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School Violence Drops, Despite Shocking Crimes

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Today, the White House convenes a conference on school safety. The move is in response to a series of fatal school shootings. Just yesterday, a seventh grader who was said to be fascinated by the Columbine attack showed up at a school in Missouri with his parents' Mac-90 rifle. After he fired one shot at the ceiling, the gun jammed and a tragedy was averted that time. Administrators are asking themselves once again what more they can do to prevent school shootings.

Here's NPR's Larry Abramson.

LARRY ABRAMSON: When Superintendent Cindy Stevenson of Jefferson County, Colorado talks about the drills her school system practices, she almost sounds like some sort of security planner in Iraq.

Dr. CINDY STEVENSON (Superintendent, Jefferson County Schools, Colorado): We train in the instinct(ph) command system. We do table-top exercises. Then our schools have all been expected to do safety and security drills where they take all the kids to another location. They do intruder drills. They do lockdown drills.

ABRAMSON: Those preparations should come as no surprise. Stevenson's district includes Columbine High School. But in fact, districts around the country run these kinds of exercises. When Stevenson heard about recent shootings in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and even in Bailey, Colorado, she wondered whether to add new security measures. Stevenson said she'd like to have more security officers in her schools, but she can't because federal funding has been dropping.

Dr. STEVENSON: Oh yes, quite a bit. And so we've had a reduction. But if you look at some of our small districts, their funding is almost insubstantial. There's really not much you could do with the funding they were getting.

ABRAMSON: The Bush administration has said it's trying to redirect money to programs that are proven to be successful. But how do schools prove that they've prevented an attack?

Professor Dewey Cornell of the University of Virginia says now that there's been another spate of high-profile shootings, schools need to focus on warning signs of the next attack.

Professor DEWEY CORNELL (University of Virginia): I think we need to pay attention to student threats. And these events tend to stimulate a lot of students who are angry and upset to express themselves in this very inappropriate way.

ABRAMSON: Cornell and others say in hindsight, many shootings show clear signs of planning.

Prof. CORNELL: So I think it's more important to focus on prevention than on say, arming our teachers or having more security guards in our schools.

ABRAMSON: There is some reason to think that the current security measures are having an effect - acts of violence have dropped approximately in half over the last decade, though it's hard to say exactly why. And schools are a far safer environment than the outside world. Kids are twice as likely to be victims of violent crime away from school as they are on campus.

Those statistics do little to ease the anxiety of people like David Cox. He's superintendent of the Culpeper County Schools in Virginia. Last Wednesday, he shut down his entire school system because of a bomb threat - sending over 7,000 students home. Some people did ask him if he was overreacting.

Mr. DAVID COX (Superintendent, Culpeper County Schools, Virginia): But I will tell you resoundingly, the community has been very appreciative that we did take the measures that we did to get it checked out.

ABRAMSON: Police searched every school, public and private. They found nothing and have not made any arrests. But authorities have arrested someone who's accused of making a copycat threat yesterday morning. It was delivered via cell phone by a student on a school bus.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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