Days before the March 5 attack at Santana High School in Santee, Calif., that left two people dead and 13 wounded, suspect Charles Andrew Williams allegedly discussed his plan with friends. But they failed to report the threats because they thought he was joking and didn’t want to get him in trouble.
According to education officials and students, one key to preventing such deadly school shootings is breaking the “code of silence” on school campuses.
Barry Gibson, 18, who was wounded in the shooting, believes there is nothing schools can do to prevent similar violence until students start coming forward.
Safety “depends on kids saying something when they see something,” said Gibson, who was shot in his left thigh. “Kids shouldn’t be afraid to say something, but they are.”
Others said school administrators, community members, and parents all must play a part in breaking the silence.
“Kids have this unspoken agreement among them, and they are extremely reluctant to violate that,” said Cindi Carlisle, a middle school counselor and critical incidents response committee chair for the American School Counselor Association, an Alexandria, Va.-based group. “Until that is changed, I don’t think we are going to have access to that dangerous information that we want.”
Michael Pine, a consultant with the Safe Schools Center, a program of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, said students must weigh the code of silence against the high stakes that may be involved in a violent incident.
Some parents and community members in Santee were sad and even angry to think the attack might have been prevented if students had reported the threats.
Anna Hildt, who has a niece at a Santee middle school, was surprised when she learned that another student had heard threats from the alleged gunman days before the attack.
The student thought he “was a good friend because he was loyal. He would have been a better friend if he had gotten [the gunman] help,” Hildt said.
To change the cycle, Stephen Wallace, national chair of Students Against Destructive Decisions, a Massachusetts-based advocacy group, said an environment must be created in which students recognize and report inappropriate behavior.
“If we get rid of the underbrush of jokes about violencebecause we all know kids talk about committing violent acts all the timeit will become much more apparent those threats of violence that need to be taken seriously,” he said. “Just like you can’t yell bomb in an airport, you should not be able to talk about violence in schools and chalk it up to humor.”
Both Wallace and Carlisle say school safety committees and programs, especially peer-to-peer groups, have proven to be effective. Others point to anonymous tip lines as a way to get kids to speak up about potential threats.
A Colorado tip line for students, parents, and others to alert authorities of potential school attacks has logged hundreds of calls since it was set up after the Columbine shootings.
The tips have included warnings about 97 actual threats and 175 calls about other possible criminal activity, said Bob Armstrong of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
CBI staffers answer the phone and alert the school and the local sheriff’s office of threats. Calls about other possible criminal activities also are forwarded to local authorities.
“We do not, as an agency, follow up. We’re the central answering point for the state,” Armstrong said. “We notify the school and the sheriff’s office. They run with the ball from there.” Most of the tips are anonymous, Armstrong said.
U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., was instrumental in setting up the hot line. “It cannot guarantee that events will not occur,” Tancredo said. “It can, however, minimize that possibility.”
Several other states have implemented hot lines or plan to do so. For example, Michigan lawmakers appropriated $50,000 this year to establish a toll-free line that will allow tips to be phoned in confidentially, said Don Weatherspoon, director of the state Education Department’s Office of School Safety.
Weatherspoon said his office will spend the same amount advertising the line, with giveaways of pencils and other items for kids.
Beyond tip lines, school administrators should focus on creating caring communities, in which each student has at least one adult they feel comfortable talking to, experts say.
As for school staff, it’s important to take students seriously when they express serious problemsespecially threats, says Randy Christensen, counseling supervisor for the Rapid City, S.D., school district.
Children sometimes say things out of frustration or anger and might not be serious, but it’s important to find out the source of the anger, Christensen said. If someone thinks a child is having emotional problems or might become violent, school or community counselors, law enforcement officers assigned to schools, or other school personnel might be able to help.
Each Rapid City school has a crisis-response team whose members are trained in violence prevention and dealing with grief and loss, Christensen said.
American School Counselor Association
801 North Fairfax Street, Suite 310
Alexandria, VA 22314;
phone (800) 306-4722
fax (703) 683-1619
Students Against Destructive Decisions
Box 800, Marlboro, MA 01752
phone (800) 787-5777
fax (508) 481-5759
Connecting with Kids Network (CWKN), a producer of news and information about children, has created a program called “When to Tell.” The program includes information such as warning signs, advice for students on when to speak up and where to get help, and resources and support for parents and teachers.