A Radical Step for School Safety ; Districts Begin to Use Psychological Profiles of Students in A

By Gail Russell Chaddock, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 13, 2000 | Go to article overview

A Radical Step for School Safety ; Districts Begin to Use Psychological Profiles of Students in A


Gail Russell Chaddock, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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 suspected shooter.

"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 students.

*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. …

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