News: Littleton Tragedy Prompts Fear in Tristate Children

And Arguments From Experts That Respect Must Be Instilled at Home

Apr 29, 1999 at 2:06 pm

The news that bled April 20 from a Denver suburb filled Jane Thickston with "overwhelming sadness." The intern minister at St. John's Unitarian Church in Clifton is frustrated by the violence.

"It seems there's more and more of this," Thickston said. "We're headed in a really bad direction, and I don't know what it's going to take to turn that around."

When asked if the Columbine High School shooters theoretically could have been teen-agers she worked with, Mary DePaola, a local counselor of troubled kids said, "Yes, and many I have not worked with."

Violence like this can cross every socioeconomic barrier, said DePaola, who is director of prevention services for Talbert House. As the coordinating agency for the Hamilton County School Crisis Team, Talbert House provides in-school crisis counseling for Cincinnati Public Schools.

In the shadow of last week's tragedy — in which two Littleton, Colo., teen-agers fatally gunned down 12 of their fellow students and a teacher before killing themselves — fear is a natural response for both parents and children, DePaola said.

But remember, "You're looking at the exception," she said. "The majority of children are very healthy."

Then again, she said, "It only takes one child with serious problems to create a horrifying tragedy."

While the public can't shut its eyes to the horror, DePaola said, parents need to shield younger children, those less than 12 years of age, from the televised media blitz that will continue long after the last victim is buried.

Children find the murder-suicides doubly disturbing, DePaola said. They can't help imagining themselves in the victims' shoes and she said, "they feel like the world is out of control. They don't feel safe in their schools, and they don't feel safe in their neighborhoods anymore."

Families, she said, should definitely discuss it — asking the children how they feel about what transpired and how safe they feel at school.

"School is our second-most important institution," she said. "They need to have a zero tolerance toward violence."

They also need to teach kids how to deal with bullies and know how to diffuse those who are bullying others, she said.

Schools also should have a crisis plan, in fact, several crisis plans, for a myriad of safety threats, she said.

As safe as any urban high school
While there is no written crisis policy, Cincinnati Public Schools' (CPS) security staff knows how to respond to emergencies, said Bob Morgan, head of security for CPS.

A quick reference guide for school administrators, which deals with emergencies such as bomb threats and tornadoes, also is being revised to include other emergency scenarios like hostage situations and firearm threats, he said.

With more than 100 security staff members, including a 13-person response team, eight Cincinnati police officers and two investigators assigned to the district, "we're as safe as any urban high school can be," Morgan said.

The district has three portable walk-through metal detectors that are used for large gatherings, like sporting events. Random searches are conducted on entire classrooms with handheld wand detectors. And the district seems encouraged by the fact that fewer firearms are being found on students or school property. At the time the district made expensive security purchases a few years ago, a combined total of 32 guns were found in a three-year period. Since 1995, however, the district has recovered about two guns a year, Morgan said, while no guns have been recovered so far this year.

Still, Morgan acknowledges that security can only go so far.

When there are people who are "willing to sacrifice themselves to accomplish a bizarre goal, it's probably impossible to defend against them," he said.

A school system cannot instill moral decency in students, he said, but it can enforce a code of conduct from the first day a student enters school.

"There have always been groups that dress similarly (to the 'Trench Coat Mafia' shooters at Columbine High in Littleton)" and believe the same things, he said.

"You can't change the values," he said. But, he said, school officials can say, "you can't bring that value to school."

DePaola says it's crucial that students and adults recognize the indicators of a troubled and dangerous youth: a preoccupation with death, violence, hate or prejudice, any history of violence or cruelty to animals, aggressive tendencies like bullying or "repressive" behavior such as chronic bed wetting, a lack of remorse or empathy for others, inability to get along with others or deal with diversity, possession of a weapon, fire setting, destructive behavior or belonging to a peer group that demonstrates these tendencies.

Families, communities and schools cannot minimize any violent threat or behavior, DePaola warned. The same goes for "glamorizing" violence or hatred. The Columbine High School, DePaola said, erred in judgment when it published a photograph of the Nazi-like "Trench Coat Mafia" in the yearbook.

"It appeared like an extracurricular activity," she said.

"Kids don't like to tell on each other," she said. "But it's crucial today that we teach kids the warning signs" and assure them that it's necessary to report any troubling behavior.

The Cincinnati Public School district has a anonymous hot line — 369-3333 — set up for anyone with information about such threats as gang and drug activity, gang or drug activity.

What kind of job does DePaola think Cincinnati schools are doing on violence issues?

"I think it varies from school to school," she said. "I know that some schools don't have school counselors or as many as they used to, and I think that's a serious problem. We need school counselors, and we need school psychologists who can be available to identify high-risk children and work with the families."

DePaola, who has nine years experience working with kids in crisis, thinks there were clear indicators that the Columbine High School shooters would turn violent.

What would have prevented it? Effective gun control? Better parenting? Counseling? Less exposure to violent films, TV shows, video games and Internet sites? School metal detectors?

"All of the above ...," she said. "There were lots of red flags, and I think there is a very good chance that if they had gotten the professional help that they needed the tragedy could have been prevented."

For St. John's Thickston, the answer probably lies in love.

The brutality, she said, is symptomatic of someone who is "disconnected with nature and their inner selves, some people might say, from God." ©