Teens See Potential for School Violence
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 27, 1999; Page A1
Many American teenagers believe a shooting rampage like the one last week in Littleton, Colo., could happen at their school and think they know students who might be troubled enough to carry one out, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll of teenagers and parents.
The particular circumstances that in retrospect seem to have signaled trouble at Columbine High School – from disturbing behavior by some students to easy access to deadly weapons – are familiar to many of the teenagers and adults who were polled.
About a third of the teenagers have heard a student threaten to kill someone, and few of them reported the threats to a teacher or other adult. Four out of 10 say they know students troubled enough to be potential killers.
A fifth of the teenagers personally know someone who has brought a gun to school. About half are growing up in homes with guns, and more than half say it would be easy for them to lay their hands on one. Two in three say it would be easy for them to get information on how to make a bomb.
While 40 percent of teenagers think their school has the potential for an incident similar to the one that resulted in 15 deaths at Columbine High, fear is by no means pervasive either among students or parents. Of the 500 public and private high school students and 522 parents who were interviewed April 22-25, more than eight out of 10 said they feel relatively safe from school violence. The margin of error for the survey results is plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
The simultaneous sense of security and fear is partly explained by the random and explosive nature of the series of recent school shootings that culminated in Littleton.
Nationally, the number of students killed in violent incidents has not increased, staying at about 55 each year over the last decade. There are more than 50 million students and 80,000 schools across the country, and the vast number of them will never experience the kind of tragedy that hit Littleton last week.
But in the last few years, the scope of the targets has changed dramatically in a way that makes more people feel like potential victims, said Ronald Stephens of the National School Safety Center. "It used to be students would go after a specific person, an ex-girlfriend or someone who had disrespected them. But now the shooters are much more heartless and callous. It's as though anyone in any general category can become a victim, someone who is simply in the way."
Mary Guillot, a high school student in Louisiana, said it was hard to imagine a shooting at her school. "But I feel like it could happen, because anybody at school can get a weapon and carry out their crazy idea."
Several students who were interviewed had no trouble describing their classmates who at any moment might "flip," as Nicka Brown, who goes to school in East St. Louis, Ill., put it. In her school, it was the boy who taught himself Russian, roams the halls with a book on Hitler under his arms and told everyone the day after the Littleton shooting that he was going to blow up the school. The student was suspended the next day.
Others interviewed mentioned groups of students in black trenchcoats, like the ones the killers in Colorado wore, or "weird" kids wearing black lipstick and dog collars who always looked depressed. One in five teenagers polled said they knew students they considered neo-Nazis or skinheads. Some mentioned students who simply act strangely. Trisha Keen said that she and some fellow drama students were watching a news program about the Littleton shootings in between play rehearsals at a wealthy suburban school in southern Oklahoma. Just as the news cut to a scene of some grief-stricken girls, a boy walked into the room and started yelling, "Those people deserve to die. They deserve to die."
The screamer was familiar to Trisha; he had once slammed a door in her face and twice pushed her. And for a few months he had been pointing his index finger like a fake pistol at people's heads and telling them he would shoot them. The drama students told the principal, who called the boy's parents to come escort him from school. Afterward, the principal had security guards search everyone's locker.
Like most teenagers, Trisha was relatively nonchalant about the incident. But her mother, Suzanne Keen, was more anxious. "All it takes is one unstable kid," she said. "And all we need now is for him to start doing a Colorado copycat thing."
The majority of students and parents polled were pleased with security measures their schools were taking to prevent violence, although half of all parents thought the schools should be doing more. About half of both students and parents say their schools try to identify troubled students who may be prone to violence, conduct random searches of student lockers and have police officers or security guards on patrol.
Some students and parents interviewed said schools were prompted to increase security measures either after a shooting incident, or after hearing about a tragedy like the one in Littleton.
After a student was shot by a classmate three years ago, Jeff Lazano's high school in a suburb of Atlanta installed security cameras and began automatically suspending any student who brings a gun to school, a no-tolerance policy that is increasingly popular across the nation.
Skip Marburger's school in suburban Pennsylvania went into a near panic after Littleton. The school had planned a pep rally last Friday, and just to be safe, the principal had police and bomb-sniffing dogs scour the school. Rumors then started spreading that five students had been caught with guns, and nervous students called their parents to take them home. Nervous parents then called the school and the pep rally was canceled.
Now Skip's mother, Cindy Marburger, wants to organize the parents into a volunteer security committee. "I don't feel like they take enough precautions," she said. "I just want them to be able to stop trouble ahead of time. This thing in Colorado was so well planned. I mean, I can't imagine anyone at his school would do something like that. But you can't take anything for granted anymore."
In a way, the narrative of a school's innocence robbed by violence is impossible now, since few schools seem immune to at least the potential of violence. Suburban and rural teenagers who were polled reported seeing the same disturbing signs of guns, death threats and troubled classmates more familiar to those in urban areas.
That irony followed Lashinda Carter when her father moved her from inner-city Detroit to a small rural town in Michigan after a student at her school threw a security guard out a window. But what the family found at the new school was merely a different kind of danger – kids talking about the Ku Klux Klan and bragging about their guns.
Carter said she feels safer at her new school, but she doesn't really feel safe. "It only takes one student to get mad and take their anger out on the teachers, and it's happening more and more and soon they'll need metal detectors here, too," she said. "It's coming up here, I'm sure."
Polling director Richard Morin contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company