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School violence down overall — despite high-profile cases

High-profile school violence incidents like the massacre at Columbine High in Colorado and this week's shooting at Santana High near San Diego are rising, but community awareness also appears to be nipping potential disasters in the bud.

Consider: Two Granite School District students were suspended this week for making threats following the Santana High incident, Granite spokeswoman Michele Bartmess said Friday.

A second-grader who became angry on the playground at Copper Hills Elementary said he would go home and get his dad's gun and shoot a classmate in the head, Bartmess said. A Bennion Junior High girl made a hit list of students and faculty, apparently after being disciplined for inappropriate dress.

No weapons were involved in either case. But both students must, with their parents, face the district's school safety committee, which reviews incidents and recommends consequences, said district assistant school safety director Curt Hansen. Though he wouldn't say what punishment the two might receive, committee discipline has ranged from requiring anger management classes or counseling to a one-year suspension if firearms are involved.

"All of the sudden there are a rash of these things. We have to take it seriously, and we hope kids always feel they could and should report them," Bartmess said. "But I wonder if the kids (making threats) understand how serious it could be for them."

School violence and budding community awareness were the centerpiece of Thursday's meeting of the Utah Safe Schools Leadership Consortium. The group, spearheaded in fall 1999 by the Utah Division of Comprehensive Emergency Management, meets to find ways to help communities, schools and agencies share emergency response plans and violence-prevention strategies. It is made up of educators, law-enforcement and emergency-management officials.

"With Columbine, probably everyone in the country woke up to school violence in a new light," said Oli Olafsson, state exercise training officer for the emergency management division. "But it neither started, nor did it end, with Columbine."

Sixty-five high-profile school violence incidents have occurred in the United States since 1974, Olafsson said. The incidents range from pre-teens opening fire on school grounds in Jonesboro, Ark., to a first-grader shooting a classmate in Flint, Mich. More than half targeted faculty or school administrators, and 75 percent resulted in death.

Twelve such high-profile incidents or planned incidents occurred or were foiled so far this year, compared to seven last year.

"Our work is not over. We have quite a ways to go" in prevention, Olafsson said.

Consider: Just this week, the Santana High shooting left two dead, and an eighth-grade girl shot at a classmate at a Catholic school in Pennsylvania, Olafsson noted.

In the Santana incident, students and adults had heard the assailant threaten to carry out violence at school. The boy was approached about the threats and even patted down on the day of the shooting.

Though the strategy didn't work in that case, others have. In several incidents, bombs, guns, and school maps apparently drawn up for a large-scale attack were discovered before anyone was hurt. In Utah during the 1990s, authorities foiled a planned bombing in Logan and discovered pipe bombs at Weber and Utah County school campuses, Olafsson said.

"The good news is we're seeing more preventatives than we have before," said Larry Newton of the State Office of Education. "We need to understand the big picture as well as statistics that show us we've got a major problem."

Indeed, national school violence statistics show a decrease in overall violence despite a rise in high-profile cases, said Michelle Beus, legal issues specialist at Davis School District.

And school districts in Utah are working with surrounding police, fire and emergency agencies to ensure everyone is on the same page in handling potential disaster.

Districts also are implementing prevention strategies such as anger and stress management for students, drug-resistance programs that bring police and students together and other early intervention programs, Newton said.

Davis School District has installed phones in classrooms that will immediately alert school security to emergencies, and every teacher is trained in how to respond to violence and has a flip chart detailing practices in each classroom. County and city officials also share emergency plans with schools.

"We're trying to let people know it is not our intent to operate as a lone entity," Davis spokesman Chris Williams said. "We need help from cities and counties and police."


E-MAIL: jtcook@desnews.com