Life After Littleton
As summer vacation begins, students, teachers, and officials debate the ramifications of the reaction to the Littleton shootings.
By Jesse Fox Mayshark
JUNE 1, 1999: School is out in Knox County. And not a moment too soon for anybody.
The last month of classes is always a hectic time, especially in the high schools where looming final exams compete for attention with proms, jobs, and graduation preparations. But the end of this year was more tense than most. From the day of the shootings in Littleton, Colo., through last week's attack in Conyers, Ga., schools here and across the country were stalked by rumors, fears, and a nagging sense that things had somehow gone wrong.
Here, as elsewhere, everybody wanted to do something about it, whatever "it" was. And so the last five weeks have seen a lot of talk, much of it centered around stricter limits and swifter punishments. Knox County already had armed security guards in its schools, but within days of the Columbine High School murders, it also had uniformed police and sheriff's deputies. Threats by students that might have once been dismissed as adolescent stupidity now resulted in full-bore arrests. With the media full of talk about black trenchcoats, some schools sent students home for wearing them, while the school board began to contemplate stricter dress codes. And the sheriff wanted County Commission to set a curfew for anybody under the age of 18.
But once the wave of worried parental phone calls and "Johnny's got a gun" stories subsided, the people who work in the buildings and classrooms every day were left with the complex questions of life after Littletonhow to make schools seem safe without sacrificing their traditional openness, how to make students feel protected rather than suspected, how to keep parents interested and involved for more than the few weeks following the shootings. Not everyone's convinced a crackdown is the answer.
School board member Sam Anderson puts it succinctly: "I don't want to see us arresting kids for being kids."
Vicki Dunaway's phone started ringing almost immediately after the news hit on April 20
"They said there was a hit list. 'My daughter overheard so-and-so say that he's going to bring a gun...' There was a rumor that anybody who didn't wear black to school was going to get shot. There was a rumor that anybody who did wear black was going to get shot."
Dunaway is principal of Powell High School, population 1,050. The school, which serves a largely white, middle-class group of students from farms and suburban subdivisions, is similar in general profile to Columbine. The similarity was probably not lost on the parents who suddenly saw menace lurking behind the mildness. Dunaway talked to them, explained the security measures already in place, promised to look into any purported threats. She walked one mother down the halls, opening one classroom door after another to show her students sitting at desks rather than cowering under them, taking notes and reading textbooksjust like school was supposed to be.
"What we spent so much of our time doing was chasing rumors, or rather chasing ghosts," she says.
It was the same everywhere. At Halls High School, a rumored bomb threat the Monday after Littleton had some parents in the parking lot waving signs to others telling them to take their children home. At South-Doyle, two students were arrested for saying they wanted to bomb the school. At Fulton, one student was suspended when officials found an eight-page list of people he wanted to kill.
At Bearden High School, Principal Mary Lou Kanipe went on the offensive, albeit in a measured way. The day after the shootings, teachers found a note from Kanipe in their mailboxes telling them to simply go about their classes as usual and steer class discussions away from rumors and panic. Two days later, she addressed students over the PA system and urged them not to spread unsubstantiated stories. Then she led a moment of silence.
"It was a way for me to reach our to them and say, 'I know you're in pain, we're all in pain, we're dealing with this,' and yet still keep it kind of low-key," she says. She notes with some pride that Bearden did not become the kind of hysteria breeding ground so many other schools did.
Some students took the same role on themselves. Sarah Johnson, a junior at Fulton, is active in Bridge Builders, a program where students of different races and backgrounds meet to talk and find common ground. A class officer and aspiring lawyer, she was bothered by the quick stereotyping some of her classmates engaged in following Littleton.
"A lot of people were like scared to come to school," the 17-year-old says, shaking her head. "I came to school and it made me sick, because people started looking at other people, saying, 'They're going to bring a gun to school.' I got really mad at people for doing that."
Steve Griffin, Knox County's chief of school security, says that of all the panicked calls his office received, there were only two verified bomb threats, both of them hoaxes. Both were traced to students who were arrested and charged. In one case, investigators learned a suspect's identity in the late afternoon but made it a point to wait until school the next day to arrest him in front of his fellow students. "That sent a clear message," Griffin says.
An even clearer message awaited students when they came to school on April 26, the first Monday after Columbine. Over the weekend, Sheriff Tim Hutchison and Knoxville Police Chief Phil Keith had decided to put uniformed officers in all 12 county high schools (KPD officers in the five schools within city limits; sheriff's deputies in the other seven). School officials publicly welcomed the assistance. Hutchison had requested funding for school officers in the past, but neither the school board nor County Commission had been convinced of the need. This time, commissioners approved the seven positions unanimously. KPD (which is notoriously competitive with the Sheriff's Department) lost no time in matching the offer.
But as the school year came to a close, there were still a lot of details to be worked out about what exactly officers in schools are supposed to do.
"I think the presence of a uniformed police officer in the schools can certainly give a sense of more security to some people," says school board member Diane Jablonski, whose district includes Farragut, the county's largest high school. "It also can maybe give a sense of less freedom to others."
"I think it was more for the parents than it was for the school and the students," observes Bearden teacher Barbara Thompson.
At the ground level, staff give the officers high marks for getting to know faculty and students and generally being friendly instead of threatening. At Powell, Deputy Sam Lindsey visited teacher Kristi Radocesky's American issues class, which had been discussing the shootings and topics like dress codes. "He came in and talked to them and said, 'This is what's been going on, this hasn't happened, this has happened,'" Radocesky says. "They feel more comfortable with a policeman being here."
As might be expected, Griffin says having the officers on campus has led to an increase in students being charged with criminal offensesmostly threats and verbal assaultsboth because of the increased sensitivity after Littleton and because the officers are simply more accessible to administrators. He notes that some systems, such as Lenoir City, have for some time been prosecuting all fights and assaults criminally as well as through school disciplinary proceedings. "Our principals are really looking for something like that," Griffin says. "They feel that too often the consequence for [students'] actions is too late, it's delayed by the system."
That's especially true in the case of students identified as "disabled" under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Adolescents with any sort of learning or behavioral disorder can be disciplined by principals only after lengthy hearings. (The U.S. Senate recently passed a bill amending IDEA so that students who bring weapons to school aren't protected.) The juvenile court system is under no such constraints.
"We've had kids come into the office who said, 'Hell, yeah, I did it, but I'm special ed., you can't do anything to me,'" Griffin says. "And there stood the [police] officer who put the cuffs on him and took him to [Juvenile Court]."
But if the school-based officers are a resource, there's still some question about whose resource they are. School law is complicated, but in general the principal is the ultimate authority on any campus. Since the officers work for outside agencies rather than the school system, though, the chain of command is unclear. School board members are reluctant to cede any authority on behalf of their administrators.
"Part of the problem I had with that initially was that the sheriff did not come to the school board and offer that as an assistance to help settle everything down," Jablonski says. "He went and just basically said, 'I'm going to do this.' So I think there's some stuff to be hammered out there."
There are also concerns that if officers stationed at the schools remain under the sheriff's or KPD's jurisdiction, they could get called away to handle problems elsewhere.
Chief Sheriff's Deputy Dwight Van de Vate says that would happen only in extreme circumstances and promises the Sheriff's Department wants to work with school officials. The school-based deputies will attend special training sessions this summer. But Van de Vate stops short of submitting KCSD officers to the authority of principals.
"The officers are there to enforce the laws of the state of Tennessee," he says. "The principal does not have standing nor does anyone else have standing other than the officers to enforce those laws."
Griffin, a former policeman himself, plans to meet with both KPD and KCSD over the summer. He says he's glad to have the help, but he is sensitive to the appearance of putting too many men and women with guns in school halls. He's had phone calls of support for the new officers, but also accusations that schools are turning into "a police state."
"You have to walk a fine line," he says. "You have to balance the openness and the access of public schools versus the security. You've got some people in this country right now who would put 10-foot-high brick walls around every school, topped with razor wire. I don't think that's what we need."
School board member Sam Anderson was bothered by Juvenile Court officials' order that students who make any kind of threats be held without bond until a detention hearing.
"That's a violation of their civil rights," he says. "It's easy to say we're going to hold them without bail because of something they said. That sounds good in a time of crisis. But the crisis isn't hereit's in Conyers, Georgia, in Littleton, Colorado."
This isn't the first time Chris Heath has experienced local fallout from some far-away tragedy. A 14-year-old with buzzed hair who will be a freshman at Halls High School next year, Chris moved to Knox County from Jacksonville, Fla. At his middle school there, panicked administrators put metal detectors in the doorways after school shootings in Paducah, Ky.
"They'd go off and someone would just have a PlayStation," he says with amusement. He never heard of the detectors catching any weapons, which he says weren't a problem in the school to begin with.
Chris was hanging out Monday afternoon in Fountain City Park with two friends, Casey Helfenberger and Bob Dalton, both 14. The last day of school had just ended. The three boys were all wearing in-line skates and baggy pants. They're skeptical of the various school safety proposals.
"They shouldn't just change our school because something happened in Colorado," says Bob, wearing a T-shirt for the rock group Korn, one of several bands singled out for condemnation by school administrators recently.
They doubt the uniformed officers will make much difference. "They're just there. It's just a waste of time," Chris says. "They're just egging it on, like making people want to do something," Bob adds. "If somebody's going to kill somebody, they're going to do it," Casey chimes in.
Equally, they dislike the idea of new dress code restrictions, which would undoubtedly cut into their skater wardrobes. "It's fine the way it is," says Casey, who got in trouble with a teacher this year for wearing a "Sniper" T-shirt that he says was a present from his brother in the military.
Other students are more open to the tighter rules. Tanika Johnson, who will be president of the senior class at Fulton next year, says she likes having an officer in the school. As for dress codes, she says, "I have mixed views. Fulton hasn't really had any problems."
At Bearden, incoming senior Seth Hammond says, "I kind of like [dress codes] personally, just because you don't have to worry about what's in style or whatever."
For the moment, the school board has put off any action on dress codes, leaving them up to individual schools. At Fulton, for example, Principal Mike Reynolds says he'll work with staff and parents to define dress standards "just out of general safety." Many schools already forbid long coats or shirts for fear they could be used to conceal weapons. Reynolds, who was a teacher and assistant principal at Knoxville Catholic High School during the 1980s, thinks the codes can also make students take school more seriously.
"That's part of the package," says Reynolds, a square-shouldered athletic man who also coached Catholic's football team. "The way you dress, the way you conduct yourself. It's important in public schools as well." And he notes that even in private schools, students find ways to stand out, even if it's just by wearing different shades of khakis.
On the other hand, Jablonski says, such stringent guidelines can mean the schools are making decisions better made in the home. "A dress code isn't going to be worth the paper it's written on unless the parents say my child is not going to wear clothes that are inappropriate to school."
Similar arguments stalled Hutchison's proposal to County Commission this month to establish an 11 p.m. curfew for minors (midnight on weekends). David Collins, a county commissioner from North Knoxville, notes that although the city already has a midnight curfew, few parents or teens even know it.
"I've talked to a fair number of folks about that, and I haven't found anybody that's passionately for it yet," he says. "Too often, to me, our response to these parent responsibility issues is to pass a federal or state law about it."
Commissioners decided on Monday to hold a public hearing on the issue in the coming month. Van de Vate, who stresses that officers won't be "out driving around looking for curfew violators," is confident some version of the law will eventually pass.
Helen Smith groans when she hears about cops and dress codes and curfews. A forensic psychologist who lives in Knoxville and has consulted with both local schools and Juvenile Court, Smith specializes in adolescent aggression. She even has a website called ViolentKids.Com, which compiles some of her research on the subject. She's written opinion pieces for newspapers across the country and is working on a book called Killer Kids: Why Kids Kill and What We Can Do to Stop It.
"You don't get hysterical," she says. "You don't go and make these stupid get-tough laws like, 'Well, let's give everybody a curfew.' What good is that going to do? You know it's not going to do any good, so why are you doing it?"
Smith is an equal opportunity contrarian. She is skeptical of both the left and right, of calls for more gun control and more prayer, and especially of knee-jerk school discipline policies. She thinks modern teens' biggest problem is that they are neither expected nor allowed to mature. The glamorization of teen culture encourages kids to shuck authority while keeping them in a kind of extended childhood, offering rights without responsibilities. At the same time, she says, authority figures undermine themselves by dictating to teens rather than engaging with them.
And kids who are on the marginsas almost all violent teens are, Smith saysoften get little attention. She remembers a girl at one local school who came to her crying because a gang of other girls was picking on her and beating her up. The school's solution was to send the girl to an "alternative school" rather than dealing with her victimizers.
"Only 10 percent of schools in the country have any kind of school-based therapy centers," Smith says. "There is no real help available for most of these kids."
What few psychologists there areKnox County schools have 36 for 52,000 studentsare typically tied up in testing students for learning or behavioral problems. The school board asked for one more psychologist in its budget for next year. But the County Commission that so swiftly provided funding for seven new sheriff's deputies will almost certainly cut the school request, as it does every year. And non-classroom staff are often the first to get trimmed when the school board does its trimming.
Anderson, however, isn't sure more clinicians is the answer. He notes many schools have also cut back on their extracurricular funding in the past two decades, providing fewer clubs and sports teams, which are usually run by faculty or community members for small stipends.
"For the cost of one psychologist, you could support a soccer program, a track and field program, a more intensive band program, choral program, artidentify kids who have those talents," Anderson says. "That's where the schools have to look back atwhat are we not doing?"
Rick Bise has been a teacher for 15 years. An affable man with sandy hair and a mustache, he's a photographer who heads up Fulton's vocational department and teaches commercial camerawork. He's also the parent of a 12-year-old daughter in the Bradley County schools (Bise commutes from Cleveland, Tenn. every day). He's currently arguing with his daughter's schools about a proposed dress code, which he thinks is overkill.
"It's like when you're on ice and you're trying to steer and you oversteer or over-correct," he says. "It can do more damage than if you just try to steer through it."
He's glad, on the other hand, to see the officers in Knox County schools and security cameras in the hallways. He suggests it would be even better if parents would volunteer to come in and walk the halls. But there is regret in his voice too when he talks about how things have changed since he first started teaching. It was easier then to have rapport with students, he says, before growing awareness of child abuse, sexual harassment, disabilities, and other issues shifted the way teachers and students interact. Now Bise is careful to make sure he's never alone with any student in the school's darkroom.
"When I first came here, you could kid around with the kids more, you could joke with them more," he says. "Now you have to keep it more on a professional level."
The kids are different, too, less intimidated by anyone. The old familiar threat of calling parents has lost some of its force. "I'm hearing more and more, 'Well, so? I never see my parents' or 'I never see my mom,' " Bise says. "It's changed a lot like that."
Littleton and the shootings that came before and after it will almost certainly change things more.
"The bottom line is, if somebody had the quick and easy answer, we'd all be implementing it," says Collins, himself a parent of teenage children. "But I think every community in America is scared to death of all this, and we're all just groping our way."
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