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Originally published Wednesday, March 23, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Hard lessons: Minn. shootings again raise security concerns

Monday's school shooting, in which 16-year-old Jeff Weise killed nine people and wounded at least seven others before killing himself, is...

Monday's school shooting, in which 16-year-old Jeff Weise killed nine people and wounded at least seven others before killing himself, is the worst since the tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., six years ago and, in some ways, has a grim similarity.

Reports yesterday were circulating of the shooter's social isolation, ties to Nazi beliefs, even of a black trenchcoat.

Native Americans

The incident also underlines the specific challenges facing many people — and particularly adolescents — on Indian reservations. Such youth have far higher rates than do others of committing suicide, substance abuse, dropping out of school, living in poverty and staying with foster parents or grandparents.

While school shootings can happen anywhere, sociologists have been concerned for years about violence among some Native American teenagers, and their high rates of suicide and substance abuse.

According to a Harvard University study, 1 in 6 American Indian youths has attempted suicide, and they are 60 percent more likely to report fights at school in the past year. The incidence of fetal-alcohol syndrome, which can contribute to mental-health problems and impaired judgment later on, is high on many reservations.

A state-by-state study of graduation rates by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research found that 46 percent of American Indian students graduated high school, compared with 86 percent of white students.

Threats and injuries

According to a federal report released in November, 22.1 percent of American Indian students said they had been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property — the highest rate of victimization for any student group. Data also show that threats and violence grew more steadily in the Native American community than in any other — rising nine percentage points from 1999 to 2003.

Some contend the problems go back to the U.S. government's legacy of mistreatment and the resulting disconnect from Native land and culture. But drawing conclusions from such data can be tricky, say some American Indian leaders, who acknowledge things such as suicide and substance abuse are problems, but worry that an extreme — and isolated — incident like this shooting could reinforce negative stereotypes at a time when reservations are making gains.

"The scary thing about this is it could happen anywhere," said Tuleah Palmer, director of the Boys and Girls Club in Leech Lake. "Red Lake was an extraordinarily secure school."

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Improvements noted

Russell Skiba, director of the Initiative on Equity and Opportunity at the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University, stresses that despite public perceptions, schools are still safe places: Violence is far more likely to occur outside school walls than within. And, he said, there is growing access to resources to help schools stay safe, a shift from the mid-'90s when little data was available.

Now prevention and safety guidelines abound. After Columbine, the country scrambled to put preventive measures in place, from metal detectors to zero-tolerance policies for everything from carrying weapons to, in some schools, swearing. Some of those programs seem to be working. A federal report released in November 2004 showed that violent crime in schools dropped by 50 percent from 1992 to 2002.

"People want to have metal detectors and security guards and all of this, but the real thing that makes a difference is working with the kids and adjusting to the kids," said Bill Bond, a national consultant for principals on preventing bullying and other violence. He was the principal at Heath High School in Kentucky when a freshman opened fire in 1997, shooting eight students and killing three of them.

"These kinds of situations are just like terrorist situations," he said. "When people have so much hate in them that they don't mind dying, you don't have any deterrents left."

Getting lax?

School-violence experts said yesterday that the country improved campus safety after the Columbine shootings, most notably by restricting access to schools, increasing the number of school police officers, developing emergency plans and adding phones and radios in schools.

But much of the momentum for such safety measures has been lost over the past couple years, as public attention wanes and budget cuts erode staffing and training, experts said.

"People always ask, 'Is this a wake-up call?' " said Kenneth Trump, a school-safety consultant who has worked with school leaders in 44 states. "The question isn't whether this is a wake-up call — it's whether we're going to hit the snooze button and go to sleep again."

There have been 29 deaths on school campuses or otherwise associated with schools this academic year, said Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services. Last year, he tallied 49, more than in any recent year, including the year of the Columbine shootings.

"In almost every school-safety assessment we do across the country," Trump said, "we find staff awareness is down, the vigilance is not there, the emergency-plan content is questionable, and people have not practiced what would work in a real emergency."

But Skiba said the nation has to be careful about rushing to adopt more stringent policies — some of which he said go too far. According to research he helped gather last spring, 40 states now enforce a one-year mandatory expulsion for possession of a firearm, and 16 states also do so when students carry deadly weapons other than firearms to school. But some schools have zero-tolerance policies in place for minor infractions such as swearing and insubordination. Twenty-three states have such policies in place for fighting, and 19 do for disruptions in class.

"There is no data that simply taking a hard-line stance and removing ever-greater numbers of students for ever-increasing minor infractions has any impact on school safety," he said.

More broadly, the numbers don't capture what school-safety specialists say is the most critical goal: changing school culture. That means adults who model appropriate behavior, monitor warning signs of violence and even train students to help stop peers from bullying.

"It's not a problem that can be fixed with money," Bond said. "It's a problem that can only be fixed with courage. And if you think money is in short supply, try finding courage."

Cutbacks' effect

Money, however, is an issue, too, said Curt Lavarello, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. Federal budget cuts have forced schools to drop the police who are trained to talk to kids and pick up on signs of impending violence, he said.

The Columbine shootings created an awareness that led to more physically secure buildings, said William Lassiter, school-safety specialist at the Center for the Prevention of School Violence in Raleigh, N.C.

"What's missing is we need to make sure that students feel connected to their community and to their school," Lassiter said. "We must make sure they have a trusted adult."

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