When a Miami 14-year-old was stabbed to death in a school bathroom, allegedly by a classmate who brought a steak knife to school in his backpack, it was a shocking sign of the dangers some schoolkids still face, five years after the Columbine shootings.
With all the zero-tolerance policies, metal detectors and police officers posted in the hallways, the 2003-04 school year has already been the deadliest for America's students since 1998-99, according to a study by National School Safety and Security Services, a national consulting firm specializing in school security and crisis preparedness training.
Schools are still the safest place for kids, even with the surge in killings and other crimes committed on school grounds, but many educators and security experts say not enough is being done.
A combination of budget cuts, shifted priorities, misdirected efforts, distracted attention and complacency has allowed schools to backslide in their efforts to keep kids safe, they say.
Complacency, Denial Leave Kids Vulnerable
Already there have been 43 "school-associated violent deaths," according to the study, which was done with the assistance of the National Association of School Resource Officers, an organization of law enforcement personnel who serve in schools.
Studies done by the same groups with the same criteria found just 16 school-associated deaths in the 2002-03 academic year and 17 the year before.
"We took five steps forward in the year and a half after Columbine, but we've stalled and maybe even slipped back since then," said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services. "Perhaps the biggest threat to school safety is not a kid with a gun or a knife, but our own complacency, denial and pushing these issues to the back burner when there hasn't been a high-profile crisis in the news."
On April 20, 1999, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed 12 fellow students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., before committing suicide.
It was the worst in a series of multiple shootings, mostly at large suburban or rural schools, that shocked the country and changed the way many people thought about the dangers at schools.
"Columbine brought the issue of violence to a white, middle-class environment, and that was why it was such a shock," said Cynthia Garcia Coll, professor of education at Brown University.
The threat of horrific violence replaced drugs and the presence of gangs as the major concern, and school districts took a range of measures to ensure that what happened at Columbine, at Thurston High School in Springfield, Ore., at Santana High School in suburban San Diego, wouldn't happen in their town.
Monitoring Social Environment Is Key
Some schools overhauled their security systems, installing metal detectors and having police officers stationed on campuses. Most took more common, less obvious, approaches, such as making sure that only one door could be used to get into the school, installing security cameras and drawing up crisis plans.
"It would be nice if it were that easy, but those kinds of things are not enough," said Keith King, a professor of health promotions at the University of Cincinnati.
More importantly, many educators and security experts say, more and more administrators took a hard look at the social environment in their schools, and implemented programs to cut down on bullying and to open lines of communication between students and adults.
The importance of focusing on improving the social atmosphere and getting kids to feel connected to their school has been demonstrated by the results of the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health and by a study of school violence done by the Secret Service. Both found that the most effective way to try to prevent violence is to promote positive senses of family, school and community.
By doing that, school administrators will not only improve students' safety, but also improve how they perform in the classroom, said Maurice Elias, a professor of education at Rutgers University. "What we're seeing is that more and more kids are suffering in schools and while they're suffering they can explode — this is what schools are learning as a result of Columbine," he said. "The other thing they're learning is that when kids are suffering, they're not learning.
"There's a recognition that the level of comfort and well-being in a school is an important factor not only in controlling violence, but in turning out kids who are better learners and better citizens," he said.
Schools Hindered by Budget, Time Constraints
Just taking law enforcement measures with a get-tough attitude might help keep weapons out of school and provide the opportunity for a quick, forceful response if fights or other violent incidents occur. But educators and security experts say it will not address the causes of the problem — which is how kids treat each other and how they feel about their place in school and the community.
In all of the major shooting incidents, the children who carried out the killings had been bullied and ostracized — practices that are regular behavior among teenagers. A survey of 500 teenagers done by the National Crime Prevention Council in December 2002 found that 61 percent said they witnessed someone being bullied or taunted at least once a day.
That is a problem for schools, long before a child gets to the point where he or she might be ready to strike back, educators say. And the result is not a threat of violence.
"If you have a child who is bullied a great deal, you may get an increase in truancy, an increase in ailments, an increase in absences," said Widener University education professor Roger Place, who was a superintendent in Pennsylvania schools for 25 years. "Bullying affects student achievement."
That point is one that administrators can forget, as they deal with strained budgets and rising pressure from state policies and the standards set by the federal No Child Left Behind program to raise standardized test scores.
"I'll talk with superintendents about it and they'll say, 'We can't fit it in. We've got to get the test scores up,' " King said. "As kids feel safer in the school they feel greater connection to the school and they tend to do better academically."