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Keeping Students Safe After Virginia Tech

Q U I C K S C A N

A History of Violence
Safety Drills
Back-to-School Savings

When Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho fired his last bullet on April 16, 2007, he became the 33rd casualty in what has rightly been called the worst school shooting in our nation’s history.

In the ensuing days, the country stood in disbelief. Virginia Tech professors, students, associates of the shooter and psychologists offered hours of perspective but could impart no real answers.

Even today, the biggest mystery behind this mass execution is its perpetrator. Emotionally removed from family, detached from fellow students and indifferent to professors, Cho was disillusioned and deadly.

Though his actions seemed to rip the country from a post-Columbine slumber, there have been at least 26 high school or college shootings since Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people and wounded 24 others back in 1999. Sadly, it’s an issue that is ever present.

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A History of Violence

On the morning of August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman, 25, rose early. He threw on a pair of jeans and a green jacket and loaded up his car, bound for the University of Texas at Austin.

After lugging a trunk of artillery to the observation deck of the university’s main tower, Whitman assembled his weapons and began shooting indiscriminately, killing 14 people and wounding 31 others before being shot dead by police.

As one of the first widely publicized school shooters in the country, Whitman started a tragic tradition.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, there were over 30 school-related violent deaths in this country between July of 1999 and June of 2000.

In 1999–2000, 20 percent of all public schools reported violent crimes such as rape, sexual assault, robbery and aggravated assault. In 2003, five percent of students ages 12-18 said they were victims of violence. Seventy-one percent of public schools reported violent incidents and 46 percent reported thefts.

This much we know. What isn’t clear is how to spot a burgeoning on-campus killer. Seung-Hui Cho was aloof and angry, but showed no early signs of violence. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were outsiders to many classmates but they were not completely antisocial. Charles Whitman was troubled but nothing suggested he was capable of an act so brutal.

According to a 2002 study by the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of Education, there is no way of knowing who can become violent.

“The demographic, personality, school history and social characteristics of the attackers varied substantially,” the report states.

The fact that professors and students at Virginia Tech weren’t entirely sure how to categorize Cho worked to his advantage. Prior to April 16, he was menacing enough to arouse suspicion but stayed within the boundaries of the law long enough to map out the killings.

Safety Drills

Precautions, in the aftermath of Virginia Tech, are all the more essential. According to Scott Poland, Ed.D., N.C.S.P., of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) (www.nasponline.org), schools can establish ways to prepare students and teachers in the event of violent outbreaks:

• Provide information to staff and parents on talking with students about violence;

• Institute stress-management and threat-assessment procedures;

• Offer classroom discussions on safety and tolerance; and

• Supply information on recognizing students who experience stress, anxiety or mental-health problems.

The National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center (www.safeyouth.org) asks students to take proactive measures in ensuring school safety. Suggestions are to pay attention to odd or threatening behavior, avoid carrying weapons and learn about argument resolution through nonviolence.

The Web site also suggests that students get involved in their community, engage in sports or become mentors.

A sense of belonging could be a remedy. One factor that unites the Virginia Tech, Columbine and University of Texas shooters was a state of isolation. One wonders if prolonged loneliness bred their desperation.

Back-to-School Savings

To the annoyance of many students, it’s that time of the year again. Millions across the country will be starting school this month. One who is looking forward to it is my three-year-old niece, Rory. At the mention of impending preschool, her eyes widen and a smile splashes across her pretty face.

Rory is far too young to grasp the weight of school violence, but she’s hardly exempt from it, even at such an age. In 2000, Michigan first-grader Kayla Rolland died from a single gunshot wound to the chest from a fellow six-year-old during class. It is a problem that impinges on students of every age.

On the NASP Web site, Dr. Poland reminds us that school violence destroys, among many things, the noble pursuit of knowledge. “Any student who is experiencing fears or anxieties is a student who is not learning,” he writes.

The NASP feels this issue has not yet reached epidemic proportions, but even one school shooting is simply one too many.

So in light of this violent and unpredictable era, perhaps the most important lesson our children can learn is veneration for life. Dodging bullets has no place in any curriculum.—C.H.


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