Security can’t make schools bulletproof
By James Alan Fox
October 4, 2006

Bad things come in threes, they say, and what could be worse than three deadly attacks on schools, first in Colorado, then in Wisconsin and on Monday in Pennsylvania? The latest tragedy - a schoolhouse turned slaughterhouse by a hate-filled 32-year-old man - was especially chilling, having occurred in an ordinarily bucolic Amish community in Quarryville, Pa.

The flurry of three episodes suggests that another wave of violence may continue to be unleashed upon our schools. We can hardly forget the rapid sequence in the late 1990s of disgruntled school shooters, highlighted (or lowlighted) by the massacre of all school massacres at Columbine High in Littleton, Colo.

There was another disturbing spate of shootings in the late 1980s, not by vindictive students but by disturbed adults who attacked schools literally as targets of opportunity. In May 1988, Laurie Dann, age 30, killed a boy and herself during a rampage at a schoolyard in Winnetka, Ill.

This was followed by South Carolina copycat James Wilson, a Laurie Dann fan, who replicated his idol’s actions at a local school. Even worse, in January 1989, drifter Patrick Purdy opened fire in a Stockton, Calif., schoolyard, killing five and wounding 30.

A case of double deja vu, the recent string of shootings has stirred up new demands for tighter school security and tighter gun laws. Neither would have prevented Monday’s carnage in Quarryville.

In the short term, heightened security could help address the fears of children and their parents. If it can happen in Quarryville, it can happen anywhere.

Yet in the long run, extra security in schools will do little to impact the risk, and could even produce negative consequences by fostering an unhealthy climate of fear. Many schools already have metal detectors, surveillance cameras, alarms and security personnel. Columbine High was fairly well-secured, even before the April 1999 bloodbath.

These security measures are hardly foolproof. Students find ways - as they have proven - to sneak weapons past security. Plus, they can easily pull a fire alarm and shoot victims as they evacuate, as two youngsters did in Jonesboro, Ark. Purdy didn’t bother trying to take siege of the Stockton elementary school; he waited for recess and opened fire on students outside the perimeter of any security devices.

And what kind of security should a one-room school in quiet little Quarryville have needed for its fewer than 30 pupils? There wasn’t even a phone.

As Pennsylvania legislators debate gun control, the Internet buzzes with controversy as well. Gun proponents note correctly that the Quarryville shooter had acquired his weapons legally in a state where hunting is popular. Actually, most mass killers use legal weaponry. They see themselves as law-abiders looking for some justice.

One National Rifle Association member wrote that all society needs to do is to punish those who commit gun crimes. Of course, punishment would not matter to the gunmen in Pennsylvania or Colorado, as both planned their suicide.

The answer is that there is no answer. Neither security nor gun laws, neither profiling nor police can eliminate the risk. The only consolation, not at all for the grieving families but for society in general, is that these are extraordinarily rare events.

Averaging about two dozen school homicides a year among a population of more than 50 million students, the chances are one in 2 million, far less than for other very preventable perils facing children. Schoolyard massacres are part of the high price we pay for our freedom and way of life.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at