TOPICS > Education

Keeping Schools Safe

May 3, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


COLUMBINE TEACHER: I am on the floor.

DISPATCHER: Okay. You’ve got the kids there?

TEACHER: I’ve got every student in this library on the floor! Stay on the floor!

BETTY ANN BOWSER: On April 20th, it became the worst case of school violence in American history…

TEACHER: (Gunshots in backgrounder) The gun is going off outside my door. I don’t think I’m going to go out there.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Kids killing kids, here heard on the 911 tapes as a Columbine High School teachers frantically called for help.

Now, in the aftermath of those murders, there is a new nightmare. Last week in Alberta, Canada, a 14-year-old boy described as a misfit came into this school, shot and killed one student, injured another, and left yet one more parent heartbroken.

PARENT: We grieve for our son. We grieve for this community and for the sad state of a 14-year-old boy who could come to such a place as randomly taking another person’s life for no reason. May God have mercy on this broken society and all the hurting people in it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In Oaklawn, Illinois, two rifles, a shotgun, and all these other weapons were taken from a 15-year-old who made threats against other students. In Lancaster, California, these two boys were arrested after threatening to blow up their high school. Police found bomb-making materials, a hand grenade, and a map that showed –

POLICE SPOKESMAN: — how him and his friend would escape during the supposed blast that was to take place during a student assembly.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And in Brooklyn, New York, five honor students were charged with plotting to bomb this junior high school.

RUDY CREW: Their plan, as they articulated, was to bring an explosive device into the building to the top floor and apparently blow the building up.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: School Chancellor Rudy Crew said the five eighth-graders also had bomb-making instructions taken off the Internet, and hit list of students and teachers.

PARENT: If your particular child is put on that list, will you as a parent be informed that your child is on that list?

RUDY CREW: Yes, yes.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Kevin Dwyer, an experienced school psychologist, says all this is frightening because there have never been so many copycat incidents before.

KEVIN DWYER: Every time an incident like this happens, it gives people the thinking that, well, if they can do this, then I can do what I’ve been thinking about doing. It moves from thinking to action, and this gives them permission, if you wish, and those are the ones I’m most worried about, those youngsters who are already troubled and who don’t know how to deal with that anger, and who may do something dangerous.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dwyer is also concerned about another phenomenon. In the days since the Colorado shootings, schools in more than 20 states have received bomb threats– not just one here or there, but hundreds. In Pennsylvania alone, more than 50 bomb threats have been made against public schools. In the District of Columbia, students at more than 25 schools had to be evacuated last week while police searched for bombs for hours. In Suburban Virginia, Fairfax High School was closed for a full day last week after someone wrote “Bomb 4/29″ on a school wall, and in Montgomery County, Maryland, schools have had their hands full too.

SPOKESMAN: It’s been incredibly disruptive. We’ve had 11 bomb threats in 11 different high schools, where we had to evacuate the schools and bring in the teams with the dogs. And you don’t search a school in one or two hours. This is a new social phenomenon in America. These are youngsters from middle and upper middle-class communities, from the very finest communities in America, with parents, both of whom are very successful professionals, and they defy description.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Education Secretary Richard Riley is so upset about the rash of bomb scares that he is making a national appeal to young people whom he believes are at fault.

RICHARD RILEY: You young people must have your own sense of responsibility. The young people must stop this current wave of copycat bomb scares. There are hundreds of students in Columbine High School who are still grieving their classmates. And think what they must go through as they hear about a new bomb scare every day.

STUDENT: You said some schools probably need more security than others which is true. But how do you evaluate which schools need it, because like, for example, you wouldn’t think Walt Whitman High School would necessarily need the security cameras and the metal detectors. But, then again, you may not think Littleton because it seemed like a pretty safe school. So, how do you decide which ones need it?

RICHARD RILEY: Some schools clearly need some kind of security. They have a history of having difficulties.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Riley is holding a series of meetings with parents, teachers, and students around the country to talk about what needs to be done about copycat crimes and bomb scares and school violence. And everywhere he goes, he uses the press to urge kids to report anything suspicious.

RICHARD RILEY: And if anybody has any inkling of anybody who is talking or boasting about something of that kind, please report it. Please let somebody know about it. It’s very, very serious.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Students at this suburban Washington, DC, high school are encouraged to report anything suspicious, but since Columbine, some students say it’s not so easy to tell the difference between what is serious and what is not.

STUDENT: Especially now after the fact in Colorado — people are going to pay a lot more attention to groups like the ones walking around in trench coats. I mean, it may not be trench coats, it may just be different colors or dying hair — you know, certain colors to get attention, things like that. But I think now a lot more people pay attention to it than they used to because right now a lot of people in the world, at least US, are nervous.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What do you pay attention to?

STUDENT: Someone that’s really quiet. Usually when they’re to themselves, you kind of wonder about them – they’re like, what kind of person is this? You know, it makes you think.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Homer Ailstock and Mischa Bilanchone go to the same school. They know how it feels to be ostracized by other kids. Like the two boys in the Columbine shootings, they listen to rock star Marilyn Manson, and they wear black clothing. The other kids call them Goths, short for Gothic, because of the way they dress, and since the Columbine shootings, they say, things have been weird.

STUDENT: People have come up to me or just like hinted slightly like, “Hey, Homer, are you part of that “Trench Coat Mafia,” or whatnot, and I’m like, “no, stupid.” And they’ll just automatically think that I want — like, I’m going to shoot everybody in the school one day or something like that.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Mischa has seen the violent movie “Natural Born Killers” 25 times, but says that does not make her want to go out and hurt other teenagers.

MISCHA: I think it’s disgusting to be lumped into this category and to be automatically assumed to be, you know, you’re automatically assumed to be a druggie, or you’re automatically assumed to be violent or you know, you’re automatically assumed to be any number of things simply because you look the way you do, and that’s wrong. It’s wrong to generalize people. It’s wrong to stereotype people.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Secretary Riley has acknowledged there is an atmosphere in which people may be overly sensitive to the way kids dress, and he has urged teenagers not be judged just by their appearance.

RICHARD RILEY: Our young people may dress differently and certainly have different musical tastes than most of us, but they are not a weird generation or a lost generation. Remember that. This is not a lost generation. This is a wonderful generation. (Applause)

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Riley and other educators say schools need more programs like this one at Eisenhower Middle School in Laurel, Maryland. Every seventh-grader here is taught how to settle problems through conflict resolution classes. They use workbooks and role playing to learn how to avoid violence. In this case, one group of students pretended to bully another.

STUDENT: You know what, man! I’m sick of you, all right?!

BETTY ANN BOWSER: A local police officer who’s been trained in conflict resolution by the federal government’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, shows the kids how to settle things peacefully.

OFFICER: This is a life skill. This is something we all have to go through. I had to go through this; you all are going through this. We all learned how to do this. And now this is your opportunity. This is your job, your responsibility as students, to learn how to deal with conflicts in a positive way.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: University and foundation research shows some of these programs work and some don’t. But even critics say the programs at least get kids to think about what they’re going to do before they act. And in the wake of the Columbine shooting, there is a growing chorus of voices asking that anger management become a required course at every school in America.