I've just been reading The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb, which draws out the cycle of destruction in one family that starts with Columbine.  I'm looking forward to reading Dave Cullen's new book on Columbine– he's got some interesting articles and excerpts up on Slate.  These four lessons of Columbine are quite intriguing.  This one struck me:

This leads us to the second, and perhaps most important, lesson
learned from Columbine: what the FBI calls "leakage." Gunfire in the
classroom is the final stage of a long-simmering attack. The Secret
Service found that 81 percent of shooters had explicitly revealed their
intentions. Most told two people. Some told more. Kids are bad at
secrets. The grander the plot, the more likely to sprout leaks.

dramatic change post-Columbine is now we believe the leaks. Many
potentially deadly plots have been foiled since Columbine because of
leakage. In 2001, a pair of Colorado middle-schoolers procured a
Columbine-like arsenal: TEC-9, shotgun, rifles, and propane bombs. They
recruited gunmen to cover more exits. One of them told at least seven
people that he planned to "redo Columbine." He bragged to four girls
that they would be the first to die. The girls went straight to the
police. Since Columbine, kids take threats seriously.

We have
taken the principle of leakage to excess. The belief that any unkind
word may signal mortal danger caused school districts to impose
zero-tolerance policies. All threats, physical and verbal, are taken
seriously and treated severely.

The taking seriously part is
fine. We do need to investigate every "joke," just in case. But we also
need to respond reasonably. We should not execute a search warrant
every time a little kid points his finger and goes, "Bang." And while
the teenager who says he's going to blow up his school should have his house searched, if the search turns up empty—no explosives, no ingredients, no Anarchist Cookbook,
no diagrams, and no manifesto—the worst thing administrators can do is
expel him. If we want our kids safe, we need to resist the urge to make
an example of someone who spoke stupidly but had no plan. Punishing him
harshly sets exactly the wrong example to the crucial audience: friends
of the next "joker." That's because kids remain the best early warning
system. We're counting on kids to turn in a friend, even when they're
sure he's innocent, just to be safe. They need to know that if they
report a "joke" and it turns out to be a joke, there are no
consequences except brief embarrassment. If they're wrong and it's not
a joke, they'll save lives. We need to convince them to let adults make
that determination. We can only do that by giving the jokester a pass
if it's just a joke.

Great point.  As I've written before: zero tolerance = zero intelligence.  When elementary school kids get in trouble for using any pretend weapon at recess (okay, I get the gun, but light sabers?!  Give me a break), things have gone too far.



About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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