As the nation's public schools closed last spring, there was something in the air beyond the usual mix of exultation, exhaustion and sentimentality. There was relief.
What happened at Columbine High had infected schools everywhere with a severe case of rattled nerves. It caused us to question many of our assumptions, primarily the notion that at the very least, schools provided a haven for our kids. It didn't matter that statistics showed that the assumption remained valid, that schools are largely free of violence. Outwardly, Columbine was an idyllic suburban high school, wholesome and healthy. If it could become the staging ground for such a spasm of bloodshed, how could we trust ourselves to determine whether we were courting disaster at our schools? If parents, teachers and administrators were blind or inured to the problems at Columbine, what would make us think we could prevent similar tragedies?
When the school year ended last June, we were left wondering whether we could protect our kids.
Now as schools reopen, people such as Robert Michela are trying to provide reassurance. Michela is an executive with DynMeridian, an Alexandria, Va., company specializing in security technology, arms control, counter-proliferation policy and treaty implementation. A retired colonel in the U.S. Army with expertise in security issues, he has also co-written the handbook, "Safe Schools: A Handbook for Practitioners," which he says is used in school systems in all 50 states. It is designed to help school administrators evaluate the safety of their schools, to identify deficiencies and to implement solutions.
We caught up with Michela by phone for a few questions about school safety and his recommendations.
How can you tell whether you have a safe school?
"That is a simple question, but it does not have a simple answer," says Michela. His handbook recommends that principals conduct a fairly extensive self-analysis of their schools. One of the chief pieces of evidence are incident reports in the school over time, recorded episodes of fights, vandalism and break-ins. Administrators should study those incidents for patterns of location and time.
What else goes into the self-analysis?
Michela recommends surveying students, staff and law enforcement authorities to try to find recurring or potential problems. He also says principals need to evaluate the "climate" of the school.
How do you do that?
"We have five things that we like to think make up climate -- parental involvement, policies to increase student or staff identification with the school, visibility of the principal, truancy rate, which we think is an indicator, and overall cleanliness of the school."
Wouldn't Columbine have ranked well on those criteria?
"From my research, there was a cultural problem at Columbine that probably needs to be a sixth category. There was a cultural acceptance of what ended up being a disenfranchised environment that made up the people in the Trench Coat Mafia." Nevertheless, Michela says, he believes his analysis would have turned up problems at Columbine, bullying activity, violent videotapes, reports of troubling Internet material. If a central authority were picking up all this material, he says, it's possible school officials could have been more alert to danger.
Isn't there a Big Brother danger to this?
"This is an area I have to explore. It could be a dangerous step, a profiling mechanism. It has to be spun the right way where we're actually seeking to help kids and not try to keep score on them."
What happens when you've analyzed all this material?
"You develop a plan that over time would integrate into the school either new policies or modified programs, new or upgraded physical facilities or hardware."
What kind of programs, for instance?
"Programs that build good decision-making, conflict resolution, peer mediation, ethics training. Schools need to accept the fact that they aren't there just to teach academics but how to be good citizens."
Are you concerned about the way some school systems are reacting to Columbine?
Some schools, including those in Jefferson County, Colo., where Columbine is located, are turning themselves into fortresses, Michela says, with picture identifications, controlled entry, surveillance cameras and armed uniformed guards on 24-hour patrols. That kind of overzealous approach, he says, risks making kids feel they are in prison, not in school.
Well, is it possible that people who do what you do are merely fomenting fear rather than helping?
"I think people have gotten to the point that they can't accept the consequences of an incident, particularly if as an institution they do nothing to evaluate the level of security in their schools. What is happening in the schools is not peculiar or unique to schools. It is a societal problem spreading into schools."