Adults hoping to prevent school shootings like the one in 1997 at Heath High School in western Kentucky can improve the odds by connecting with students, paying more attention to their mental health, and reducing their access to guns.
These are the key findings from a study released May 17 on lethal school violence. The National Research Council examined six school shootings in hopes of finding common threads or ways to prevent them.
The study, required by Congress in 1999, confirmed what many experts said they already knew: School shootings, because they are often committed by teens with common adolescent concerns, are nearly impossible to prevent by profiling.
Researchers pointed to Michael Carneal, the 14-year-old freshman who fired on his classmates inside Heath High, west of Paducah. On Dec. 1, 1997, Carneal took a bag of guns to his school and opened fire on a morning prayer group. He later pleaded guilty to murdering three students and wounding five others, and is serving a life sentence without the chance of parole for 25 years.
Carneal was from a stable family, and he wasn’t a typical loner. His classmates said the bullying he suffered wasn’t unusual.
But it was to him.
And although he hid it from parents and teachers, he showed hints of mounting mental problems and incidents of minor delinquency. Just before the shooting, he told friends that “something big is going to happen.”
“We need to be more proactive in encouraging kids to come forward and opening lines of communication between students and adults,” said Katherine S. Newman, a Radcliffe social scientist who studied the Heath High shooting.
Bill Bond, who was Heath’s principal at the time of the shooting, said the findings underscore the need for nurturing instead of just tightening security. Bond now works as a security consultant for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Results of the study will be sent to Congress. U.S. Rep. James Greenwood, a Pennsylvania Republican who requested the study, said he hoped schools would use the information to combat bullying and deepen teacher-student ties.
Security is now tighter in many schools; after the string of shootings in the 1990s, metal detectors, video cameras, and 24-hour hotlines have been installed. Resource officers have been added and new schools are built with fewer blind corners, Bond said.
But schools also are paying more attention to students’ emotional needs. In one California school, teachers put students’ names on a wall in their lounge to highlight those whom no adult has befriended.
Jefferson County, Ky., public schools have started anger-management and mediation services and trained teachers and counselors to better spot depressed students. Teachers encourage students to report threats, and an anti-bullying video is in the works, said Maurice Risner, the district’s director of student safety.
Yet, in most schools, the ratio of guidance counselors, school nurses, and mental health professionals to students is still too low.
Schools need better tools to identify mental illness, said Linda Teplin, a professor from Northwestern Univer-sity who helped write the study.
“It can be difficult to recognize symptoms. In short, we need to develop better assessments and then we can reduce the risk of multiple shootings,” Teplin said.