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Shootings Raise Tensions in Already Tense Public Schools

By Kirk Johnson


Schools around the country were on alert Monday after the second hostage event, and third homicide case, in less than a week in a public school.

The killings in Nickel Mines, Pa., with at least three students dead, occurred five days after a man took over a classroom here in Colorado and killed one teenage hostage and himself as the police closed in.

On Friday in Wisconsin, a student fatally shot a principal. Two schools in the Las Vegas region were locked down on Monday after witnesses reported seeing an armed person on the grounds.

Some school administrators and security experts said they were worried about a new pattern of violence that schools were not well prepared for — outside adults with grudges or suicidal urges entering schools — and that news coverage could inspire more crimes.

Others said those factors did not matter because vigilance, pre-emption and resources would be the same either way.

“We’re always worried about copycats,” said Michael Nicosia, the superintendent of the Columbia Falls School District in northwestern Montana, which has five schools and 2,500 students.

Nicosia, echoing other school officials, said that systems and procedures were in place to head off or respond to attacks or other incidents but that building up those systems in response to events elsewhere was not an option.

“We have a resource officer who’s been circulating more than he has been,” Nicosia said. “But for the most part, there really are not resources available to upscale the program.”

Psychologists and scholars of the news media said that although copycat events were always possible, the likelihood of one school attack leading to another was probably a bit less than it was a few years ago.

Some experts said they were not sure that the copycat phenomenon was real.

Psychological training and increased security that many schools instituted after the killing of 13 people in 1999 at Columbine High School in Colorado have given teachers and principals new tools and insights to spot potential trouble, the experts said.

Members of the news media, some scholars say, have recently given somewhat less prominence to school violence as it has become less novel, a trend that could also reduce the likelihood of mimic attacks.

School officials said the existence of a new pattern did not matter. Educators watch more closely the comings and goings in a school, they said, and they do the best they can.

“It raises everybody’s awareness and reminds everyone to be vigilant to never assume your school is going to be safe,” said Mike Vaughn, a spokesman for the Chicago Public School System.

Vaughn said that each of the 625 schools in his district had metal detectors, that 70 had full-time uniformed police officers and that the rest had off-duty police or security officers.

“Continual high alert is a good way to describe it,” he said.

How the shootings affect schoolchildren and how they learn about them is much less certain or controlled, news media experts and psychologists said.