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Carroll County Aims to Head Off School Violence Before It Strikes

Chuck Shacochis

By Jay Ulfelder | Posted 5/9/2001

It's nearly noon on a spring day, and I'm jogging around the worn-out track at the International Middle School in Silver Spring. A few days ago, I took a trip up Route 97 to Westminster, to ask a few people at the Carroll County Youth Service Bureau about the county's school-violence-prevention program. In contrast to the fear-mongering that often accompanies the subject, the Carroll program rests on the optimistic premise that school violence can be prevented, not by exiling potentially violent children but by treating them. The bureau's staff isn't naive--they have seen too much for that--but as I drove back home through the rolling, corn-stubbled hills after hearing them talk sensibly and sensitively about their efforts, the problem of violence in our classrooms seemed manageable.

Now, as I shuffle around the track and past the middle school's gymnasium, a boy--probably 12 or 13, pulled scrawny by his growing bones, wearing sweats and a T-shirt--is yanking on the handle of the gym door, tugging with his whole body, arms outstretched and feet planted firmly on the concrete. The rest of the class that had spilled out of the gym 45 minutes earlier, kicked soccer balls and tossed footballs and chatted in twos and threes, has gone inside, and somehow this boy's been shut out. And as he jerks at the handle, he yells, "Open the door! Open the goddamn door! I'm gonna kill you!"

At first I grin. I'm not sure why--something to do with imagining how many times this scene has played out, the lock-Johnny-out trick, and how quintessentially junior high it all is.

And then I think about the Carroll County program, and the world this boy now lives in, and about those words. We've all said them; I say them to my wife sometimes when she doesn't walk the dogs or cook dinner when it's her turn--"I'm gonna keeel you," an exaggerated accent, a big joke. Today, these words that we've all said could land that boy in the principal's office, in a suspension, at the police station. Today, one hears them in a schoolyard and wonders, You think he means it? You think he really could?

A handful of deadly shootings in the late 1990s have deeply complicated the way we think about kids at school. After Paducah, after Jonesboro, after Springfield, and especially after Columbine, we see schools not only as places of learning but also as places of grave danger, where children can lose their lives at any time.

This sense of threat is pervasive. In November 1999, The Washington Post hired a survey firm to poll more than 2,000 adults nationwide about what worried them most. Of 51 items listed, the statement "Children in America are no longer safe at their own schools" elicited the second-strongest response, with 60 percent of respondents saying they worried "a great deal" about it. Among parents with school-age children, it was the top concern.

State legislatures, school boards, and educators have responded to this epidemic of fear with an eclectic mix of policies, programs, and initiatives, many of which emphasize physical security, and nearly all of which are experimental. One suburban Maryland high school recently conducted a code-red drill--"Duck and Cower," a Post headline quipped--a dry run through the procedures to be followed in case a "shooter" shows up. Thirty seconds to check the hall for students, to shut and lock the door, to tape paper over the door's rectangular window, to hide under desks and wait in the ensuing quiet. According to the Post, the 147 kids from the several classrooms that failed the drill--maybe the door wasn't locked, or maybe they took too long to get their act together--were labeled "casualties" and taken to an auditorium, where their principal told them, "Do you realize that if this were real, you would be hostages, wounded, or dead?" With that one sentence, these kids were reminded of their ultimate vulnerability--told they could die at any moment, that maybe there's a bullet with their name on it.

All of which raises the question: How violent are America's schools?

The conventional wisdom tells us that school violence exploded in the 1990s. The numbers, however, tell a different story. In fact, as many scholars and children's advocates who study the problem are itching to tell you, school violence actually declined in the '90s, and America's schools remain among the safest places for kids to be.

The size of the gap between the perception and the reality depends in part on what kind of behavior you consider violent, but no matter how broadly or narrowly you define the problem the two don't mesh. Start with violence in its broadest, most ordinary sense--bullying or fighting. A study reported in the April Journal of the American Medical Association found that 30 percent of U.S. schoolchildren in grades 6 through 10 were involved in moderate or frequent bullying as the bully, the victim, or both. This number is alarming, particularly in light of the link many psychiatrists see between bullying and more serious youth violence. But it is neither a new phenomenon nor a particularly American one--the 30-percent figure is on a par with what studies show in other industrialized countries.

Narrow the focus to what law-enforcement officials describe as "nonfatal violent crimes"--assault, rape, sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault--and the frequency of violence diminishes. In 1998, 43 out of every 1,000 students between the ages of 12 and 18 were victims of nonfatal violent crimes at school or going to or from school, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Justice. This represents a 28-percent decline from five years earlier. What is more, the rate for such incidents away from school in 1998 was 48 per 1,000, indicating a somewhat greater danger at home or in the streets. Narrow even further to "serious violent crimes"--in other words, drop simple assault from the preceding list--and the scale of school violence falls sharply, to just nine out of every 1,000 students in 1998, about the same as the previous six years and less than half the rate outside school.

Look only at murders--the incidents that generate the wall-to-wall media coverage and spark the strongest response from lawmakers--and the problem is, statistically, almost nonexistent. Over the course of the 1997-'98 school year, 35 school-age children were victims of homicide in America's schools (out of 2,752 school-age children murdered nationwide). And school killings dropped significantly over the course of the decade, from 55 in 1992-'93 to 26 in 1998-'99, the year of the deadliest incident of school violence in recent American history: 15 dead and dozens wounded at Colorado's Columbine High in April 1999.

Of course, even one school murder is one too many. That said, the numbers don't fit the profile of an epidemic, and the trend in recent years has been down, not up. As U.S. Education Department officials dryly note in the agency's 2000 School Safety Report, "The perception of risk is often greater than the actual risk incurred."

Nevertheless, legislatures and school systems across the country have scrambled to respond to the perception that school violence is slipping out of control. In the early 1990s, gangs seemed to pose the greatest threat, and so the attention landed on urban schools. But in 1997 and 1998, deadly shootings at schools in Pearl, Miss., Paducah, Ky., and Jonesboro, Ark., seemed to signal the arrival of a new menace that provoked much deeper fear among parents in rural and suburban America: the semi-random, multiple-victim, "mad at the world" attack in which every child is a potential target.

School officials in Carroll County noticed the change. After all, this is precisely the kind of rural-cum-suburban community where, according to the media-fed conventional wisdom, this phenomenon is most likely to crop up. Viewed through one lens, Carroll County looks like traditional mid-Atlantic farm country: 4-H clubs sponsoring horse and goat shows, shops bearing family names tucked into 150-year-old buildings, Dodge Ram pickups kept polished to a high shine. Viewed through another lens, though, Carroll County looks a lot like the rest of suburban America: Kids go to school, hang out, watch TV, skateboard, surf the Internet, split into cliques of jocks and punks, geeks and goths. Some drive too fast, some drink and get high, and some entertain dark and violent thoughts.

Concerned that existing procedures did not allow school administrators to do enough to prevent the perceived threat, Carroll County's Board of Education, which oversees more than 27,000 students in 36 public schools, decided in late 1998 to come up with a new policy. Although the board's efforts were undoubtedly affected by the fear that was already growing, the county seems, by and large, to have crafted a response that avoids a bunker mentality and acknowledges the complexity of the problem.

The core of the county's effort is the Serious Threats of Violence Policy, adopted in January 1999 (a few months before Columbine, as it happened), which establishes procedures to identify and help kids who may pose a violent threat, before they act. Any student who threatens "serious" violence, and is deemed to have the means to carry out that violence, receives a three- to five-day suspension and is referred to a mental-health professional for evaluation.

Reports of threats can reach administrators through several channels, including an anonymous-tips hotline the county created to gather this kind of information from students, who otherwise may be reluctant to "rat" on their peers. When administrators receive word of a threat, they promptly interview the students involved and/or anyone who may have overheard something. The school's principal or vice principal then consults with Cyndy Little, the county's director of pupil services, to decide whether the threat meets the policy's criteria and thus merits suspension. If the threat appears serious enough, the school system's security director--Larry Faries, a former Maryland state trooper--is brought in to help decide whether the police should be involved as well.

School officials would not talk in any detail about real-life incidents that have led to suspensions under the policy, out of concern that other students would be able to attach names even to anonymous descriptions. In March, however, in the wake of a school shooting near San Diego, The Sun reported on three incidents that offer a glimpse into the policy's workings.

Early that month, a senior at South Carroll High School was suspended, and later arrested on misdemeanor assault charges, when school officials and police suspected that he had compiled a "hit list" of several classmates. One week later, a middle school student was suspended and referred to the state Department of Juvenile Justice after she apparently wrote a suicide note that also mentioned two classmates she wanted to hurt or kill. The same day, police were called to a Carroll County elementary school to investigate another list--only to discover it was a roster of invitees to a child's upcoming birthday party.

Whatever the nature of the threat, the job of the mental-health professional is to determine how likely it is that the child will act violently and to begin developing a strategy for preventing that from happening. This task may sound straightforward, but in fact the causes and triggers of adolescent violence are still only vaguely understood, even by the psychiatrists and social workers who devote their careers to the subject. "We are a long way from an adequate understanding of violent behavior, let alone being in a position to control it," Dr. Michael G. Kalogerakis, a psychiatry professor at the New York University School of Medicine, wrote in a recent review of youth-violence research.

Given the lack of knowledge, the Carroll County policy entails something of a risk. Rather than automatically expelling or arresting kids who make serious threats--in other words, treating the problem strictly as a security matter best dealt with outside the school entirely--the county has decided instead to rely on what we think we know about youth violence to give those kids a break and try to help them first. "If you only discipline and don't intervene [therapeutically]," Little says, "you're missing a real opportunity."

If the threat is considered serious enough, the child may be referred to the juvenile- justice system or even charged criminally. But, in an effort to head off potential threats before they become real, the policy also pulls in a broader set of troubled kids who appear to pose some kind of danger but who seem capable, with some sustained intervention, of changing their behavior. On occasion, Little says, the county has even stretched the program a bit to do an assessment for a troubled child who doesn't appear to pose a threat of violence.

"If there's any hesitation," Little says, "we're going to say, 'Let's get the kid screened.'" In fact, the program regularly errs on the side of caution--only about 10 percent of the 150 or so students who have been suspended under the program since its inception were ultimately deemed to pose a serious threat, she says.

All but one of the 150 suspended students have received their mandatory violence assessment at the Carroll County Youth Service Bureau. The bureau is located in a brown-and-beige strip mall at the edge of Westminster, the county's seat and, with a population of about 16,700, its largest town. The clinic sits on a dead-end street three doors down from Harbor House Liquors, whose patrons occasionally plop down for a drink not far from the premises. But the out-of-the-way location also provides a measure of privacy for the kids who come here, no small thing in the gossipy, image-conscious world of the schoolyard.

When Carroll's Board of Education adopted the policy, the Youth Service Bureau was already implementing the county's state-mandated program for screening students deemed at risk of suicide. The school board saw the suicide-screening process as a model for the violence assessment it envisioned, so it asked the bureau for help.

Lynn Davis, the bureau's director, agreed, albeit reluctantly. At the time, the agency had no funding earmarked for this kind of program, and staffers--many of whom have children in the county's public schools--were concerned that the violence assessments would pull them into something they saw as a role for the police, not social workers and psychiatrists. The bureau quickly discovered it had taken on something much larger than anticipated. "We expected maybe five referrals [that school year] and got about 35," Davis says. "We were whirling. We just couldn't even believe it."

After struggling under this caseload for a few months, the bureau secured funding from the school system and two other agencies to add a full-time staffer to work exclusively on the serious-threats program. (The program now has an annual budget of $40,000 plus supplemental money on a case-by-case basis, provided by the county's departments of Health and Citizen Services.) Since taking the job in September 1999, violence-assessment coordinator Susan H. White has refined the process developed during that first hectic semester and, her colleagues say, has fulfilled their expectations of becoming something of an expert on youth violence.

White's involvement begins when the parent of a child suspended under the serious-threats policy calls to schedule an appointment. "A lot of people automatically think that this is an attempt to profile their child as the next school shooter," she says. "So it's really important at the initial phone contact to talk about those concerns, and one of the first things I say is that I don't work for the school system. That immediately de-escalates some of their feelings, because a lot of times it's directed at the school. And then they begin to view it as an opportunity to talk to a third-party person about what their concerns are, and maybe even to be an advocate for them."

The connection between media coverage of school violence and local sensitivity to the problem is evidenced by the surge of threat tips and violence-assessment referrals that typically follows a highly publicized incident elsewhere. "One of the things that happened as a result of this last incident," White says, referring to the Santee, Calif., school shooting in early March, "is that students have become very vigilant about what they're hearing, and have been reporting things to administrators more frequently than maybe they were before, which is good."

When the student shows up for his assessment--they are almost always boys--White takes roughly two hours to interview the child, the parent who brought him in, and then both together. The goal is to develop a set of recommendations intended to prevent violence from occurring. White's proposals, divided into three categories--treatment, changes in personal and family life, and changes in school life--are delivered in a written document to both the family and the school.

If the mandatory suspension is a stopgap measure, designed to prevent violence by removing the threat-making child from his potential targets for a few days, the recommendations embody the program's central ethos: Most children do not pose a serious threat, and some of those who do still have the potential to change. The recommendations are based on an assortment of ideas about what causes, triggers, and even inhibits violent tendencies in kids; they can cover a lot of territory and sometimes touch on very sensitive issues.

To treat the kids she sees, White says, she often relies on what her profession considers nontraditional approaches--such as a behavior-management group the Youth Service Bureau established a couple of years ago, or seminars on separation and divorce--that address specific psychological factors thought to be associated with youth violence.

"A lot of the research states that traditional therapy--one-on-one individual or family counseling--is not effective" for the kids she sees, White says. "The population is mostly male, preadolescent to adolescent, and they don't really respond to that treatment modality as well as other populations."

To try to break patterns in personal and family life that could be encouraging violent tendencies, White sometimes recommends restrictions on what kinds of television and movies the student is allowed to watch, or on Internet access. She also might focus on removing the means to violence by recommending, for example, that parents lock up any guns in the house or remove them from the home entirely--a frequent concern in a county where hunting is part of the cultural fabric. White might also recommend that parents get their child involved in a new activity--art and music lessons are sometimes suggested--that relies on a talent the child may have, on the assumption that such outlets can inhibit a tendency toward violence.

In the same vein, the assessment can touch on more profound family patterns, often related to the role of the father. "It's pretty common knowledge in this agency that it's mostly mothers who bring their children in to treatment, and mothers who are monitoring their children's school progress and working with them on homework issues," says Gary Honeman, assistant director of the Youth Service Bureau and White's immediate supervisor. "Maybe there's a real need for the father to be involved. Susan can pick up on that pretty quickly and make a recommendation that the father be involved in helping the child with homework, or get involved with the child in a recreational activity."

The school system becomes most involved again in following up on recommended changes to the child's school life. Kids who seem to be having trouble with their studies might be referred for educational testing or, if they are already in special education, given extra assistance there. In addition, the student and school administrators will often meet upon the student's return to draw up a "safety contract." This agreement might lay out security measures, such as book-bag searches, but it can also involve behavioral issues, such as how the student responds to bullying or teasing.

Apart from these school-based efforts, however, administrators have no real way to compel students and their families to do anything differently. The violence-assessment interview is mandatory, but the recommended changes in personal and family life that come out of it are strictly voluntary. That fact concerns many of the professionals involved in the process, and Cyndy Little says her pupil-services staff is looking at ways to "tighten up" the policy next school year, including the use of additional suspensions to punish kids who don't comply with the recommendations.

Since the Serious Threats of Violence Policy was adopted, there have been no killings in Carroll County schools. Of course, nearly every school system in the United States can make the same claim. But more generalized violence in Carroll County schools has declined since implementation. While suspensions for verbal and physical threats increased slightly in the first full year of the policy, from 157 in 1998-'99 to 166 in 1999-2000--not surprising, given the program's emphasis on vigilance in reporting threats--actual physical attacks on students, teachers, and staff fell sharply, 352 to 256.

It's not clear whether the decline can be credited to the program--the trend has been similar statewide in recent years. But county residents and school administrators believe the policy is working, and in the post-Columbine world of fear and hype that belief may be as important as any measurable improvement in the school-violence numbers.

"It's part of our culture now," says Sherri-Le Bream, principal of Westminster High, the county's largest high school. The serious-threats policy "has been really useful to us. In the past, we might suspect that a student had a tendency toward violence--maybe some small incidents had occurred--and this is a tool we can use to address those concerns proactively."

Support is also strong among parents, says Jean Wasmer, president of the Carroll County Council of Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs). "It's comforting to know that we're not going to tolerate" threats in schools, she says.

But Wasmer also hints at some friction between parents and administrators over the policy's application to younger students, and she expresses concern about the need to strike a balance between taking a firm stance against violence and being sensitive to the circumstances of individual cases. (The incident where police were called to a county elementary school to investigate what turned out to be a list of invitees to a student's birthday party had occurred two weeks before Wasmer and I spoke.) "Any time when we're dealing especially with younger children, we need to use discretion," she says.

Most students are probably not aware of the serious-threat policy per se, says Sarah Hund, a Westminster High senior and the student representative on the county Board of Education, but they are sensitive to changes in the culture when it comes to school safety: "Since Columbine, we're aware of the fact that any little thing you say is going to be taken seriously." The reaction to that change is sometimes ambivalent. "I know some students say, 'This is good that we're cracking down,'" Hurd says, but the reality of administrative investigations of what might have seemed like harmless incidents can be "a little overwhelming."

The strongest opposition has probably come from some of the families that have experienced the policy firsthand. "I won't tell you I haven't had parents who have been upset about it or thought it was ridiculous," Westminster High's Bream says. And as Wasmer notes, "Sometimes you're comfortable with something until it happens to you." The parents of Russell Furr, the South Carroll High senior who was arrested in March, have been publicly critical of the school system over what they characterized as a drastic overreaction to their son's "having words" with other students. (Furr acknowledged in court last month that he had threatened other students and was sentenced to probation, even though prosecutors admitted they found no evidence that he intended to carry out the threats, The Sun reported.)

"I understand that there are things going on in the world that make school systems worry, but it seems to me that things should start off slowly," Robert Furr, the boy's father, told The Sun. "This thing started off in third gear."

Meanwhile, fallout from a spate of threats and suspensions that followed the shootings in the San Diego area in March--the first at Santana High in Santee, and an apparent copycat incident at a nearby school later that month--appears to be fueling a different set of frustrations. Susan Krebs, president of the Carroll County school board, spent two weeks traveling in March; when she returned, she says, she found her e-mail and voice-mail in boxes crammed with messages about the incidents.

"From the communication I'm getting, [some parents think] this policy is not stringent enough," Krebs says. "There's not enough consequence." Several parents told her the three-day suspension for threats of violence is too weak: "People want zero tolerance. They want kids kicked out of school." While "I'm not suggesting we should go that far," Krebs adds, the board may revisit elements of the policy. Another frustration for parents is the confidentiality of the violence-assessment process: "You can't share [the results] with the victims [of a threat], and some of those limitations are causing problems."

Wasmer says she hasn't heard complaints that the policy isn't tough enough, but parents do want better information from schools about threat investigations, which can take several days. "What parents are unhappy about is that so much is flying around and no one is giving them any yes or no or anything, unless you happen to be involved in the incident, on the hit list or something," she says. "And that just lets the rumor mill fly."

Some parents have responded to this frustration by proposing a change in the regulations that guide how administrators carry out the serious-threats policy. At least one school's PTA president has asked the county Board of Education to require that principals contact PTA leaders whenever the policy is triggered, even if only to let them know that a probe is underway.

Befitting her role as a researcher as well as a practitioner, Susan H. White expresses some concern about the subjectivity involved in deciding whether a student's actions merit a suspension and referral. Overall, however, Youth Service Bureau staffers consider the policy a success and are looking for funding to expand the program and opportunities to share their experiences with other school systems. "The broader goal is absolutely to prevent school violence," White says. "But most kids that we see are not predisposed toward violence, so what happens along the way is that we get to identify other issues that play a role in that, and needs the kids have that have not otherwise been addressed."

At the end of an interview during which she has described in some detail how Carroll County is working to prevent youth violence, Cyndy Little, who grew up in Pennsylvania, talks about how her brother and his friends would hunt squirrels with rifles after school. "And no one thought anything of it," she says.

Now, as county residents recently found out, a list of names scrawled on notebook paper can bring the police calling on an elementary school student. Is this paranoia, or a practical acknowledgement that things have changed? The statistics on all kinds of school violence, from bullying to murder, suggest that fear has outrun the reality of any threat. But what school administrator wants to be the one who has to tell the parent of an injured or murdered child, "The numbers just didn't support our taking any action"? What parent wants to find out something could have been done but wasn't? What student wants to risk becoming the one in a million?

Maybe the best we can hope for is to find a balance between security and sanity--the balance Carroll County is struggling to achieve--that allows us to get as close as we can to helping kids who need it without seriously endangering the rest. Whatever form that balance takes, the words "I'm gonna kill you" will probably never sound especially funny in school again.

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