School-Violence Expert Says Prevention Programs Work

Dec. 15--School violence can be prevented by building relationships with all students and alerting administrators quickly about threats -- not just by increasing security.

That's the message of Dewey Cornell, a nationally recognized youth violence researcher who will be at La Crosse's Central High School today.

"We could spend a lot of money turning our schools into fortresses," he said, "but I'm convinced that would be a waste of resources. It's much better to prevent kids from activities that lead to school violence."

Dewey's all-day training session today will be attended by safety committees from all district schools and the Hogan administrative building. He'll train them so every school follows the same procedure in responding to student threats.

Cornell will be paid about $3,000 for the training out of the staff development fund, said Doug Happel, associate superintendent of human resources.

Some responses from a recent interview with Cornell:

Q. You've said that school violence nationally has actually declined in the past decade. Could you explain, please?

A. There are many different ways to measure violence in schools, but all consistently show serious acts of violence in school have declined. We've also seen a decline in school shootings.

Q. What have schools done right in dealing with school violence?

A. They've implemented conflict resolution programs, worked to reduce bullying and increased the availability of counseling. There are over 200 controlled studies to show school-based violence prevention programs reduce violence in schools by up to

50 percent.

Q. What have they done wrong?

A. I'd point primarily to zero-tolerance policies. After Columbine, zero-tolerance went on steroids, applying not just to guns and knives, which do pose a serious threat, but to finger-pointing and carrying nail clippers. There's no evidence these policies actually work.

Q. What have you learned from some of the more notorious shooting cases?

A. In almost every case, the kids said loud and clear they're angry, upset or about to take revenge. Either no one listened or no one sought help. When a child shows changes in behavior, parents and teachers need to inquire and see what they're unhappy about. Usually the decision (to go through with violence) comes after months or years of frustration.

Q. Could you explain your approach of "threat assessment?"

A. Basically, you have a decision tree that involves interviewing the students and witnesses and evaluating the threat using principles developed by the FBI and Secret Service. If you assess it as serious, then you immediately get law enforcement and mental health professionals involved. We field-tested the approach in Virginia schools and found it's both successful and workable.

Q. How do schools encourage students to report threats?

A. Teachers and administrators need to make an effort to establish a supportive relationship with students. Our goal is for every child in school to have at least one adult who they feel comfortable talking with about problems or concerns. With parents, we need to encourage them to inquire about their kids' lives. Many kids don't want to tell teachers but will tell parents.

Copyright (c) 2006, La Crosse Tribune, Wis. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.