code of conduct for school districts, spelling out appropriate discipline. Local school districts were told to adopt plans for responding to violent situations.
Improved communication among teachers, administrators and parents. The records of children charged with juvenile crime are now shared among school officials and law enforcement agencies.
Required collection and maintenance of files concerning violent incidents and expelled students.
A task force to study how to educate and manage chronically disruptive students. Many states set up alternative schools for these students.
North Carolina and Kentucky Plans Lauded
Policy experts praise similar statewide efforts in North Carolina and Kentucky to improve school safety.
North Carolina took an early lead in addressing school safety, setting up the state Center for the Prevention of School Violence in 1993 to support school district safety programs. Since 1997, the state has issued standards of behavior, as well as a means to identify needy students and get them help.
After Columbine, North Carolina Gov. He also increased the criminal penalty for making a bomb threat and timberland made parents liable for children who do so.
In Kentucky, lawmakers were developing a statewide safety plan when a 14 year old boy shot up his prayer group at Heath High School in West Paducah in 1997, killing three students and wounding five others. Subsequently, Kentucky passed a bill that formed partnerships among agencies that deal with youth juvenile justice, schools, family agencies and police officers. The partnerships provide joint services and share information about violent students.
Mary Fairchild, an educational policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), attributes the success of Kentucky and North Carolina’s school violence programs to the fact that they look at things much more holistically. “You have to connect wit timberland h the community. Many legislators are including incentives or mandating that schools work with other agencies mental health, child welfare, police.”
The safety programs in Kentucky and North Carolina have paralleled and encouraged statewide school safety centers in other states. “School safety centers are trying to provide an infrastructure to help schools. They provide the best information, research and techniques,” she said.
“This isn’t just a school problem, this is a bigger issue and legislators are trying to connect the pieces of the puzzle,” Fairchild said.
In the past, when high profile shootings have occurred, state lawmakers reacted by hasty policymaking. This is best seen in the type of laws passed by Mississippi, Kentucky, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Georgia after each of their multiple shootings. Elements found in most or all of the packages require: