In the second installment of our series of interviews with American University faculty, crime expert and School of Public Affairs professor Lynn Addington looks at what we've learned about school violence in the 10 years since the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. Addington explains what can be done to prevent more shootings and some of the misconceptions in the last decade.
Q: What have we learned about school violence in the decade that has passed since the shootings at Columbine High School?
LA: One lesson concerns school security and violence prevention. An initial response to Columbine was to implement visible security in the form of both personnel (such as security officers) and technology (such as security cameras). In the years since Columbine, however, these policies have come under scrutiny. Even the Governor’s Columbine Review Commission Report questioned the cost-effectiveness of visible security measures like metal detectors and security cameras. An overlooked fact is that Columbine High School actually had security cameras and guards in place at the time of the shootings. Alternative strategies that take a “whole school” approach to combat violence have received increased attention. Another lesson has been to put “school violence” into context. Extreme acts of targeted school violence are rare. More common forms of school violence include fighting and peer harassment or bullying. Policy responses based on fears of extreme school violence often are not the most effective ways to deal with these problems.
Q: Are there proven methods of prevention against these types of incidents?
LA: Few evaluation studies have been conducted with regard to visible forms of security, such as police in schools or security cameras. In the years since Columbine, alternative violence prevention strategies have received increasing attention. The most promising programs recognize that school violence issues arise from a complex set of problems and are not amenable to simple solutions. These programs tend to incorporate proactive ways to deter conflicts from escalating into violence through anti-bullying programs and conflict resolution classes, create more positive and inclusive school communities, and promote “telling” about potential dangers by generating open communication and a school atmosphere where everyone has a stake in safety and responsibility to maintain a secure school. Anecdotal evidence suggests that these alternative strategies of community building and reporting problems may help prevent Columbine-type violence. In the years since 1999, a number of school shooting plots have been thwarted by other students reporting the plan to a school official or law enforcement authority.
Q: Is added security in schools a viable answer to school violence?
LA: Some schools warrant increased security due to specific issues and documented problems with violence. Most schools do not. Increased security comes with costs. One is financial. Adding security means removing something else or increasing the budget. This tradeoff is a particular concern given the lack of evidence of the effectiveness of these measures. A second cost is the loss of students’ civil liberties and privacy. Policies such as metal detector screenings or requiring clear bookbags teach students that their civil liberties can be readily traded for perceived security. I would argue that is not a lesson we want to teach the future leaders of our country. A third cost is increased fear. In my study of students’ reactions immediately after Columbine, I found that very few students were more fearful at school after the incident as compared to before the shootings occurred. That being said, overzealous use of security does lead students to be more fearful. They view increased security as an indicator that their school is not safe.
Q: After the Columbine shootings, many psychologists and others pointed to warning signs in the behavior of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. What should be done if someone recognizes these warning signs in a student?
LA: The Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education studied targeted school violence in the aftermath of Columbine as part of the “Safe School Initiative.” They examined 37 school shooting incidents in their investigation. This work concluded that no accurate profile of a school shooter could be generated. Despite media accounts that highlight certain characteristics, no set of behaviors can be used to predict whether a juvenile will become a school shooter. More important is the conclusion that school shooters often told other students about their plan and that such information is rarely reported to adults. This finding suggests a more viable prevention strategy may be improving communication and encouraging students to report this type of information to a school official.
Q: It seems that violence in schools and on campuses is suddenly a part of our lives. Why in recent years are schools and campuses so charged?
LA: Actually school crime and violence are not recent trends. Similar concerns about an “epidemic” of school violence and juvenile delinquency in the 1970s prompted the first comprehensive national study of school violence in the United States. Our current perceptions of school violence are strongly influenced by media coverage of isolated incidents of extreme school violence such as occurred at Columbine High School in 1999 or Virginia Tech in 2007. Access to round-the-clock news through cable television and the Internet exacerbates this distortion of the situation. If anything, studies show that school crime in general (both violent and property crime) has been decreasing since the early 1990s. Moreover, while violence against children is rare overall, children are at greater danger for violence, especially lethal violence, away from school than at school.
Professor of justice, law, and society
Can discuss: Criminal violence; school crime; fear of victimization; violent victimization issues; national crime statistics