His profile is the Classroom Avenger: a boy from a
"dysfunctional" but "superficially normal" middle-class family who
goes on a shooting spree in a school. He's sensitive to criticism,
blames others for his problems, fights with his parents and
siblings, obsesses on violence, and knows his way around a gun.
In a new and controversial move, US schools are beginning to use
such psychological profiling to ferret out students likely to cause
violence in the classroom.
To supporters, the technique, which has been widely used in law
enforcement to track odious criminals such as Ted Bundy and the
Unabomber, could prove invaluable in bringing a greater sense of
security to schools.
But the move is also raising questions about whether such
forensic dragnets could undermine the climate of learning in an
institution that aims to nurture kids. Critics argue that rumors and
suspicions can quickly harden into stigmas in the halls and lunch
rooms of a public school, and few tags are as hurtful as that of
"We don't want to turn schools into airports. We want schools to
be places where people trust each other," says Laurence Steinberg,
professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia.
School homicides are extremely rare events. A student has less
than a 1 in million chance of a school-associated violent death,
according to the US Department of Justice.
Nonetheless, since the 1999 shootings in Littleton, Colo.,
administrators have scrambled to reassure parents and the community
that safety is a priority - and Columbines won't happen in their
schools. As a result, a cottage industry of school safety products
is emerging, including psychological profiling.
Until recently, the technique has been virtually a taboo subject
in many public schools, since it has been often associated with
racial bias, especially in law enforcement. But there are signs that
it is now moving more into the mainstream.
*One of the most ambitious is Mosaic-2000, a computer-assisted
program that promises to equip schools with the same law-
enforcement methods used to evaluate threats to Hollywood stars and
US Supreme Court justices. It is currently field testing in 25
public schools, mainly in the Los Angeles area.
*The FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime in
Virginia will soon issue an analysis of school shootings that
targets "risk factors" to help schools identify potentially violent
*Schools in Granite City, Ill., now require staff to report
students who fit an "at risk" profile, including writing essays that
"reflect anger, frustration, and the dark side of life" and a
"preference for television shows, movies, or music expressing
violent themes and acts."
School districts in Wallingford, Conn., and Dighton-Rehoboth,
Mass., are also developing districtwide profiles to target
potentially violent students.
"School is the workplace of children ... [and] the strategies
learned by industry and government should be available to school
administrators," says the promotional material for Gavin de Becker
Inc., a Los Angeles-based firm testing the Mosaic-2000 program. The
product claims to give school officials an objective way to evaluate
threats to school safety. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco &
Firearms is also participating in the project.
Mosaic developers call their program an "artificial intuition
system" or "mental detector. …