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How the lessons of Columbine may have stopped a Tampa massacre

It’s a fine line that principals and other school staff have to walk: gaining students trust and respect while at the same time meting out firm and fair discipline.

It’s a fine line that principals and other school staff have to walk: gaining students trust and respect while at the same time meting out firm and fair discipline. Though statistically not a dangerous profession, in the wake of recent school violence, teachers and school officials across the country are grappling with how to create safer schools for their students – and themselves.

Recent news headlines would make it seem that the teaching profession is fraught with danger:

Jared Cano, arrested in Tampa this week, targeted specific administrators in a plan to bomb Freedom High School on its opening day, according to police charges. He had been expelled during the previous school year.

Eduardo Marmolejo was charged recently with first-degree murder in the stabbing death of his principal, Suzette York, at Memphis Junior Academy, a small Seventh-day Adventist school. Police said that he told them he had planned to kill her because he did not like her and she had made him angry.

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Robert Butler Jr. was suspended from Millard South High School in Omaha, Neb., in January and later returned with a gun, killing Vice Principal Vicki Kaspar and injuring Principal Curtis Case before fleeing and killing himself.

Principals need to be alert and take seriously any threats to students or staff, but “a lot of times, [people] don’t make overt threats [and] the unknown is certainly something that’s always in our mind,” says Mel Riddile, associate director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va.

School leaders wouldn’t be able to do their jobs well if they walked around seeing every student as potentially violent, he adds. When it comes to disciplining students, “some are low-risk situations, others are high risk, and you base that judgment on a combination of training and experience.”

Education is not a dangerous profession, statistically speaking. A 2009 US Department of Labor report on workplace deaths showed 57 fatalities in elementary and secondary schools, but only eight of them from violent acts. In retail jobs, by contrast, there were 170 violent deaths. That’s out of a total of 837 violent workplace fatalities that year.

There are no uniform standards for training school leaders in security matters. Some of it comes through school districts, but a lot of it comes less formally, from more experienced staff at a school or from school security officers who share information from their latest training.

In the 12 years since the mass shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, school systems have become more willing to invest in security, Mr. Riddile says. But perhaps more important, he says, is that “we put a lot more emphasis today at the high school level on relationships.”

Riddile recalls when he was superintendent of a large urban school and a fellow administrator asked him why 80 to 90 percent of the students he disciplined ended up shaking his hand. “I said, I think they appreciate the respect that they get and the fact that … I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do and not because I have anything personal against them. It’s something every administrator has to work at; it can’t be perceived by the student as something personal,” he says.

When adults and students form relationships of mutual trust, Riddile adds, “things get reported earlier.”

An anonymous tipster told police about Jared Cano’s alleged plot at Freedom High School in Tampa this week. It’s not clear whether the tipster was someone from the school. But Hillsborough County Public Schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia, speaking Thursday on CBS’s “The Early Show,” said the district has worked hard to encourage people to speak up about anything suspicious that they see, and she credited the district’s close relationship with the police for helping to thwart the plot.

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“Schools have come to the realization that creating safe environments … is a complex undertaking … and that local police, local sheriffs are our partners and we have to embrace them, and I think that’s what happened in Tampa,” says William Modzeleski, a director at the US Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools.

School administrators need to think about “looking at individual, behavior history, family history, looking to see if any mental health issues are involved, and if so, does that put the kid at higher risk [for violence],” says Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services.

Many school districts have threat assessment teams to try to connect the dots if there’s a troubled, and potentially violent, student in their mix.

Because he had been expelled and had had prior trouble with law enforcement, Cano would have been “red-flagged” had he stepped onto campus, Freedom High principal Chris Farkas told reporters Wednesday.

But not all schools have strong measures in place to block a student from returning to a school who has been suspended or expelled, Mr. Modzeleski says.

Sometimes a principal just has to go with his gut when confronted with a student on the verge of violence. Ernest Bentley, executive director of the Tennessee Principals Association, tells of a principal several years ago who found out a student had a gun drawn. While the school went into lockdown, the principal managed to lure the student into an office where no one else would be at risk, and being a big man, could block the door until the student put down the gun. Fortunately, the student didn’t have any hostility toward the principal.

“That story was one of personal courage, and nobody had to train him to do that,” Mr. Bentley says. “Not everybody’s that courageous, or foolish,” he says with a laugh, adding that he would probably have let the authorities handle it instead.

In the wake of Principal York’s murder in Memphis, Bentley’s association will likely address the topic of school violence against staff in the coming year. Even though it doesn’t do formal training, the professional network “is the biggest support group the principals have,” he says.

• Associated Press material was used in this report.