San Diego Union-Tribune

School safety chiefs focus on prevention 

Mar 27, 2001


ATLANTA -- The recent shootings at San Diego County schools have prompted a wave of reports of suspicious conduct across the country, breaking a "code of silence" among students and parents about troublesome behavior, school security officials said yesterday.

"Students are reporting about their friends, and parents are even reporting aberrant behavior and asking questions, many for the first time," said Jack Martin, head of security for Indianapolis schools. "There really has been a code of silence. I hate to say it, but thanks to Santee, we may be breaking that."

While many law-enforcement officials are applauding the surge in reporting, they say they are swamped with increasingly bogus rumors as they try to track evidence of potential violence on campus.

San Diego schools Police Chief  Tom Hall said he and his officers pored over 200 complaints about potential violence following the March 5 shooting at Santana High School in Santee. As a result, there were 19 arrests for inappropriate comments, but no real threats, Hall said.

About 50 school security chiefs from across the country gathered for their annual meeting sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. They vowed to work with federal officials to find ways to thwart threats before they become realities, such as the school shootings in Santee and El Cajon this month.

Officials said in interviews and in roundtable discussions that districts are evaluating everything from metal-detector systems to high-tech online security profiles and threat management programs to help more readily identify potential threats.

Law enforcement officials warned that the system only can do so much in the face of a myriad of potential problems affecting school districts.

Authorities say they continually are having to deal with potential "copycat" offenders and hints of increasingly violent incidents involving the nation's youngest children.

"There are going to be a number of kids who don't come forward with problems, who fall through the cracks, no disciplinary problems, who aren't on anybody's radar screen," said Bill Modzeleski, head of the U.S. Department of Education's Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program, which organized the session in Atlanta.

"Andy Williams can be the poster boy for falling through the cracks," Modzeleski said in an interview, referring to Charles "Andy" Williams, the 15-year-old Santana High freshman arrested after a rampage March 5 at the Santee campus that left two students dead and 13 people wounded.

In the days before the shooting, Williams appeared suicidal and warned fellow classmates he would shoot others, his friends said. Williams had been bullied for months, his friends said.

 Williams also was despondent after moving 18 months ago from Maryland, where he earned good grades and had many friends, to California, where he often was seen as an outcast.

"There are a lot of Andy Williamses out there," Modzeleski said. "There's an Andy Williams in every community. Every school has one. The question is: How do we foster those connections to build confidence and trust in these kids so they come forward?"

Santana and Granite Hills High, in El Cajon, have become instantly well known among security officials nationwide.

Granite Hills senior Jason Hoffman, 18, allegedly opened fire Thursday on campus, wounding five people. Prosecutors say Hoffman's target was the school's dean.

Before the outbreak of violence at San Diego area schools, federal education officials and the Secret Service had begun trying to help identify potential threats based on a study of previous school shooters.

Melissa DeRosier, a psychological consultant based in North Carolina, told authorities yesterday she is developing a threat- assessment computer program that focuses on teasing, bullying and rejection by fellow students.

"Years of research shows peer reports of social problems to be vastly more accurate than adult reports," DeRosier said. "Teachers miss 80 percent of children who experience severe teasing."

Although crimes across the board generally have decreased nationwide, "multiple targeted shootings are of concern because of the tremendous impact, not only to the school, but the community and the nation," Modzeleski said.

About 3,000 guns were taken from students last year, he said.

"Lord knows how many we haven't found," Modzeleski said.

But Hall said he was concerned about emotion-charged responses.

"People in the community are angry, they say we need metal detectors, we need bomb-sniffing dogs, and let's put fences around our school," Hall said. "Their reaction is: This cannot happen in school. The reality is that it does. But yes, we can do a better job in the schools looking for indicators of violence -- working on the kids who are isolated -- to
prevent it.