April 19, 2004

How to avoid Columbine II

By James Alan Fox

For the citizens of Littleton, Colo., Tuesday will be a solemn day of remembrance of the 13 victims gunned down five years ago by two heavily armed students at Columbine High School. For the rest of us, it is a time to take stock of what progress we have made in responding to the threat of schoolyard terror.

Some report cards on the state of our schools suggest that our efforts have been working. By many measures, the rate of school violence has declined during the past decade and, of course, nothing like a Columbine has happened lately.

This school year, however, has seen a sharp surge in the overall number of school-related homicides (37 thus far, the most in more than a decade), indicating that our problems are far from over.

Columbine triggered a high level of anxiety about school violence. In the short term, the shootings prompted many ineffective responses, from wasteful security devices to bans on black trench coats, which gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold wore that day.

But there also have been a few important lessons learned about school safety: a reconsideration of the advisability of large schools, which can make students feel isolated; an examination of how to better handle student issues; and, especially, a more sensitive approach to one of the common threads underlying most school shootings -- bullying.

Bullied as a child

I can speak as one of the millions of Americans who was bullied as a child. As an obese 14-year-old with coke-bottle glasses who was one of a handful of Jewish kids at a New England prep school, I was teased, tormented and picked on repeatedly at school and on the bus. It wasn't just because of my religion either, because I was bullied at Hebrew school as well.

In those days, I saw three options: continue to take it; react passive aggressively, perhaps by vandalizing the school or the rabbi's study; or stand up and resist. After many months, I finally did as my father and most adults recommended -- I fought back.

Of course, I fought back with fists. What else was there? The idea of taking a gun to school or shooting someone never even crossed my mind. But in today's culture, many students think about, plan or even attempt to follow in the footsteps of Harris and Klebold.

Clearly, we need a different strategy. Not only is the "stand up and fight back" approach a potentially deadly prescription, but we must no longer expect the victims of bullying to shoulder the major responsibility for finding a resolution.

As many as 3.2 million kids are bullied, and 3.7 million have been bullies, according to a 1998 national survey of sixth- through 10th-graders by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Long-term consequences

Not only does bullying in all forms -- verbal and physical -- poison the school climate with fear, but the long-term consequences (even without a massacre) are devastating. What historically was regarded as a form of "child's play" is actually a warning sign of trouble and a critical point of intervention.

The good news is that there are successful ways to combat it. Perhaps because of Columbine and other shootings, a range of enlightened and comprehensive programs has been implemented. These programs -- such as conflict resolution and bullying awareness training -- have demonstrated significant payoffs in reducing violence and improving the school climate.

As we commemorate the anniversary of a horrific, vengeful act by two Columbine outcasts, we have a choice: pay for the programs now or pray for more victims later. While expanding anti-bullying initiatives may not necessarily prevent the next Columbine, in the process we will enhance the well-being of millions of school children.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston and co-author of Bullying Prevention is Crime Prevention, published by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids.