Shootings Raise Questions Of School Safety

Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin talks with NPR's Claudio Sanchez about school violence, and the evolution of the safety measures that schools have taken to protect their students.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For more on the evolution of the school safety debate, we're joined by NPR's Claudio Sanchez. Thanks for being here, Claudio.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Good to be here.

MARTIN: The debate over school safety actually has its roots in Paducah in some ways. Can you explain that? What happened in 1997?

SANCHEZ: Paducah was one of the first shooting in a string of five shootings over a period of eight months, and it gripped the nation, changed the public's view of school safety forever, mostly because it was in places that Americans had never heard of - Pearl, Mississippi was the first; West Paducah, Kentucky, Jonesboro, Arkansas, Edinboro, Pennsylvania and Springfield, Oregon. There was Columbine, of course, a year later in April of 1999. And in the media, school shootings were declared an epidemic, an outbreak of violence like a disease, sparing no one. Even though, interestingly, the CDC, Center for Disease Control, that year, 1998, reported that school shootings accounted for less than 1 percent of the more than 5,000 gun-related deaths of children under 19. School-age children were 40 times more likely to be killed outside school than at school, according to the CDC.

MARTIN: So, what did the debate focus on at the time? Tighter security at schools or public policy, stricter gun laws?

SANCHEZ: It was many things, beginning with zero tolerance policies. Pearl, Mississippi, by the way, had a pretty robust zero tolerance policy.

MARTIN: Explain what that is.

SANCHEZ: Zero tolerance is a policy that developed to try and identify risky behavior essentially. And that obviously began with the focus on guns - kids involved with guns or drugs.

MARTIN: So, what happened with - we're talking about school security in the wake of this most recent shooting. What happened in 1997 when it came to just literally securing these school buildings?

SANCHEZ: There was technology that was discussed - mostly metal detectors - even though there had been little or no evidence of foolproof policies or technologies that literally stopped intruders from entering a school building. After the shooting in Springfield, Oregon, for example, school officials also called for a FEMA-like agency that would provide emergency funds and support after a shooting, just like FEMA does for natural disasters. After Pearl, officials also set up across the country 800 numbers for kids to report other kids who they thought were planning something violent. The school in Pearl, Mississippi had learned very quickly that this kid could have been identified if other kids had simply said, look, he's doing this, he's talking about it. Eventually, though - and here's the important part, Rachel - much of the debate began to focus on the motives of the perpetrators - their psychological state, families and, of course, their access to guns. The attention, in fact, turned very quickly to the issue of bullying; how widespread it was. Most of the shooters were young, alienated kids who had been bullied, loners with few friends.

MARTIN: I mean, we just heard the former principal of the school in Paducah. We heard him say there have been all these safety precautions. You just ticked off so many of them. Still, here we are today grieving more victims of a school shooting. Clearly, educators are frustrated. Have these measures made any difference?

SANCHEZ: I think the answer is obviously no. There have been many, many lessons learned from school shootings. But here's the big thing that schools, law enforcement, mental health organizations have not been able to do, and that is figure out how to identify deeply troubled people, including kids, who are out there that nobody knows how to help. There has been one trend that's called a threat assessment approach, designed to identify these troubled kids and get help to them. But this is expensive. This is not something that schools have budgets for, in fact. Finally, I think it's important to note that for parents who will be sending their kids to school Monday, you know, the bottom line is that kids are pretty safe in schools these days, despite all that we see and all that we hear.

MARTIN: These are still very rare.

SANCHEZ: Exactly. School violence has decreased considerably since the 1990s. They're still the safest place for students to be, which is precisely what the CDC reported over 10 years ago.

MARTIN: NPR's Claudio Sanchez. Thanks so much, Claudio.

SANCHEZ: You're welcome.

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