James Alan Fox and Jack Levin: Columbine Aftermath

Conditions that precipitated the high school massacre remain very much in place


By James Alan Fox and Jack Levin

It has been a year since two students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., opened fire on their classmates and teachers, perpetrating the bloodiest school shooting in American history.

In the aftermath of the massacre, Americans were horrified. Across the country, groups of anxious parents, teachers and psychologists huddled in seminars, conferences and meetings to address the issue of students who seek to get even with a semiautomatic weapon.

Only now do we realize exactly what lessons Americans have learned from the experience of mass murder at Columbine High on April 20, 1999. Judging by the policies and practices implemented during the past year, it is sad to say they have learned absolutely nothing.

In many middle and high schools, principals have installed metal detectors, stationed armed officers at entrances and fitted hallways with surveillance cameras (even if they couldn't afford to hire the personnel to monitor them). Other schools have banned knapsacks that could hide a weapon deep within.

School boards also have instituted zero-tolerance policies, automatically suspending any student caught carrying a gun or threatening to blow up the school. Meanwhile, teachers have been handed manuals on the "warning signs" of violence and trained to spot troublemakers who have the potential of becoming the next schoolyard sniper.

Rather than employ long-term policies and programs that have some chance of reducing school violence, authorities have proposed short-term, politically expedient solutions.

School administrators typically have taken a law enforcement approach that, from the outset, had little if any chance to be effective but that was punitive enough to satisfy public opinion and pacify nervous parents. They have spent millions of dollars on security equipment - money that could have been used to make genuine inroads in the battle against school violence and to upgrade the entire educational experience.

Even worse, panic-stricken school officials have suspended many students for the most trivial of reasons - from threatening to hurt Barney the Purple Dinosaur to making a gun out of construction paper. Students have been summarily expelled without regard to their unique circumstances or criminal history; classes have been canceled at the slightest provocation; and common sense has been ignored.

So, one year later, virtually all of the conditions that precipitated the Littleton massacre - and school shootings elsewhere - remain very much in place.

As much as ever, bullying is a daily threat to hundreds of thousands of youngsters, as cliques and intolerance for diversity continue to dominate school culture. Many children still attend schools that are far too populous and impersonal, and they sit in crowded classrooms where teachers simply are overwhelmed by the class size. Children are advised by overburdened psychologists, nurses and guidance counselors who are lucky if they recognize the faces of their students, let alone their names and personal problems.

Cities and towns across the nation have begun to punish parents, through fines and even jail terms, when their children are truant from classes. Meanwhile, little attention has been devoted to finding ways of encouraging bored youngsters to attend school. The back-to-basics movement in public education has deprived many children of the "frills" that had made school halfway tolerable as well as esteem-building.

Students lack a sufficient range of extracurricular activities - from freshman sports teams to drama and chess clubs - which often were eliminated as cost-cutting measures. Wanting to feel special and to belong to something important, students instead may join other bored teens during the after-school hours, far away from the watchful guidance of adults, to celebrate the hate-filled ideology of Adolf Hitler or the mean-spirited teachings of the occult.

Too often, public opinion and criminal justice policy are shaped by collective hysteria in reaction to extraordinary events like Columbine. For example, many school officials respond to bullying only out of fear that some harassed high school student might decide to kill his classmates, not because it is the right thing to do or because it might improve the quality of life for all children. The problem with being scared into addressing an issue is that attention to it remains only so long as the perceived threat persists.

After just one year, Columbine seems like old news for many Americans. They since have moved on to address other seemingly more pressing issues - the skyrocketing price of gasoline or the plight of Elian Gonzalez - without ever having made effective changes in the conditions under which children go to school.

Regrettably, the legacy of the Columbine tragedy appears to be little more than a long list of ineffective quick fixes. In the midst of hype and hysteria, we never really came close to fixing the fundamental problems that alienate children. Despite the "A" for effort, America's campaign against school violence deserves a failing grade.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman professor of criminal justice and Jack Levin is the Brudnick professor of sociology at Northeastern University in Boston.