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Title: Schools Told To Watch Violent Kids

Source: AP, 04/22/99

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Schools Told To Watch Violent Kids

.c The Associated Press

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (April 22) - When the 14-year-old boy spent a lot of time thumbing through the military weapons catalog he brought to school each day, his principal, Margaret Walsh, wasted no time in taking him aside to talk.

''We got to know the kid. We didn't accuse him,'' Walsh, principal at Minnie Howard School, said of the ninth-grader. The boy was counseled along with his guardians and went on to graduate.

''The message is you must pay attention,'' she said Wednesday.

Students who survived the deadly attack at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., this week say it was the ignored rage of a dozen outcast students that led to the bloodshed.

The surviving students say no one paid enough attention.

Turf battles and cliques are common enough in America's high schools. So are teen-agers who rebel through the clothes they wear or the hobbies they choose, whether it's collecting World War II weaponry or playing Dungeons and Dragons fantasy games. But counselors, educators and students wonder how to tell between teen-age angst and deadly intent.

''There is no single answer,'' said Doug Robinson, programs director of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence, in Raleigh, N.C. ''You've got to look at all the warning signs.''

At Minnie Howard School, full-time guidance counselors work in teams with teachers to watch for signs of trouble: Mood swings.  Change in dress.  New groups of friends.  Skipping school.  Failing classes. Unusual interests.  Signs of abuse.  Hatred of another group.

''We start with one piece of paper,'' said Kenneth Firling, the head guidance counselor at the 750-student school.  A child's record, he said, speaks volumes about potential problems: A's turn into D's.  He's dropped band after three years.  She was absent 40 days one year.

''I'll bet you nickels to doughnuts if I'm having problems with a student, I can go back and see where he got suspended in Mrs. Williams second-grade class,'' Firling said.

Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore is going further, ordering local school superintendents to report gang activity and potentially dangerous students to local police.  And he's not alone.

Last June, the school board in Evansville, Ind., began requiring the local school system to report acts or threats of violence by their classmates or face suspension, expulsion or even jail time.

School board members in Granite City, Ill., keep profiles on potentially violent students. This week they began considering a ban on capes and trench coats, clothing that authorities say was worn by the two shooters in Colorado.

After last year's spring school shootings, the Clinton administration sent schools a guide that would help to identify students-at-risk for excessive violence.

In class on Wednesday, Minnie Howard teacher Michael Diggins let students talk about the shooting.

''It's important to let it out, to talk about violence,'' said Diggins, a teacher for four years at a school whose ethnically mixed, immigrant population represents dozens of nationalities. ''How else are we going to fight it?''

The angriest children are not necessarily the loudest, said Helen Smith, a forensic psychologist who works with violent juveniles in Knoxville, Tenn.

''Overly controlled kids are the hardest ones to spot,'' said Smith. ''If you see a kid who is quiet and withdrawn, but has a bad temper ... they are the ones who could blow more easily.''

Firling, who's been a counselor for 30 years, says he can't assume children who seem strange are the most troubled.

''There's always been an avant-garde crowd ... torn jeans, all kinds of beads, now they're coloring their hair with Jello,'' he said. But the troubled ones have gotten worse: ''There's more meanness, where they'll really try to hurt somebody - permanently.''

Michael Saenza, president of the National Mental Health Association, said violence could be avoided if schools had time to assess children, a place to refer them and adequate health coverage to offer them. In most places, counselors are stretched thin.

Saenza said Americans shouldn't have waited for high-profile shootings to find the political will to address student violence. ''Kids have been dying by the thousands in our urban communities for many years. Youth violence is the top public health crisis,'' he said.

Sometimes students are the first to see the signs.

Sean Kelly, a 16-year-old junior at Columbine who had shared a computer lab with one of the dead suspects, Eric Harris, said Harris made his own video production at school in which he bragged about some of his new guns.

''They just didn't seem to be all there. They liked things like Soldier of Fortune magazine,'' Kelly said of the ''Trenchcoat Mafia'' Harris associated with.

And adults need to listen to students, especially when they say ''something big is going to happen'' at school, says Myrna Shure, developmental psychology professor for 30 years at MCP-Hahnemann University in Philadelphia.

''Just saying to a child 'it's safe to talk to me' is very critical,'' Shure said. ''When they're further ignored by the very adults they are trying to reach, they are devastated. So they explode.''

AP-NY-04-22-99 0253EDT

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