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Attacks ease taboo against tattling

NEW YORK — Snitching. Squealing. Ratting. Whatever term is in vogue, the taboo against informing on schoolmates endures — even when silence has deadly consequences.

Educators see a few signs of change, however, as they try to persuade America's students to take the lead in making their schools less vulnerable to violence.

Since Monday's shooting in Santee, Calif., authorities nationwide have investigated a wave of threats at other schools, often acting on tips from students. Experts hope a lesson emerged from Santee, where friends of suspect Charles Andrew Williams heard his threats but sounded no alarm before he allegedly killed two schoolmates and wounded 13.

"If that's an outcome of these tragic events — a greater willingness to report — it's something positive coming out of a very sad chapter," said Ted Feinberg, assistant executive director of National Association of School Psychologists.

One such case occurred this week in Davenport, Iowa, where a girl from Assumption High School reported that a ninth-grader had threatened to shoot everyone at school. The boy was arrested, and the girl was commended — anonymously — at a school assembly Thursday.

"The right thing was done," principal Thomas Sunderbruch said. "We've made every effort to let students know that some of these things such as Columbine wouldn't have happened if someone had reported ahead of time."

The campaign to encourage student informers took shape after the April 1999 massacre at Columbine High School. Several states and many school districts established hot lines so students could phone in security tips anonymously; schools deployed "confidential counselors" to whom students could turn with assurances of discretion.

But the decision to inform can still be wrenching.

Jim Holloman, principal of Royal Valley High School in Hoyt, Kan., encouraged a sophomore girl to take some time away from school after she alerted staff members last month to a possible Columbine-style plot.

"I know she had to struggle to determine whether it should be reported," said Holloman. The girl had been close friends with one of the three arrested boys.

The girl, whose role is known among the school's 265 students, is now back in class and doing well, Holloman said.

"She got a lot of attention, some of it pretty inconvenient," he said. "But in the long run we need to let kids know that this was the right thing and may have saved some people's lives."

Bill Bond, a safety expert with the National Association of Secondary School Principals, learned the consequences of student silence first hand. He was principal at Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky., when a 14-year-old gunman killed three students in 1997.

"At least a dozen kids knew that boy had a gun, but they didn't want to get him in trouble," Bond said. "Now there are three kids dead and the boy is jailed for life. That's not being a good friend."

Adults need students' help, Bond said. "The kids are going to know about guns going into school much better than any metal detector."

But sometimes young people may stay quiet because they're worried about what will happen to suspected wrongdoers.

Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, said many schools have zero-tolerance policies that trigger severe punishment for students who make threats, rather than supportive counseling.

"The excessive focus on punishment and security might be driving some kids away from reaching out to the school administration," he said.

Bond described nonpunitive programs, involving social workers and mental health professionals, that might be a better option in helping a troubled student.

The key step, said Feinberg of the school psychologists' association, is to convince students that their tips will be well-handled.