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Eyeing Students as Suspects

If some kids suspect teachers and principals are giving them more hard stares this school year, they're probably right. Students are being eyed for warning signs of lethal violence.

Lists of such behavioral signs have been issued by the federal Education Department, by school-safety groups, and by school-violence consultants, especially since the April 20 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. The signs include being a loner, uncontrolled anger, access to guns, and violent writing or drawing.

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Perhaps these lists, thoughtfully used, might lead school administrators to help a youngster who's clearly headed toward trouble. But, misused, they could be tantamount to police criminal profiles, used to identify likely suspects, and might even worsen rather than reduce misbehavior.

Pegging a child as a potential killer has no place in an institution of learning where teamwork and cooperation between students and staff, not suspicion, is needed. As some experts have noted, many of the supposed indicators of violence come too close to describing typical behavior of teens or pre-teens.

Examples of overzealous applications of so-called "zero tolerance" rules by school officials come all too easily to mind: students expelled for having an over-the-counter drug tablet at school, or a penknife used for an after-school job. Inflexible application of those policies, or of early warning checklists for violence, is no way to teach young Americans about fairness and justice.

It will take patient, caring, perceptive teachers, administrators, and parents to distinguish between common rebelliousness and ominous changes in behavior.

Teenagers' worries about violence at school have actually gone down over the last few years, according to a just-published New York Times/ CBS poll.

But public concern about such violence remains high because of high-profile violence at a few schools.

Tighter security, from metal detectors to strict sign-in procedures, is au courant. Many of these new security measures at schools merely appease parents' concerns without being truly effective.

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But the use of psychological checklists for violence is potentially damaging. There's no justification for spreading suspicion far and wide in a school when love, trust, and a spirit of cooperation can bring out the best in students.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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