One year later, Columbine felt in Tahoe
Today marks the one-year anniversary of the high school shooting spree that left 12 students, one teacher and teen-age gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold dead at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.
Myriad school safety issues surfaced in the late 1990s and South Shore residents and law enforcement officials are working to make Tahoe schools a safe place.
Students, parents and teachers have expressed frustration with high-profile media coverage. Instances of school violence have, in fact, declined throughout the country.
According to the August 1999 U.S. Department of Education study, fewer young people are carrying guns or taking them into schools. The study reported that expulsions for carrying firearms onto school property dropped by nearly a third between the 1996-97 and 1997-98 school years.
Some believe the overall decrease is a direct result of better communication between students and adults.
“If you don’t talk, that’s when it becomes unsafe,” Kingsbury Middle School teacher Dennis O’Conner said. “When there’s a problem, if people talk, it stops. (Everyone) is responsible for protecting each other as much as anything else.”
Awareness has pinnacled in the year since the Columbine massacre, and Douglas High School, Kingsbury Middle School, South Tahoe Middle School and South Shore high schools, have their own methods for maintaining school safety.
On Oct. 20, 1999, 700 Douglas County School District representatives attended a symposium at Douglas High given by Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone, an investigator at Columbine. It was the first time the story was shared with a demographically similar, rural community.
“It was definitely a draw (for concerned individuals),” Douglas County Sheriff Ron Pierini said, adding that it was an eye-opening day.
STUDENTS ON TRIAL AT DOUGLAS HIGH SCHOOL
According to Pierini, no school is immune to violence, regardless of its size or location. Douglas County’s goal is to dissect problems before they have a chance to escalate.
In every school shooting there has been aftermath dialogue addressing what could have been done to prevent it, Pierini said.
Last year the sheriff’s department administered a survey to Douglas High students and 10 percent of those surveyed said they missed school because they felt bullied at one time.
“What we’ve found is that kids really want law enforcement present,” Pierini said. “They don’t want (what happened at Columbine) to happen (in their school).”
Even before news of Columbine reached South Lake Tahoe, Douglas County was working to activate grant money to establish a peer court.
Sgt. Stan Lamb was responsible for an $80,000 grant that created “peer court” at Douglas High. The court of youth employs student jurors and adult judges who discipline their peers.
“If we don’t hold kids to standards, they don’t learn how to behave in society,” Douglas High Principal Bev Jeans said.
The grant also paid for four specially trained officers to come on campus four days a week to talk with students.
“The four officers are not here to be punitive, they are here to communicate with kids,” Jeans said. “Campuses need to be safe in order for kids to come to school and learn.”
The county has an anonymous hot line (775-783-SAFE) for students to report school-related problems.
“If students have information they need to be able to come forward and tell someone about it without being afraid,” Jeans said.
PAYING ATTENTION AT KINGSBURY MIDDLE SCHOOL
At an April 18 forum, a group of Kingsbury students and parents reflected on how they coped with news of Columbine last year, and what they’ve done since to promote overall awareness and ensure school safety.
“When you’re in the classroom and tragedies occur, all you can do is give the kids the chance to express how they feel,” Dennis O’Conner said. “As a writing teacher, I try to have kids write, since writing is a form of expression.”
According to O’Conner, it is important for teachers and parents to communicate with kids and be as honest as possible, where crime is concerned.
“Kids can read you,” he said. “They need to know that the adults around them are concerned, as well.”
According to Kathy Pavich, whose son, Chris, attends KMS, it’s vital that parents know what is going on with their children.
“You know who they’re friends with,” Pavich said. “You know where they’re going, when they’re going to be back and you talk to them. You’ve got to talk to them.”
Students said that movies and video games can influence people to do “bad things,” so it’s necessary to distinguish the difference between fiction and real life.
“When you play video games, you’re the bad guy and you get rewarded for killing people,” sixth-grader Holly O’Brien said.
Sixth-grader Cody Harrington said that many popular video games and movies have guns in them.
“So kids might bring guns to school so they can feel popular too,” Harrington said.
But these kids seem to have a handle on how to protect themselves and their peers from school-related violence.
“If anyone tells you anything bad, like ‘I’m going to bring a gun (to school),’ then tell a responsible adult about it,” sixth-grader Hannah Harris said.
“And if you see a person who bothers you or is mean to you all the time, then just ignore them,” seventh-grader Chris Pavich added, “just walk away.”
KMS students can also report any dangerous, suspicious or criminal activity to the Douglas County safety hot line, (listed above.)
BETTER SAFE THAN SORRY
“This is the sixth year that we have had (full-time school resource officers) at the school,” STMS Assistant Principal Kathi Jensen said.
Last year there were several bomb threats made to STMS the week after the Columbine incident, and according to Jensen, the middle school’s own anonymous hot line (1-800-4-1-VOICE) acted as an informant for administrators.
“Last year students used the hot line and that is how we found out about the bomb threats,” Jensen said, adding that the events frightened students.
“Nobody in Columbine knew anything (before the shootings) and that’s really scary to me,” Jensen said.
Jensen and STMS Principal Mike Greenfield reported that no threats have been made this year.
The school has been keeping track of school violence instances for the past five years and Greenfield said that the numbers have gone down.
“We try and teach the kids that there is a difference between tattling and keeping your school safe,” Jensen said. “There have been two guns in 12 years and both times we knew about it.”
According to Jensen, some kids have brought their parents’ handguns into the classroom for show-and-tell, not realizing that they are in possession of a deadly weapon.
NO STONE LEFT UNTURNED AT LAKE HIGH SCHOOLS
Last year about this time, a 17-year-old South Tahoe High student was arrested for allegedly reporting a phony bomb.
“I remember that incident,” Assistant Principal Jack Stafford said. “It proved to be bogus, but we won’t take that chance. I think from an administrative perspective, we don’t leave any tip uninvestigated. When we get a tip that perhaps something is amiss, we act on those immediately.”
Stafford said the staff at South Tahoe High has done a great job of keeping the lines of communication open.
“Kids come in and talk to us,” he said. “Our kids don’t want anything to happen, I really believe that.”
School Resource Officer Scott Heng emphasized the importance of establishing trust between students and school staff.
“I think one thing we learned from Columbine is a whole lot of people knew and never came forward,” Heng said. “So what I’ve tried to build with students is trust. I try to convey to them, ‘It’s your campus, take pride in it. If you hear from someone who says they’re going to do something, tell someone. Tell me. If you want to remain anonymous, I will honor that.’ “
Students can also remain anonymous by using the school’s Secret Witness hot line, (530) 543-1234.
“It’s not used that often,” Vice Principal Mark Romagnolo said. “But it’s actually the fact that it’s there. I think it’s a huge deterrent, knowing someone can call and report what you’re doing. And kids feel good about the fact that there is a place they can go to make an anonymous call.”
Safety measures have been taken across the state line, as well. Whittell students share access to the Douglas County hot line with Douglas High and Kingsbury.
Whittell Principal Howard Bennett said that there is cause to be more alert around anniversary dates.
“We’re not expecting any problems at all, but it does cross your mind,” said Bennett, who explained that students tend to have some anxiety about school crimes. “The students are aware and the lesson from Columbine is that it could happen anywhere and we have to be very, very vigilant to make sure it does not happen here.”
Some members of Whittell’s staff attended the Douglas symposium last year, as well as an extensive district training for all Douglas County administrators.
According to Bennett, communication is well maintained.
“There is an emergency manual that has been prepared and we have emergency codes and ways of notifying the entire staff with just a word, in case (something happens),” Bennett said. “And I’ve had kids come in and share concerns with me,” Bennett said. “They’re very aware.”
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