15 Years After Columbine, Are Schools Any Safer?

The mass shooting at Columbine High School spurred schools to adopt "zero tolerance" policies. Do they work? NPR Education Correspondent Claudio Sanchez and former principal Bill Bond discuss.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. This Sunday marks the 15th anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School. That day, two students opened fire and killed 13 people.

And the tragedy put school safety in the national spotlight. Since then, many schools have adopted what's called zero-tolerance policies. That means the schools mandate harsh consequences like suspension or expulsion for students who are violent, bring weapons or drugs on campus. But critics say these policies may have gone too far. And students are being severely punished now even for small infractions. Joining us with more detail is NPR education correspondent Claudio Sanchez. He's here in our Washington, D.C., studio with me. Welcome, Claudio.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Good to be here.

HEADLEE: And also with me is Bill Bond, former principal of a Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky. And in 1997, a student opened fire on a school prayer group there, killing three and wounding five. Bond is currently a school safety specialist at the National Association of Secondary School Principals. He joins us from Paducah. Welcome, Bill.

BILL BOND: Good to be here.

HEADLEE: Claudio, what do we know about how effective these policies are - whether they actually prevent any kind of tragedy or violence or do not?

SANCHEZ: Well, first of all, zero-tolerance policies began in the 1990s in an effort to curb school violence. Certainly...

HEADLEE: You mean, before Columbine.

SANCHEZ: Sure, way before Columbine. Zero-tolerance policies were devised to address the problem of school violence, guns, drugs. What they became after 1997, when we saw for a few months a spate of shootings, including Paducah, was a total evolution of what that policy was meant to address. And what has since happened is that critics now say that that policy - zero-tolerance - has created the illusion of safety. But that it doesn't address the real problems.

The other huge problem - and this has come out of studies in 2006 by the NAACP; in 2010, a California study; and the big one, a 2012 study in Texas - showed that kids were disproportionately being hurt by these policies if they were black, if they were Latino, if they were special-education students. And the evidence is pretty clear. Certainly the study in Texas was clear. They looked at a million sixth- and seventh-graders, and they tracked them. And they figured out that most of these kids who were black and Latino in particular, and special education students were being singled out for minor infractions often. So here's a policy that says we're going to keep our schools safe, but it became a way for teachers to get rid of troublesome students. Some kids were expelled - for example, in the Texas study - for, you know, dress code violations, for talking back to teachers. I mean, these were minor infractions that all of a sudden, were blown up. And eventually, in many cases, was - I mean, it was a policy that ended up tracking these kids into what many called the school to prison pipeline.

HEADLEE: Bill, let me bring this to you. Would a zero-tolerance policy of some kind have prevented the tragedy at Heath High School?

BOND: No. A zero-tolerance policy is just a policy that deals with everyday issues at school. And it would have had absolutely no effect on what happened at Heath High School or any effect on any of the other shootings. Zero-tolerance is a zero tolerance for weapons in school, for guns in school, drugs in school. But in the school shootings and in the recent school stabbing, it had no effect. I mean, that is not what it is designed to do.

In fact, in the school shooting at Paducah, the young man that did the shooting had never even had a disciplinary write-up in nine years of school. His father was a lawyer. His mother was a stay-at-home mom. His sister was valedictorian. It would have had zero effect. Zero- tolerance policies, honestly, just do not do what they were intended to do. They were intended to eliminate any idea of negative behavior, but in effect, they just don't work.

HEADLEE: So what would have had an effect in your opinion? I mean, you're a school safety specialist now. What could have prevented the tragedy at your high school in Paducah?

BOND: What could have prevented it in Paducah and prevented it in many other places - if students had trusted the adults, had trusted the adults with the information that he had a gun at school the day before, that he was talking about - stay away from the lobby, something big is going to happen. Many students knew something was going to happen, and no one told. And that is common at almost all the school shootings. Someone knows, and they always say, oh, I don't want to get him in trouble. And sometimes if I'm doing a student assembly with students, I try to define what trouble really is.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

BOND: Trouble is when you take a shooter like Michael at my school, the day he turned 18 years old, he was in a juvenile facility. And that night, they shackled his hands and feet and put him in a white van and took him to a state prison to serve three life sentences. That's the definition of trouble. But students do not want to - there's a lack of trust. There's a lack of trust that the administrators, the teachers will do the proper thing and help the student. And zero-tolerance policies are negative in that standpoint because if you do not leave the principal or the administrators with any decision-making, then it does establish that lack of trust with students.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're talking about zero-tolerance policies and school safety. Our guests are Bill Bond, who you just heard, a school safety specialist at the National Association of Secondary School principals. He was principal at Heath High School in Kentucky when a shooting happened there. And also with me is NPR education correspondent Claudio Sanchez. Claudio, have we tried - since Columbine happened, have we tried policies that work better than zero tolerance?

SANCHEZ: Well, more and more schools are trying or adopting what's called a threat assessment - a more flexible approach designed to identify troubled kids and then get help to them. You know, the public attitudes about all this are pretty firm - parents and school officials who want to look tough and to send a message to kids who may be thinking of something, doing something really bad. And so what's really taken over, despite this effort to get at these kids - troubled kids certainly, are things like metal detectors, high-tech surveillance, anonymous telephone tip lines. After Paducah, for example, there was talk of imposing the death penalty on kids who carried out school shootings.

Michael Carneal of course is now in prison. He got 25 years and probably is going to be there for life. School security, meanwhile, has tightened in so many ways that it's hard to really pinpoint what schools are doing to really help these kids. After the shootings in Springfield and in Pearl, Mississippi, there was an impulse to help these kids, to get help to these kids. But that is expensive work. Counseling...

HEADLEE: You mean getting help to the perpetrators...

SANCHEZ: Exactly.

HEADLEE: ...Before they take action?

SANCHEZ: Exactly. I mean getting help to kids who, you know - who are raising red flags. Teachers, for example, who look at kids' writing, if they detect something that troubles them, you know, to be able to get these kids into some kind of counseling. That is very expensive and very difficult work to do versus just setting up, you know, monitors all over the school or metal detectors.

It's, in many ways, an easy thing to do the, you know, hardware surveillance versus the more deep work that needs to be done to identify these kids. And, you know, the profiles that we have of these children are that many of them are bullied, that many of them do tell people that they intend to do something. But often it's a little - too little, too late.

HEADLEE: So, Bill, how do you counsel other principals in setting up a truly safe environment? I assume, from what you've said, you do not recommend zero-tolerance policies. What do you recommend?

BOND: Well, we recommend what Claudio was talking about, that you build that trusting relationship with students, that you have counselors and you have people available that they can talk to. It is very easy to set up hardware. It's very easy to set up cameras. Very few schools have metal detectors, but it's easy to set up the hardware of metal detectors. It's almost impossible to man them. But what we're counseling with students is exactly - or with principals is exactly what he's saying, is that we need to be able to identify kids that are having issues, that are having problems, that need help and be able to provide that help.

HEADLEE: Claudio, what direction is the country moving now? I mean, we had a whole spate of zero-tolerance policies establish after Columbine. But now, 15 years later, what else has become the prevailing strategy for dealing with school violence?

SANCHEZ: Well, one of the interesting things that has happened is that of course zero-tolerance policies are now under intense scrutiny. There is a civil rights issue that has been raised about the disproportionate number of children of color - of black and Latinos in particular - special-ed kids who are being affected by this, by the overreaching. But I think that it's really a work in progress. The U.S. Justice Department, Department of Education, certainly state agencies are really, really breaking this policy down and saying, you know, what works and what doesn't work? And I think that what we're going to see in the next, you know, few years, number one is that there is no failsafe policy.

There's nothing that's going to prevent an intruder, unfortunately, from doing what they've done in Sandy Hook and other places, certainly back to Columbine, Pearl, Paducah. But I think that what people are rethinking is, you know, what is a smarter way to get at these kids and the problems they pose? But again, there's really no absolute safety measure other than to really begin to build on what we've been talking about here, which is a more organic way, a more in-depth process in which we can at least get at the trouble kids who potentially could be shooters on any given day.

HEADLEE: Claudio Sanchez is education correspondent for NPR. We also spoke with Bill Bond, former principal, now a school safety specialist at the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Thanks to both of you.

SANCHEZ: You're welcome.

BOND: Thank you.

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