Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Homicide = Suicide Turned Outward


Are N.J. schools secure?
Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Tiny surveillance cameras are mounted outside high schools and middle schools from Little Ferry to Ringwood. Staff members in Wanaque carry swipe cards that record who enters and leaves the high school. In Paterson, students are randomly scanned with hand-held metal detectors.

Ever since the Columbine school shootings became synonymous with random violence, districts have spent considerable time and money trying to make their schools safe.

But in the wake of a deadly shooting Monday in Lancaster County, Pa., educators say there is a limit to what they can do.

"I do think you can go too far," said Al Guazzo, superintendent of Lakeland Regional High School in Passaic County.

"I don't want a chain-link fence with razor wire around our campus. If you make it like a prison and treat students like inmates, that's how they'll behave. If you put them in an adversarial environment, they'll respond adversarially."

Last year, districts in Bergen and Passaic counties received a quarter-million dollars in federal grants to buy security equipment for their schools. Some, like Little Ferry and Paramus, bought security cameras hooked up to their town police department. Others, like Hackensack, began closing some school entrances to limit the traffic into and out of buildings.

Police officers throughout North Jersey also began receiving more sophisticated training on how to properly respond to school shootings.

Some believe it takes more than fancy equipment to create a safe environment.

"I've been to a lot of workshops where they talk about metal detectors and all that stuff -- but all that does is provide a false sense of security," said Michael Kuchar, superintendent in Bergenfield. "The best way to prevent another Columbine is to know your kids, have anti-bullying programs [and] create an environment where you have mutual respect. There is certainly no silver bullet, but it really comes down to outreach and respect."

Of course, Kuchar pointed out, that wouldn't have stopped what happened Monday in Pennsylvania, where a 32-year-old milk truck driver carrying three guns and a grudge stormed a one-room Amish schoolhouse, sent the boys and adults outside, barricaded the doors with two-by-fours, and then opened fire on a dozen girls, killing three of them before committing suicide.

At least seven other victims were critically wounded, state police said.

Most of the victims had been shot execution-style after being lined up along the chalkboard, their feet bound with wire and plastic ties, authorities said.

A 20-year-old grudge

Charles Carl Roberts IV was bent on killing young girls as a way of "acting out in revenge for something that happened 20 years ago" said one Pennsylvania police official, who declined to say what that grudge was.

Random acts of violence are as difficult to prevent as they are to predict, experts say.

On Sept. 13, a gunman killed a woman and injured others at Montreal's Dawson College before killing himself. Two weeks later, a drifter in Bailey, Colo., took six female high school students hostage, killing one and then himself. Last Friday, a 15-year-old former student fatally wounded his school principal in Wisconsin.

Although Monday's attack bore similarities to last week's Colorado shooting, experts said it was much too early to speculate whether the copycat phenomenon has taken root.

"Sometimes, it is the graphic media or other things that are blamed. First it was comic books, then video games, then Prozac," said Loren Coleman, author of The Copycat Effect. "But wall-to-wall media coverage spurs these things, as well."

Monday's shooting, Coleman said, is the latest in a recent string of similar attacks involving outsiders whose inner, suicidal intentions "are turned outwards as homicide."

Uniform training

In Bergen County, law enforcement officials have spent the past year training in how to respond to such incidents. Rather than having each municipality carry out its own security plan, the Bergen County Police Chiefs Association released a training guide last year that required all departments to follow the same procedures -- allowing officers in Mahwah, for instance, to know how to respond to a school shooting in Fairview.

The active-shooter program is now a requirement for new recruits, and many departments have required all their officers to go through the daylong course at the Bergen County Law & Public Safety Institute. This summer, dozens of police officers from across the county trained at a Ramsey school, where they learned how to breach classroom doors and look for shooters during a simulated exercise.

"Police have a limited amount of manpower, and they really don't have the time to wait for a SWAT team to show up," said New Milford Police Chief Frank Papapietro, who is chairman of the association's mutual aid committee. "So now if a shooting happens at a school, police officers have learned to at least isolate the shooter or neutralize him. They really can't wait for specialized teams any more."

Ramsey Police Chief Brian Gurney said the training programs have prepared local police officers better in how to deal with a shooting. But he said it is difficult, if not impossible, to believe that anyone -- police, educators or students -- can prevent something like this from happening anywhere.

"Who would have ever thought something like this would have happened in some little schoolhouse in Amish country? Really, who would have thought?" he said. "Nobody is safe. All you need is one deranged person who lashes out and tries to seek revenge."

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