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Responses to School Violence

 

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 Schools?"

For the past two years, I have been working in partnership with the Los Angeles County Office of Education’s "Safe Schools Center", conducting presentations all over California for the Regional Community Policing Institute (RCPI) on 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 wouldn’t 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 , in 1998 it was 14 .

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, let’s 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 it’s 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 Harris’s profile quote "Kill’em 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 suicide.

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.

Don’t 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 don’t 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 shouldn’t be involved or doesn’t have the time to do the things addressed, then think of it this way; if we don’t do anything, it won’t 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 didn’t 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 don’t 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 won’t be as many guns out there.

Hopefully all this preparation and planning in an attempt to avoid school shootings in the future will pay off. Good Luck and don’t 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 Angeles County.

He is a member of the:

Los Angeles County ‘s Office of Education’s "Safe Schools Coalition"

California Attorney General’s Gun Violence Campaign Committee

California’s P.O.S.T. Juvenile Violence Committee

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Safe Schools Task Force

He has over 15 years of experience on the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and has worked specialized units, such as the "Gang Enforcement Team," "Force Training Unit," and is currently assigned to the Department’s "Advanced Training Bureau."

 

 

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