In the five years since the Columbine High School tragedy, American students have grown accustomed to security officers and lockdown drills. But on Monday, the extra security failed to stop yet another mass shooting at a school, providing another reminder that the solution is not more metal detectors but closer relationships between students and educators, experts said.
Security officials said yesterday that the slaughter at Red Lake High School in Minnesota suggests it is practically impossible to ensure total safety for students and teachers without turning schools into fortresses. Jeff Weise, the teenage gunman, defeated most of the security precautions by shooting an unarmed guard who had been manning a metal detector in the school entryway.
Although schools across the country have instituted programs to identify potential perpetrators, educators and school counselors said similar incidents could be averted if more attention is paid to finding them. Weise, the 16-year-old student who shot and killed nine people before turning the gun on himself, shared many characteristics with other school killers, including Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the teens responsible for the shooting rampage at Columbine High School in April 1999.
"We need to work a lot harder on prevention," said Scott Poland, director of psychological services at Cypress-Fairbanks school district in Houston, who has studied school shootings. "We can introduce all the complicated security technology imaginable, but in the end it comes down to how well we know our students."
The number of violent deaths in and around schools rose last year to 49 after dropping for three years in a row, according to data collected by Kenneth S. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, an independent consulting firm. A total of 28 such deaths have occurred this academic year, including the Red Lake killings. The Education Department disputes the methodology used by Trump but has yet to come up with its own figures for the past two years.
Department statistics show that violent crime in schools fell significantly between 1992 and 2002. But Trump says that the federal data are flawed because they rely on "surveys" of school officers rather than "actual reported incidents."
Trump attributed the rise in violence to a variety of factors, including cuts in school safety funding and the overriding emphasis placed by many school districts on improving standardized test scores. He said that school safety issues have ended up "on the back burner in too many schools," with administrators feeling that "their jobs are on the line if their test scores don't improve."
Complacency has also taken a toll, Trump and others said. The media tend to focus on incidents with multiple deaths, which have been relatively rare since Columbine, and pay less attention to individual killings, which have been increasing. "One kid stabbing another in the cafeteria isn't news anymore," Poland said.
William Modzeleski, director of the Education Department's school safety programs, distinguishes between gang violence that plagues some schools and what he calls "targeted school shootings" such as the ones at Columbine and Red Lake High. The former can be greatly reduced by more stringent safety measures; the latter need to be addressed by student counseling and mentoring, he said.
A joint study by the Department of Education and the Secret Service that looked at 41 cases of "targeted shootings" concluded that the killers rarely acted on impulse. "In the majority of cases we looked at, there were things that happened that could have led an adult to believe that there was some problem," Modzeleski said. "There were things that teachers could do to intervene" beforehand.
Although Modzeleski said that it is "too early to tell" what motivated Weise, other experts say he appeared to share many traits with the Columbine killers. According to some news reports, Weise was a loner shunned by other students for sometimes strange behavior. He wore a black trench coat and posted messages on a neo-Nazi Web site.
"The point here is that young people don't just turn up at school and start pulling the trigger," said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, a Los Angeles area advocacy group. "It's important that school officials learn to recognize the warning signals."
The solution, Stephens said, is not "to turn schools into armed camps" but to "make them more welcoming" and encourage "a much closer partnership between teachers, local law enforcement and mental health professionals."
Some experts argue that the safety problems have been exacerbated by budget cuts at the federal, state and local levels, as the government's attention has switched to combating terrorism and fighting the war in Iraq. Trump noted that the Bush administration is proposing to eliminate $437 million in grants to states for school safety programs in the 2006 budget.
Deborah Price, who oversees the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools at the Education Department, said that the administration has earmarked $87.5 million for direct programs to individual school districts, which will result in a "more effective use" of federal dollars than the state grant program.