James Alan Fox and Jack Levin

September 19,1999

In the aftermath of the Columbine tragedy and others preceding it, much of the focus (and finger-pointing) has been about the warning signs that were reportedly missed or ignored. Parents and politicians alike have called for efforts to identify the would-be perpetrators–the "few bad apples" who are rotten to the core--before they reek havoc on their classmates. However, some important lessons on the ABC's of prediction may increase the chances for success.

Predicting violent behavior, especially in rare and extreme forms, is enormously difficult. In terms of the "few bad apple"  theory, there are lots of apples that are not quite perfect in color, size or shape, but are fine just beneath the skin. There are lots of kids who look, act or dress like our image of the schoolyard shooter--they might wear black trench coats, scary tattoos, or gang headgear. Yet very few of them will translate their deviant adolescent attitudes into dangerous acts of violence. The few accurate predictions will be far outnumbered by the many "false positives."

Plus an attempt to single out the potential troublemakers could do more harm than good, by stigmatizing, marginalizing, and traumatizing already troubled youth. "Don't play with Johnnie--he's a bad apple." Already ostracized and picked on by his peers, Johnnie will now sense that even the teachers and the administration are against him. The "bad apple" label could even become a self-fulfilling prophesy, encouraging doubly-alienated children to act out violently.

Despite the limitations in predicting violence, a host of prediction tools have been widely disseminated in the wake of several episodes of school violence. The U.S. Department of Education sent to every public school in America a manual which highlights 16 warning signs of violence. This broad-ranging collection of red flags includes children who bully classmates as well as children who are bullied by their classmates. Another telltale sign warns of youngsters having low interest in academics. Just these three flags would capture significant shares of most middle school populations. In an attempt not to miss on one potential troublemaker, the net widens to include nearly everyone.

The American Psychological Association, in conjunction with MTV, also produced a handy pamphlet of warning signs which is now very much in demand. The National School Safety Center offers a similar checklist of 20 warning signs. School districts across America are distributing these pocket guides, hoping that teachers will determine how their students measure up on these scales of violence proneness. Even the FBI is getting into the act, beginning to train educators in the craft of profiling potentially violent students.

Stressing how to identify characteristics of the individual troublemaker lets schools off the hook. By turning the problem into a lesson in abnormal psychology, the blame can be located outside of the school setting--in a child’s inadequate upbringing, in excessive exposure to violent media, in parental neglect and abuse (that is, bad apples not falling far from the tree). From this perspective, students have to change, not the schools.

Focusing on the individual child also ignores the fact that students often act in group settings far differently than when alone. To understand the course of events in Jonesboro and Littleton, for example, we must examine the relationships and interactions among the perpetrators as closely as we scrutinize their personal backgrounds and individual pathologies. To children, the expectations and approval of peers can be all important, especially when parents and other adults are not around. The issue may not be one of a few bad apples, but of a poorly tended orchard.

The best approach to reducing the potential for violence through prediction involves reducing the caseload of teachers and guidance counselors. Smaller classes and increased staffing would allow school personnel to observe even subtle issues, which cannot be easily determined from a simplistic checklist. More important, our focus should not be on the potentially violent kid, but on the unhappy kid (although at times these may be one in the same). We should use warning signs, but to reach troubled youngsters, long before they become troublesome. If we wait until a student has murderous intentions, we have waited much too long.

In whatever we do, we should borrow the physician’s credo: do no harm. With the help of school personnel (who often spend more time with children than even parents), we can make a difference. Perhaps we ought to develop warning signs to identify dangerous school environments rather than dangerous students, and then get to work improving the climate for learning and for living.

James Alan Fox is The Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice and Jack Levin is the Brudnick Professor of Sociology and Criminology, both at Northeastern University.