Much like the FBI developing psychological profiles to track terrorists and serial killers, school psychologists are putting together checklists of behavior common among students prone to violence. But critics fear the procedure, known as “student profiling,” could lead to unfair labelling of children who don’t reflect an image of the “perfect student.”
With the pain of the deadly shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., still fresh, Wallingford, Conn., Superintendent of Schools Joseph Cirasuolo said he would be remiss not to take such a preventative measure as student profiling in his district of 7,000 pupils.
The profile of a potentially violent student will be given to staff throughout the district’s eight elementary schools, two middle schools, and two high schools. If someone fits the description, the student’s parents will be notified, Cirasuolo said.
“Our purpose in doing that is to intervene well before they ever decide to go out and buy a gun and do some damage,” Cirasuolo said.
“We intervene early if we think a youngster has reading problems. We intervene early if we think a youngster has adjustment problems and matters of that type. So why shouldn’t we intervene early if we think a youngster may be prone to violence?”
There are similar efforts across the country. In Granite City, Ill., for example, school administrators are measuring students against a behavior checklist that includes abusive language, cruelty to animals, and writings reflecting an interest in “the dark side of life.” Students who fit the profile can undergo counseling, be transferred to an alternative education program, or be expelled.
Critics call student profiling an overreaction to a rash of school shootings, including the Columbine attack in which two students killed 12 fellow students, a teacher, and themselves.
“There’s a lot of tension right now, and understandably so. But we have got to make certain that the infractions warrant the kind of punishments meted against the students and that the students are being granted fundamental fairness,” said Nathan L. Essex, dean of the College of Education at the University of Memphis.
American Civil Liberties Union spokeswoman Emily Whitfield said there already is a backlash against students. She referred to the recent case of a Mississippi boy who was prohibited from wearing a religious symbol, a Star of David necklace, because of fears that the sign was a gang symbol. The school board later rescinded its policy.
“Different doesn’t mean dangerous,” she said. “Not only are students being unfairly targeted but, in some cases, there’s not a whole lot of thought going into it.”
Nevertheless, there is increasing demand from school districts for training on warning signs.
FBI agents led conferences on school violence recently in Hamden, Conn., and Lansing, Mich., instructing teachers on behavioral science and psychological profiling.
Peter D. Blauvelt, president of the National Alliance for Safe Schools in Slanesville, W. Va., said he spent the summer crisscrossing the country, giving workshops in schools from Georgia to Washington state.
“I wouldn’t call it panic, but people are saying, ‘Look we realize that we are not prepared to deal with a major crisis and we need to be prepared,'” he said.
There are plenty of character checklists for teachers to draw from. The National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif., has created a list of 20 warning signs. The American Psychological Association and MTV produced a guide called “Warning Signs.” In “The Memphis Conference: Suggestions for Preventing and Dealing with Student Initiated Violence,” criminologist William Reisman lists 50 telltale indicators.
“Metal detectors, video cameras, all the equipment creates a false sense of security,” Reisman said. “The problem is the heart and mind of the kid.”
One publication widely read by school administrators this summer was “Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools.” The guide from the National Association of School Psychologists, the U.S. Department of Education, and other agencies was commissioned by President Clinton last year and distributed to schools nationwide.
The guide has 16 features that may distinguish violence-prone children, including social withdrawal, feelings of rejection, and poor academic performance. But association spokeswoman Elizabeth Kuffner warned that the guide should not be used to predict which students will go on a rampage.
“Definitely there are warning signs. Definitely there are things to look for. But to just say a kid fits this profile, we don’t think is a good idea,” she said.
Wallingford School District, 142 Hope Hill Road, Wallingford, CT 06492-2254; phone (203) 949-6500.
“Warning Signs: A Violence Prevention Guide for Youth from MTV and APA,” (800)268-0078, http://helping.apa.org/warningsigns.
“The Memphis Conference: Suggestions for Preventing and Dealing with Student Initiated Violence,” Reisman Books, 208 South J Street, #7, Indianola, IA 50125; phone (515) 961-4814.
“Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools,” (800) USA-LEARN, http://www.ed.gov/offices/OSERS/OSEP/earlywrn.html.n