Long Odds, Short Fuses
Following last month's unprecedented massacre at Virginia Tech, security has, once again, temporarily moved to the top of the policy agenda in schools. As educators, parents, school staff, and concerned human beings in general, we all want to provide the absolute safest environment possible for the children in our care. Incidents of violence on college and school campuses remind us of our vulnerabilities. Couple this feeling of vulnerability with major media coverage, and we wind up with pressures both internal and external pushing administrators into immediate action.
At times incidents of violence can lead to sound policy decisions. They can get administrators thinking about potential dangers and effective methods of deterring or responding to a broad range of crises. At other times, violent incidents are followed by reactionary thinking, leading some down twisted paths of logic to react in knee-jerk fashion based on non-sequiturs and purely emotional, gut-level fears (a phenomenon popularly known as "common sense").
The Logical Leap
None of this is new. Listening to heavy metal leads to Satan worship. Playing Dungeons & Dragons leads to suicide. Incidents receiving widespread media attention over the years have generated such leaps in logic in the past. It seems ridiculous now, but these "issues" made the rounds all the way to Congress. And similar topics (violence in the media, violence in video games, etc.) continue to creep into the public discourse.
So it shouldn't be too surprising that, following Virginia Tech, more leaps of logic like this would be made. The Virginia Tech mass murderer wrote works containing violent imagery and concepts. Ergo someone else who composes an essay containing violent imagery is a mass murderer waiting to go on a rampage. Pass that on to your logic instructors and see whether they can construct a valid syllogism out of it. I can't.
Yet this is the logic that led to the arrest of Allen Lee, the Cary-Grove (IL) High School senior who wrote an essay that disturbed some people. The essay contained imagery that portrayed violence. (Some called it a "violent essay," though I've never witnessed an essay committing any act of violence.) The essay also suggested that one of Cary-Grove's teachers might one day drive a student to shoot (Lee 2007).
It was enough to raise the hackles of hysteria amongst school and district administrators and the state's attorney's office to have the young adult charged in the matter and to remove him from the general student population. As of this writing, May 6, 2007, Lee looks to have all charges against him dropped and appears to be heading back into the general student population at Cary-Grove (Naqvi 2007). This week should see significant developments in the case.
Not that I'm without sympathy for the school and district. With Virginia Tech fresh in everybody's minds, administrators couldn't really ignore the situation and expect to keep their jobs. But to have Lee arrested? That is not a practical or reasonable solution. Not only was it a solution based on unfounded fears, but it was one that assumed Lee was somehow unique in expressing macabre thoughts about death or in considering authority detrimental to the psychological well being of students.
And it's not the only case of overreaction in the post-Virginia Tech environment. We also have the instance of the student from Clements High School in Fort Bend (TX) Independent School District who was "caught" playing the game Counterstrike using as the virtual locale a 3D model he built of his school. Again, the student was removed from the general population (placed in an alternative school), and police were brought in.
"I think we overreacted as a result of the Virginia Tech ordeal," said one of the Fort Bend ISD Board trustees, Stan Magee, who, along with another board member, Ken Bryant, has been attempting to get a special meeting of the board together to review the disciplinary action (Hanson 2007). This too is an ongoing case, one that might find resolution within the next few weeks, with or without a special meeting of the board (Dunn 2007).
In both cases, administrators in favor of the disciplinary action cited these troubled times as a justification for the disciplinary actions, implying that somehow things have gotten to the point in the downward spiral of humanity's moral well being that it is now reasonable--that schools are in so much mortal danger--that we call the police on them for writing essays or playing video games that portray violence.
Are Schools Really Dangerous?
Nevertheless, the facts show that schools are among the very safest places in the United States in terms of murder and non-negligent manslaughter. Over the five-year period of 2000 to 2004, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there were precisely 27 known cases of murder or non-negligent manslaughter in the nation's K-12 schools and colleges combined (FBI 2000-2004), representing some 60 million students enrolled annually in primary, secondary, and post-secondary institutions (based on various Department of Education sources). Over that same period, there were 80,528 cases of murder or non-negligent manslaughter in the United States as a whole, out of the currently estimated U.S. population of less than 300 million (FBI 2005).
Based on FBI statistics for 2005, the odds of a student being killed intentionally or through non-negligent manslaughter on a college campus in any given year in the United States are about one in 1.25 million. Contrast that with odds of one in 17,857 of being killed intentionally or through criminal negligence anywhere in the United States in the same year, and you will see that campuses are statistically much safer places to be--with or without additional security measures--than, say, pretty much anywhere else.
And those are just the odds of actual students being killed on a college campus. Factor in the general population, and the odds get truly astronomical. Actually, they grow well beyond astronomical. See, the calculated odds of a 100,000 megaton or greater object impacting the earth and killing you THIS YEAR are only one in 2 million, assuming such an object would, as expected, kill off a quarter of the earth's population (Martel 1997).
On the preK-12 side, the U.S. Department of Education reported 21 cases of homicide from July 1, 2004 to June 30, 2005, including "students, staff members, and others who are not students" and including incidents at school, on the way to school, and returning from school (DoE 2006). Using DoE's most recent projected enrollment figures for preK-12 (54.59 million in the 2004-2005 school year), this amounts to one in 2.6 million. Those are greater odds than death by asteroid strike.
In the same report, the DoE stated that school-aged children were more than 50 times more likely to be the victims of homicide outside a school environment than inside. (It's worth noting that the DoE's homicide figures are actually higher than the FBI's murder and non-negligent manslaughter figures, possibly owing to the DoE's inclusion of incidents that occured outside school campuses.)
A little more perspective. The odds of you killing yourself intentionally over the course of your lifetime are one in 121 (Britt 2005). That means that in any given year, you are about 172 times more likely to kill yourself intentionally than you are to be killed on a college campus by someone else and 358 times more likely to kill yourself than to be killed in the environs of a preK-12 school, assuming an approximate 60-year span in which you might be capable of killing yourself (one in 7,260 on an annual basis).
That one incident at Virginia Tech resulted in more murders than in the entire five-year period from 2000 to 2004 on college campuses. Nevertheless, it amounts to slightly less than two-tenths of a percent of the total number of murders and non-negligent manslaughter incidents in the United States (FBI 2005). And, even accounting for the total number of victims killed in that assault, college campuses are still far safer than the United States as a whole and would continue to be even if "the worst massacre" in U.S. history were to occur every single year on a college campus.
None of that is to say that you ought to throw your hands up in the air and give up. Disasters, even unlikely ones, happen. You plan for earthquakes in California. You plan for hurricanes in Louisiana. You plan for fires, floods, blizzards, bomb threats, and, yes, even acts of deadly violence in schools. You come up with plans for responding to these incidents.
This is all part of risk management, which is at the heart of security planning. We don't plan for asteroid strikes for two very good reasons: They're unlikely in the foreseeable future, and there isn't a whole lot a school's staff can do to stop them.
By the same token, murders in schools are also ridiculously unlikely. (This is one of the few major reasons they receive so much media attention when they do happen, as opposed to the regular hum-drum murders that happen on average around 44 times per day.) But major incidents at schools bring the feeling of vulnerability closer to home and push our "common sense" into believing that schools are terribly dangerous places.
Still, these things can and do happen, and with much greater recorded frequency than major asteroid strikes (albeit with much lower destructive power).
So how do you plan for such an event? Is it preventable?
Following the Virginia Tech massacre, security products vendors went on their own rampage, implying or stating outright that the whole incident could have been avoided if only the university had deployed [fill in name of product here] at the time. In editorials, television media personalities lambasted Virginia Tech's administration for failing to shut the university down following the first incident of the day, in which two students were murdered.
Both of these are utterly wrong.
First, the vendors. Aside from the extraordinarily bad taste exhibited by some of them in issuing self-promotions on the very same day as the Virginia Tech massacre and using the massacre as a vehicle for selling products, their assertion that any one technology product could have prevented the mass murder is, simply, false. There absolutely are great technologies out there that might have helped somewhat in that situation and could help in other crises. But prevent?
Technology can be an effective tool in deterring rational criminals. For example, security cameras placed in obvious positions, along with posted notifications that active surveillance is taking place, might very well deter kidnappers and thieves from engaging in criminal activity on a campus--the types of criminals who are there to gain something, not just to wreak destruction on crowds of people before ending their own lives. Technology can also be immensely effective in crisis response, regardless of the type of crisis occurring. It can help communicate en masse to students and parents; it can help direct people to assistance; it can help first responders assess the situation rapidly. But, short of motion-tracking machine gun nests that can somehow differentiate between a mass murderer and a student, it can't do anything about suicidal-homicidal maniacs attacking your students. Metal detectors can often prevent guns and other weapons from being brought into a school; but the thought of bunching up all of your students in one location at one time to pass through a metal detector in order to prevent a mass murderer from bringing a gun into school ought to strike you as fairly ill-conceived. And in the context of mass murder, the same is true of any solution that causes large masses of students to bunch up at your school's entrance waiting to get in.
How much security--technological or otherwise--would it require to make a student invulnerable to bullets or other lethal weapons? Bullet-proof vests? Gas masks? Anti-aircraft missiles for the time when somebody decides to crash an airplane into a school? Do you assign security guards to form a human shield around each individual student? Do you put Geiger counters in your school in the event that a neighborhood kid is building a nuclear reactor in his back yard? Yes, that has actually happened (Silverstein 1998). Incidentally, the neighborhood kid, David Hahn, was allowed to stay in his high school following the revelation of his activities. Times must have been much simpler way back then in the '90s.
No matter what security measures you implement, many of us could come up with scenarios in which those measures would not prevent some sort of horrible incident from occurring at your school and probably cite examples from history to prove that those security measures are fallible.
Fortunately though, as we've discussed, the numbers are on our side as far as murder and non-negligent manslaughter are concerned. And it's their very rarity that allows us to name the handful of horrifying incidents we're all aware of off the top of our heads.
So, if you can't bank on being able to prevent a devastating disaster--natural or man-made--what is there to do?
You look to minimize the impact of an unpreventable crisis through effective response. You come up with plans to deal with broad categories of situations in the area of communications and emergency procedures.
And here, again, Virginia Tech's administration was widely criticized. Why wasn't the campus shut down following the discovery of the first two murders? Why weren't students notified immediately? Those are wonderfully critical questions to ask with the benefit of hindsight. Do you shut down a campus if an incident occurs that appears to be domestic violence on the surface? For how long? An hour? Two hours? Until the perpetrator is caught? And if the perpetrator is never caught, does the campus remain closed forever? And if you shut the campus down for a day, and the killer comes back the next day, do you get criticized for that?
And how close to the campus does such an occurrence need to be in order to justify shutting down the school? On campus only? In off campus student housing? In the immediate neighborhood? In the city? In the county? Within a day's drive of the school? What, precisely, is your security perimeter?
And when do you notify students? Prior to consulting with police, even if it means it could endanger the effort to catch the criminal? And if the police or campus security advise that the situation doesn't warrant shutting down the campus, do you still send out the notifications? Do you simply alert students of the possibility of a dangerous situation and allow them to skip school that day, then deal with the organizational issues of making up school work and exempting students from tests that were scheduled for the day?
Then, how do you notify those students? E-mail and text messaging might be ineffective to a large degree, even in times when students and parents are particularly sensitive to security concerns, though they could help.
Do you have an emergency phone notification system in place? If so, would an emergency message to a home with caller ID immediately call attention to a crisis situation, or would the caller ID just show the name of the district or, worse, the alert system vendor? Will parents seeing the caller ID message think it's just another PTA fundraising call, like the dozen other fundraising calls they've received in the school year?
Are your fire alarms capable of blasting voice messages? Do you have digital signage on your campuses that could alert students of a danger and tell them to stay away or go home?
These are some ways in which technology can help alert concerned individuals to potential crises. But determining what actually constitutes a crisis might be a bit more difficult.
Ironically, in the same district that had such a tizzy over Allen Lee, administrators chose not to close down another of its schools (Crystal Lake Central High School) following a bomb threat written on bathroom walls, and they were criticized heavily for it, even though it proved to be just a prank. (Yes, shockingly, high school students do not always show the greatest discretion with their pranks.)
So, do you play it safe every time and disrupt school at the slightest hint of danger? Do you limit it to blatant threats? Credible threats? Do you implement a county- or district-wide policy that does not allow for discretion on the part of local administrators? Do you keep it going even after the memory of Virginia Tech begins to fade? Such measures are easy to justify right now; they'll be far less sustainable down the road, barring subsequent major incidents at schools.
If an individual is a cause for concern, do you have a policy in place for dealing with individuals on a case by case basis to allow for discretion? Do you expel and arrest now, reserving questions for later, even if it means potentially ruining a child's future who never posed a threat to you or your students?
And once a threat is established, what do you do about it? Do you have an open line of communications with local police? Fire departments? Other emergency responders? There are crisis response/emergency management technologies that can assist, providing constantly updated data on the layout of the school with overlays representing areas in which problems are occurring.
These systems, though, are virtually useless on their own. In order to be effective, they require vigilance and training on the part of the district's emergency responders; they require drills and simulations so that the human element can be an ameliorating factor, rather than a hindrance; and they require coordination with the external agencies that are likely to be involved in a given crisis.
The key here is planning for the unlikely so that, should the worst occur, it does not require a knee-jerk reaction. It requires long-term commitment to strategy, rather than a reliance on hip-shot tactics.
Some of you reading this are in school or district administration. It's your responsibility not to react to headlines but to formulate responsible programs that can help alleviate crisis situations should they arise. Work with your technical and facilities staff to ascertain your capabilities for responding to an emergency. Don't form policy in a vacuum based on too little information.
Those of you who are in IT will play a crucial role in helping to develop and implement security strategies in the coming years and will be judged on long-term effectiveness. You can help administrators by supplying critical information about systems and resources and what your department might need to help make your schools more prepared for emergency situations.
Britt, Robert Roy. 2005. The Odds of Dying. Live Science. http://www.livescience.com/ (accessed May 4, 2007)
Dunn, Bob. 2007. FBISD Violated Clements Gamer's 1st Amendment Rights, His Lawyer Says. Fort Bend Now. http://www.fortbendnow.com/ (accessed May 6, 2007)
Hanson, Eric. 2007. Fort Bend school trustees put off video game appeal. Houston Chronicle. http://www.chron.com/ (accessed May 6, 2007)
Lee, Allen. 2007. Allen Lee's essay, explanation. Northwest Herald. http://www.nwherald.com/ (accessed May 4, 2007)
Martel, Linda M.V. 1997. Damage by Impact. Planetary Science Research. http://www.psrd.hawaii.edu/ (accessed May 4, 2007)
Naqvi, Jameel. 2007. Essay writer returns to class at Cary-Grove High School. The Daily Herald. http://www.dailyherald.com/ (accessed May 6, 2007)
Silverstein, Ken. 1998. The Radioactive Boy Scout. Harper's Magazine. http://www.harpers.org/ (accessed May 6, 2007)
U.S. Department of Education. 2006. Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2006. http://nces.ed.gov/ (accessed May 7, 2007)
U.S. Department of Justice. Federal Bureau of Investigation. 2000-2004. Synopsis of Crime in Schools and Colleges. http://www.fbi.gov/ (accessed May 5, 2007)
U.S. Department of Justice. Federal Bureau of Investigation. 2005. Uniform Crime Reports, Crime in the United States. http://www.fbi.gov/ (accessed May 1, 2007)
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About the author: Dave Nagel is the executive editor for 1105 Media's educational technology online publications and electronic newsletters. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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