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Protecing Schools - Communication Often The Security Hole at Schools, Specialists Say

By Ben Feller, 


Bill Bond was the principal at Heath High School in western Kentucky when a freshman opened fire in 1997, shooting eight students and killing three of them.

That was before the Columbine High School massacre of 1999, when two students in Colorado went on a rampage that stunned the nation and prompted a wave of stronger school security.

Yet on Tuesday, Bond was again counseling a peer in the middle of a horror story: Chris Dunshee, principal at Red Lake High School in northern Minnesota. One of Dunshee' students killed himself Monday after committing the worst school shooting spree since Columbine.

"People want to have metal detectors and security guards and all of this, but the real thing that makes a difference is working with the kids and adjusting to the kids," said Bond, now a national consultant for principals on preventing bullying and other violence.

"These kinds of situations are just like terrorist situations," he said. "When people have so much hate in them that they don't mind dying, you don't have any deterrents left."

School violence experts said Tuesday that the country improved campus safety after the Columbine shootings, most notably by restricting access to schools, increasing the number of school police officers, developing emergency plans and adding phones and radios in schools.

But much of the momentum for such safety measures has been lost over the last couple years, as public attention wanes and budget cuts erode staffing and training, experts said.

"People always ask, 'Is this a wake-up call?'" said Kenneth Trump, a school safety consultant who has worked with school leaders in 44 states. "The question isn't whether this is a wake-up call _ it' whether we're going to hit the snooze button and go to sleep again."

In the Minnesota case, police say a student shot his grandfather and the grandfather' companion before heading to school and killing five students, a teacher, an unarmed guard and himself.

There have been 29 deaths on school campuses or otherwise associated with schools this academic year, said Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services. Last year, he tallied 49, more than in any recent year, including the year of the Columbine shootings.

"In almost every school safety assessment we do across the country," Trump said, "we find staff awareness is down, the vigilance is not there, the emergency plan content is questionable, and people have not practiced what would work in a real emergency."

Federal government figures show violent crime against students in school fell significantly between 1992 and 2002. But critics say such self-reported data is dated and often doesn't reflect the scope of trouble in schools.

More broadly, the numbers don't capture what school safety specialists say is the most critical goal: changing school culture. That means adults who model appropriate behavior, monitor warning signs of violence and even train students to help stop peers from bullying.

"It' not a problem that can be fixed with money," Bond said. "It' a problem that can only be fixed with courage. And if you think money is in short supply, try finding courage."

Money, however, is an issue, too, said Curt Lavarello, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. Federal budget cuts have forced schools to drop the police who are trained to talk to kids and pick up on signs of impending violence, he said.

The Columbine shootings created an awareness that led to more physically secure buildings, said William Lassiter, school safety specialist at the Center for the Prevention of School Violence in Raleigh, N.C.

"What' missing is we need to make sure that students feel connected to their community and to their school," Lassiter said. "We must make sure they have a trusted adult."

After Columbine, the National Education Association, the largest teachers union, created a video program to help faculty and students recognize underlying signs of violence. Its premise is that ignorance and fear lead to hatred _ and potential tragedy. Said Jerald Newberry, who oversees health and safety for the NEA: "Our goal is to stop that chain."


On the Net:

Center for the Prevention of School Violence: http://www.ncdjjdp.org/cpsv/

National Association of School Resource Officers: http://www.nasro.org

National School Safety and Security Services: http://www.schoolsecurity.org

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