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Talking about school violence

Experts say creating a two-way dialogue is crucial in wake of Santana shootings

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A need for 'real climate change' in schools

Noticing warning signs, but not living by them


(CNN) -- Youth violence experts fully expect Monday's shooting at Santana High School in Santee, California, to set off a flurry of emotion and reaction at schools nationwide.

If the past is any guide, many young people will be fearful, apprehensive, confused.

The first and most important thing that students must do, experts say, is talk about their feelings -- with parents, educators and one another. In the process, they gain perspective about school violence and community and their roles in both.

"Every kid in America is wondering, 'Can this happen at my school?'," said Jim Copple, a former high school principal in Wichita, Kansas, and now vice president of the National Crime Prevention Council. "The foundation of all learning is creating a safe and secure environment. And we can learn from the good kids as to what is safe."

For the most part, experts insist, schools nationwide are very safe -- in many cases safer than any other place in a given community. And, especially after two students shot and killed 15 people and themselves at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, two years ago, an increasing number of in- and out-of-school programs let students not only address school safety issues, but do something about it.

Given these facts, parents and teachers must not relay the information and discard young people's concerns and fears, according to Joanne McDaniel, Acting Director of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence, a national outreach program based in North Carolina.

"What's more important is that parents and staff in schools listen to what the students have to say," she said. "It's important that they don't blow off those fears ... They have to have a dialogue, to let them talk through what their fears are."

A need for 'real climate change' in schools

The incident Monday at Santana, a suburban San Diego high school where a 15-year-old freshman shot and killed two fellow students and wounded 13 other people, has already gained national attention. News reports have already discussed warning signs, emergency procedures, as well as the vivid details from the scene.

Santee has already been depicted as an "ideal community" supposedly immune to violence, Copple says -- the same sense that was given about towns like Littleton, Paducah, Kentucky, and Jonesboro, Arkansas, where other high-profile school shootings took place.

The news coverage and perceptions might spark a sense among many students that their school environment is not safe, said Tonya Aultman-Bettridge of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence. That sense of security is personal, going well beyond measures such as having police on campus, installing metal detectors or instituting conflict resolution programs.

"We really need to talk about the need for a real climate change -- creating a warm school environment where it's safe, where it's comfortable for them," said Aultman-Bettridge, who has studied trends in school violence and worked with schools nationwide to combat youth violence.

The difficulty in addressing school violence, McDaniel adds, is expressing the fact that most schools are safe -- at least compared to the larger community -- while understanding students' concerns and looking for warning signs.

Noticing warning signs, but not living by them

"Kids are sending warning signs, telling people that they are going to do something," said Copple, citing reports that the Santana student accused of the shootings told others of his intentions before acting.

"When someone is sending a warning sign, students, parents and teachers need to key in on those types of clues," Copple said.

But while some say it's important for people to take warnings seriously and pay attention to those around them -- looking for sudden changes in demeanor, abusive behavior and other signs of abnormality -- most experts say there is not a tell-all character profile for school shooters.

"I worry about kids being labeled," said Aultman-Bettridge. "Some of the 'warning signs' are things that anybody, as an adolescent, goes through."

Rather than try to label a student from afar, experts conclude that the key is communication -- a dialogue involving all students, those that match up with some of the warning signs and those simply concerned about school safety.

"We want adults involved in the lives of kids, and we want kids involved in the lives of their communities," said Copple. "We need to listen to the kids, to get them involved."

Suspect had talked about shooting at school
March 5, 2001

Center for the Prevention of School Violence
NCPC: The National Crime Prevention Council
CSPV Center for Study and Prevention of Violence
National School Safety Center

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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