National program seeks to spot problem students; Schools hope pilot project will help prevent violence like that at Columbine


REYNOLDSBURG, Ohio -- Spurred by the deadly rampage at Columbine High School, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is working with a threat-evaluation company to develop a computer program to help school administrators spot troubled students who might be on the brink of violence.

When the national pilot program, known as Mosaic-2000, begins being tested at more than 20 schools in December, its technique of confidentially vetting and rating potentially violent students on a scale of 1 to 10 will come not a moment too soon for Steve Dackin, principal of Reynoldsburg High School. "Columbine forever changed things for all of us," Dackin said of the school in Littleton, Colo., where two students shot 13 people to death before killing themselves in April.

Dackin said his school, like most in the nation, has been spared gun violence but has suffered waves of post-Columbine panic and concern for safety that must be dealt with through programs such as Mosaic.

"I see this as being a useful tool," Dackin said of the program, which is based on systems employed by Yale University and federal courthouses to evaluate the potential for violence of individuals who make threats.

The Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has criticized the pilot program as a "technological Band-Aid" driven by profiteering in parental fears. "We are understandably hesitant about any program designed to classify students or anyone else in society as potentially dangerous based on supposedly credible data fed into a black box," said Raymond Vasvari, legislative director of the Ohio ACLU.

The Ohio attorney general, Betty Montgomery, who favors the pilot project, noted that school administrators already must maintain confidential files on troubled students who might veer toward violence.

Mosaic, she said, will be an additional tool based on a range of objective experience. Far from Big Brother, she said, Mosaic is nothing more than highly useful software to help worried school officials delve better into an area of responsibility.

"It brings together the shared experiences of many experts plus an evaluative piece," Montgomery said. "It says, 'Look, we've gone back and spoken to X number of people who have committed these crimes, and these are the risk factors we feel are present in their lives.' It collects these risk factors based on actual cases and organizes them in a way so we can have a consistent approach."

Mosaic programs, which are based on questions about student behavior that in turn are based on case histories of people who have turned violent, are designed by Gavin de Becker Inc., a private software company in California. They are intended to help officials discern a threat amid the innocuous, if frightening, outbursts that regularly cause concern.

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