By Bob Jonsen
Since 1992, over forty shootings have occurred on school campuses
throughout the nation. These shootings are not only tragic because of the amount of people
killed or injured, but they are also quickly deteriorating the perception that schools are
safe havens. My eleven year old son recently came up to me and asked, "Dad, do I have
to go to High School when I get older? And if I do, will there still be shootings in High
For the past two years, I have been working in partnership with the Los
Angeles County Office of Educations "Safe Schools Center", conducting
presentations all over California for the Regional Community Policing Institute
the topic of School / Juvenile violence.
I always begin my School Violence presentations by quoting a speech
that Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) gave to a group of teenagers in 1885, titled
"Advice to Youth." It was a speech about principles which youth should live by.
I talk about these principles because if everyone would abide by them, then maybe we
wouldnt have such a problem with juvenile violence. The principles are simple: Obey
your parents, Respect your superiors and others, and never handle firearms carelessly. It
appears that the importance of these principles has somewhat faded in time. This is
evident in the rash of school shootings over the past several years.
The time has come where we all need to take a
closer look at our response to school violence. We can no longer take the attitude that
"It will never happen here!" As law enforcement officers, we are automatically
attached to all incidents of juvenile violence, whether they occur in our
jurisdiction or not because these acts affect every community. With this in mind, we have
to remember that law enforcement is not going to be able to conquer juvenile violence by
themselves. It is going to take a collaborative effort between law enforcement, schools,
and communities. Community Oriented Policing concepts are a critical component to the
success of such an endeavor.
When I started researching juvenile violence I had to contact several
different agencies in order to determine if there really was a significant problem of
violence within our schools, or if these shootings were just isolated incidents. I found
that even though Los Angeles has had relatively few shootings on school campuses, there
are significant problems in other areas that have a great impact on schools. As you know,
violence trends vary throughout the nation and juvenile violence is no different.
In Los Angeles public schools, we are experiencing a rise in violent
incidents and weapons possession among the campuses. Los Angeles County is home to 81
separate school districts comprised of 1,677 elementary, secondary and continuation
schools. In 1995-96, the total student enrollment at these schools was 1,508,589. With
these kinds of numbers, I consider schools to be microcosms of their community. The
disturbing part of my research was discovering how young some of the suspects are.
Nationally, out of 6093 students expelled for firearms in the 1996-1997 school year, 500
were in elementary school. In fact, the average age for suspects in a school shooting has
been continually decreasing since 1992. In 1992 the average age was 16 ½, in 1998 it was
Just as Samuel Clemens outlined principles for youth to live by, I
would like to take this opportunity to outline some principles law enforcement should live
by as far as prevention, intervention, and suppression of juvenile violence.
The first principle: Always remember the importance of
Communication. One of the major concerns that both groups agree on is the lack of
communication between the various agencies. For instance, are the reporting procedures
consistent with every school and School District? A zero tolerance policy should be in
place and enforced for schools within your jurisdiction. Education Codes 48902 (
Notification Prior to Suspension or Expulsion for weapons) and 44014 (Student assaults
School employee), require schools to notify law enforcement. You will have to look at is
what your agency is required to do upon receiving that notification? For example,
lets take a notification where a student is being suspended for threatening a
teacher. Is your agency required to document the notification? Should they follow up on
the notification? Does the student have any prior incidents involving violence? Are there
any guns accessible to the youth in his home? Your agency must look at the policy
which dictates your response to these issues in order to determine if you are adequately
handling them. If you are not doing this, then modifications must be made. Several of the
school shootings started from the student who was suspended or involved in a dispute at
school and due to the availability of guns, some students were able to return to school
with a gun within hours.
Reporting should go both ways; Just as schools are required to notify
law enforcement, we should notify schools when we arrest a student for a violent act or
weapons possession off campus. As most of you are aware, if we arrest a juvenile on a
Saturday, he may be back in school on Monday. The school deserves the right to be
notified. Verify that your agencies have agreements in place when the safety of the school
or its personnel may be in jeopardy.
Communication should not just start after an incident occurs. Prior
planning and preparation will make any emergency operation run smoother. It is critical
that your agency assign a coordinator who will be responsible for finding out all the
various contacts for each school within your jurisdiction, and how to reach them at any
hour. Developing a Resource Book with all the phone numbers and contacts may be invaluable
in an emergency.
Communication is critically important in sharing information.
This brings us to my next principle: The significance of warning signs. As a
preventive tool, we must be able to recognize warning signs, act upon them, and most
importantly, communicate their existence to others. In all of the school shootings, there
were early warning signs, but in most of the cases the signs were not communicated. In the
Columbine shooting, Law Enforcement was aware of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold because
they had been arrested for breaking into a van in 1998. Fellow students and neighbors were
aware of their violent tempers because of previous violent encounters and threats.
Teachers were aware of their violent tendencies because of a video the two had made about
killing all the athletes at the school. Additionally, there was the AOL Web page that not
only had Harriss profile quote "Killem AALLL!" but, also went into
great detail on how to make bombs.
In 1998, I was making presentations for the RCPI on a topic called
"Suicide By Cop." This type of incident involves adults who get involved in a
shooting with a police officer and are later determined to have suicidal tendencies. While
working on that project I saw a lot of similarities between these officer involved
shootings and the school shootings involving juveniles. The similarities that I am talking
about are the warning signs. Some warning signs are obvious, but most can be very subtle
such as, a change in behavior, change in routine actions, feelings of hopelessness, and
persistent statements of violence. Individually these signs can be brushed off or
perceived as not threatening to others. Obviously, the more signs, the greater the chance
that a violent act may be committed. Signs that are considered "Imminent"
indicate that the person may be very close to committing a violent act. As a mater of
fact, all of the following "Imminent warning signs," were observed by different
people prior to the Columbine shooting: Serious physical fighting with peers or family;
destruction of property; severe rage over minor issues; detailed threats of violence;
possession or accessibility to firearms; and self-injurious behavior or threats of
If the person is suicidal, has access to firearms, and we perceive this
person only to be a danger to themselves, we could be setting ourselves up for a very
dangerous situation. A lot of the signs are consistent with a suicidal person. So it was
not surprising when Harris and Klebold committed suicide. Other suspects have had suicidal
tendencies as well. Michael Carneal after killing three students in Paducah, KY. cried
out, "Kill me now!" Kip Kinkel also yelled out, "Shoot me!," after
opening fire in the cafeteria of Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon. Recently, in
Conyers, Ga., Thomas Solomon Jr. placed a gun into his mouth after shooting six fellow
students. Hopefully, we can get to them before they reach this breaking point.
This leads us to our next principle: Form attachments.
For all you parents reading, pay close attention because studies have shown that kids who
feel connected to their parents and/or schools are less likely to be involved in violence,
smoke, drink alcohol, or have early sexual activity. Knowing this, we can work at
making sure those important attachments are in place through the numerous programs we have
in place or available. When evaluating which type of programs are needed depends primarily
on what your community already has in place. One way of determining this is to look at the
risk factors (gangs, drugs, guns, lack of supervision, etc.) present in your community and
compare them with the protective factors in place to offset them.
Dont forget to involve the youth in this process. In a national
survey, The National Crime Prevention Counsel asked teenagers why they felt violence
occurred within their schools. The most common response was drug use, closely followed by
lack of parental supervision. This study shows the importance of continuing drug and
alcohol awareness programs. The problem with some of the programs is that they dont
continue past the elementary level. Evaluate the programs in your area and see if they
need to be updated to include violence prevention curriculum as well as being taught in
the upper grades. Other programs you should have in place are; Youth Activity Leagues,
Mentor and Youth Empowerment programs. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency
Prevention(OJJDP) can get you a list of programs that can be replicated. If we seriously
want to prevent violence, we are going to have to form the strong attachments necessary
between youth and adults.
My final principle: Never forget about officer safety. If
you have the attitude that Law Enforcement shouldnt be involved or doesnt have
the time to do the things addressed, then think of it this way; if we dont do
anything, it wont be long before these kids get tired of shooting at other kids and
aim for a bigger target - YOU!
Senate Bill 187 in the State of California, requires all schools to
have in place a "Safe Schools Plan. Learn about your schools plans and make sure you
have maps for all the schools within your jurisdiction. It is also very important to
obtain maps of the schools and set up days where you can walk through the schools to
identify potential hazards. Bear in mind that not having the maps readily available ,can
hinder a tactical approach into a school.
What I found from my research is that a lot of kids feel safe while at
school, but not as safe going to and from school. I interviewed a juvenile who told me
that he almost always carried a gun to school for protection. However, since he
didnt want to get expelled for carrying a weapon on campus, he would hide it outside
of the school and get it before going home. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of
kids do the same every day, and another 1.2 million have access to guns in their homes
after school. If kids are carrying guns to school just because they dont feel safe,
then we need to create safe passages for them. Use the residents, businesses, schools, and
any other adults who will help supervise these passage ways. This will also benefit law
enforcement because if the kids feel safer, then maybe there wont be as many guns
Hopefully all this preparation and planning in an attempt to avoid
school shootings in the future will pay off. Good Luck and dont forget the power of
communication because that is where it all begins.
Bob Jonsen has been involved in extensive research in the area of
school and juvenile violence since 1994. He developed the "V.I.P. (Violence is
Preventable) Juvenile Violence Awareness Program," and has presented the program
throughout the United States.
Bob is also a co-facilitator of the "V.I.P. Weapons Intervention
Program," which he helped develop in corroboration with several agencies in Los
He is a member of the:
Los Angeles County s Office of Educations "Safe
California Attorney Generals Gun Violence Campaign Committee
Californias P.O.S.T. Juvenile Violence Committee
Los Angeles County Sheriffs Departments Safe Schools Task
He has over 15 years of experience on the Los Angeles County
Sheriffs Department and has worked specialized units, such as the "Gang
Enforcement Team," "Force Training Unit," and is currently assigned to the
Departments "Advanced Training Bureau."