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Another series of school shootings highlights the challenge of keeping students safe

Two students at a high school outside Denver allegedly opened fire during class on Tuesday, killing another student. In North Carolina just a few days earlier, two students were killed and four injured by a gunman at UNC Charlotte. Amid a pattern of school violence that has become all too familiar, Judy Woodruff talks to John Ferrugia of Denver’s Rocky Mountain PBS and Education Week’s Evie Blad.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The school shooting in Colorado this week has focused our attention again on tragedies happening on campus and periodically in the classroom.

    It is an unfortunately familiar story, particularly in Colorado, raising questions not just of what needs to be done to stop the violence, but also how best to prepare for them, and whether that has its own costs for children, for teachers and parents.

    Another American school plunged into terror by gun violence this week. On Tuesday afternoon, two students at the STEM School Highlands Ranch in the Denver, Colorado suburbs, are alleged to have opened fire during class.

  • Sophia Marks:

    I just kind of saw like flashes, and we heard bangs.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Police descended on the K-12 school. Students were evacuated, and anxious parents waited outside.

  • Woman:

    The children are texting you that they're hiding under a desk and that bullets are hitting their window, or things are hitting their window. It's a horrible feeling.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Inside, three students charged at one of the gunmen and tackled him. One of those students, Kendrick Castillo, was shot and killed. A classmate, who also rushed the shooter, described Castillo's final moments of heroism.

  • Brendan Bialy:

    He charged the shooter and immediately was on top of him, complete disregard for his own safety. He was immediately there to respond. He was immediately on the shooter and he was ready to end the threat.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Castillo was a senior, just days away from graduation. Both shooters, an 18-year-old male and a juvenile, are in police custody.

    The attack hit the Denver area hard, one already on edge, roughly a month after the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School. Schools across the area were locked down last month in reaction to threats related to the anniversary.

    Tuesday's attack is the second U.S. school shooting in as many weeks. Last week, a gunman at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte killed two and wounded four. He was also taken down by a student who charged him.

    These recent shootings come amid a nationwide debate about arming teachers. Classrooms across the country are already taking other safety measures, such as operating active shooter drills more frequently.

    Last year saw the highest number of school shootings in recent years, including two dozen that left 35 people dead. Three of the four deadliest shootings in modern U.S. history, in an elementary and secondary school, have happened since Columbine. Let's

    talk about how communities and school systems are responding to all of this, including in Colorado.

    John Ferrugia is the news anchor and managing editor with Rocky Mountain PBS in Denver. And Evie Blad is a reporter who covers this for Education Week, a "NewsHour" partner.

    And we welcome both of you to the program.

    John, I want to start with you.

    Tell us how the Denver community is dealing with all of this, especially with a history going back to Columbine.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Yes, Judy, there's an overwhelming sense of sadness here, I think, another school shooting, nine people shot, one young man not coming home to his family again, another funeral. There's just an overwhelming sadness about this in the community.

    I think, also, though, there is anger. I was just talking with a Columbine survivor who saw her friends murdered in 1999. She now has children of her own. She says, why in the world can't we keep our kids safe at school?

    And I think that's an overwhelming feeling here in this state and around the country. And, of course, that brings up the issues around access to guns, et cetera, which is being debated everywhere.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You were telling us that the Denver area and these counties, they have already instituted a number of assessments, taken security measures. So, it's not as if nothing's been done over these years.

  • John Ferrugia:

    No.

    In Colorado, a couple of examples, Safe2Tell is a hot line where people call and report either someone they're fearful could commit suicide or a threat. And last year, in the last school year, there were 16,000 calls to that hot line and about 600 threats reported, around 2,800 suicide concerns. So people are reaching out, kids mostly. This is aimed at kids to call.

    Secondly, in Douglas County, where the STEM shooting took place, they have what they call threat assessments. Last year, more than 200 threat assessments of kids, individual kids, who were concerning to them through tips or whatever, 184 of those kids were put on a safety plan, on an individual safety plan, where their parents were involved, where they could be searched when they came into school, where they're monitored.

    So there's a lot of vigilance going on in the school districts in Colorado. And just one final thing.

    John McDonald, the safety director over in Jefferson County, where Columbine is, he says, today, if we see on social media, you have got gun or you are going to shoot somebody, or are you have got a bomb, we're going to believe you. And we're going to be at your door right away doing a safety check.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Evie Blad, how is what they're doing in the Denver area, how is that similar or not to what's happening around the rest of the country?

  • Evie Blad:

    Yes.

    So there's been a big emphasis on prevention lately. These shootings aren't — are still statistically rare. But when they happen, they have a big effect, obviously. And they are a very emotional thing for folks.

    So there's been a real drive to say, what can we do to ensure that a student who may be struggling, a student who may have some of these risk factors can have the support and resources they need, so that they don't act on those things?

    And there's also a lot more emphasis on preparation around the country. We have seen, since Columbine, the number of schools that do active shooter drills has increased dramatically. So, while not every student will experience a shooting — in fact, statistically, students in America won't — most of them have an awareness of them because they practice these routines that would keep them safe in the event of an emergency.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you were telling us these routines are in elementary schools for young children.

  • Evie Blad:

    Yes.

    And some young children do drills that have been modified. They won't talk about a bad guy or an assailant. They will talk about stay safe in your classroom, like you would do if there was a dog in the hallway, and we didn't know the dog and we wanted to keep you safe.

    Psychologists have been trying to work with schools to modify these things, so that young children don't feel traumatized by the preparation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, John Ferrugia, I mean, it really is a balancing act, isn't it, for these schools, for educators, because you want to be prepared, you want to be on the lookout, but you don't want to frighten children. You don't want children traumatized before anything happens.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Yes, that's right, Judy.

    And one of the other things that — the dilemma is, is, how do you keep a child or a kid who comes into the school, who belongs in the school, has a backpack, walks in, and gets into the school, like in the STEM shooting, and then reveals having a gun in the backpack and starts shooting?

    So it really is prevention, and it's identifying these kids early. In the situation at STEM, these kids weren't on the radar. The sheriff says, look, we had no idea who they were. They didn't have any social media postings that were concerning. Nobody saw this coming.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Evie Blad, is there a sense in the education world that they have made progress in understanding which children, which students might be at risk of trying to do something?

  • Evie Blad:

    Well, there's no set profile of a school shooter, even though there are some things that we see in common in news reports.

    And so the idea is to give students the support they need, while also respecting their civil rights. We want students to have due process. We don't want to intervene in a situation and stigmatize them.

    But some of the things that you would do to support a student who might be at risk are things that are best practices to help students in all kinds of situations. These tip lines, like they have in Colorado, more often field reports about things like bullying and suicides than about school shootings.

    So some of the practices of making schools supportive, of connecting adults to children are good preventative, protective factors for all kinds of things.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But coming back to what you said earlier, John Ferrugia, you're saying there's still — even with all the preparation being done, there is anger, understandably, that this kind of thing can still happen.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Yes, there is Judy.

    And I will tell you, part of the sadness here in Colorado is that we just noted the 20th anniversary of Columbine, this terrible, terrible event. And 20 years later, many of these victims are saying, we're now on a journey, on a continuing journey of recovery.

    And now we know, every time there is one of these shootings, we have a new set of people on this recovery road again. And that's what happens over and over and over again. And that's the anger. That's the sadness. That's the frustration that people are feeling.

    And that's the drive, I think, at least here in Colorado and I think around the country, with teachers, administrators, law enforcement…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • John Ferrugia:

    … of trying to identify this early and prevent it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just quickly, Evie Blad, it gets back to what you said earlier, that even though the shootings are not common, they happen often enough. They get a lot of media attention. And people — the sense of terror is — can be in the air.

  • Evie Blad:

    Yes.

    Certainly, the public polling has showed that about three times as many people report they fear for their child's safety now than they did after the Newtown shooting in 2012. And that kind of fear can often drive policy-makers to do what — legislate by anecdote, to look at the circumstances of the last shooting and say, what can we do differently?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Evie Blad with Education Week, John Ferrugia with Rocky Mountain PBS, thank you both.

  • Evie Blad:

    Thank you.

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