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Talking Heads

A former Secret Service agent shares tips for thwarting possible violence in his district

It's an age-old tradition, something that has been around since the beginning of modern man. Some experts say it is the core of any violence prevention or safety technique around.

It's talking.

"Having alarms, lights, cameras, ... that is fine," says Dennis M. McCarthy, director of safety and security at Blue Valley Unified School District in Overland Park, Kan. "But they don't talk to kids." Security hardware can be a deterrent, but with an adult or kid already on the path of violence and determined to commit that act, having cameras is really more reactive. "Those [high-tech security measures] are good for thefts, fights or vandalism," he says.

McCarthy, along with Jan Wuchner, school resource officer at Walton-Verona High School in Walton, Ken., agree that getting to know students and their interests and simply listening is the key to reducing violence in school. It works because the students begin to trust them and therefore, can reveal what is bothering them. This can prevent a violent outburst, say McCarthy and Wuchner, who is also a Boone County sheriff's deputy.

McCarthy says the tactic curtailed five to six "potentially violent incidents" in his district of about 18,000 students. "Those threats that were averted, involved kids that were suicidal, or were bullied in the past and were verging on being homicidal," he says. McCarthy says he knows "because they told us."

In Kentucky, Wuchner is among nine school resource officers in Boone County middle and high schools who are paid through a federal Cops in Schools grant. The officers are stationed at the schools to talk to students and make their presence known.

"We just wanted, in contrast to cameras, a more personal approach in regard to school safety where relationships could be built and trust could be built," says Bill Boyle, deputy superintendent of Walton-Verona schools, outside Cincinnati.

When the Columbine school shooting unfolded in Colorado in April 1999, McCarthy was a U.S. Secret Service special agent in charge in Kansas City. He and others in his field asked themselves: "What is going on in our schools that we're missing-that two kids become so angry, so frustrated and so depressed and turn so violent? How do they reach that point with no one picking up on it?"

Getting a Handle on Students

The Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center is conducting its own study on school violence with the U.S. Department of Education and National Institute of Justice to answer such questions.

The results show that since 1974, the earliest case examined, 41 attackers carried out 37 incidents in 26 states. In more than two of three incidents, the attacker killed one or more students, faculty or others at school. Handguns, rifles and shotguns were the primary weapons. All the incidents were committed by boys or young men and most had been bullied or tormented by other students. More than three of four students involved showed suicidal thoughts.

The survey also shows that the attacker made threats to his target prior to the attack in less than one in four cases.

In 1999 alone, students 12-18 were victims of about 2.5 million total crimes at school, 186,000 of which were serious violent crimes, such as rape, sexual assault, and robbery, according to the National Center for Education statistics. And between July 1998 through June 1999, there were 47 school-associated violent deaths in the U.S., including 38 homicides. Thirty-three involved school-aged children.

Although there is no profile of a violent student or school shooter, students who are otherwise happy and suddenly become depressed and/or withdrawn, or if they are constantly bullied or tormented, could need a chance to talk, McCarthy says. The results of the largest survey ever conducted examining health-related behaviors of American adolescents is available at the American Association of School Administrators' Web site ( It studies questions such as: Does the make-up of friend groups, or cliques, affect the likelihood that students will engage in risky behavior, and how does a teacher's ability to manage a classroom affect the likelihood that teens will act suicidal, violent, or dabble in drugs?

Shortly after the Columbine tragedy, the Blue Valley Unified School District formed a community taskforce to study safety and violence prevention. After joining the task force, McCarthy learned that cameras, alarms and metal detectors were "not the answer."

The district then hired McCarthy to lead the safety program, which works to identify, assess and manage situations.

When a teacher, administrator, staff member or student finds a student who is showing behavioral or mental health problems, McCarthy is asked to meet that student. He usually spends an hour or more talking to these students to get them to open up. He says he handles about 50 to 60 cases per semester in the district.

"Often times with boys in their mid-teen years, it will take two or three hours of talking and then the tears will flow," he says. "Boys don't want to admit they have been bullied or tormented or they are not part of a group. They finally admit it. They had tried to tell parents, teachers and administrators ... and now they have just had it. It's a victim mentality that made a U-turn. They are ready to be violent."

Parents or guardians are also called in to discuss what the student needs to feel better, McCarthy says. The staff tries to match them with an adult in the building to whom they can talk freely at any time, such as a guidance counselor, teacher or coach. They also give students strategies on how to be more assertive, such as to simply tell a bully, "Stop it," and then walk away, McCarthy says. The school also links students with what interests them. One student who likes animals is working at a veterinarian clinic after school. Another student who likes computers joined the school's computer club.

In Kentucky, Wuchner says he walks around the cafeteria and has lunch with different groups in school, from athletes to the agricultural group that likes to talk about "tractors and pickup trucks." "Most of what I do is relationship building with students, parents and school administrators," says Wuchner, who also carries a gun. "I keep in contact with them and learn what's going on in their lives."

While the district has no numbers of potentially violent incidents that were averted, Boyle says students go to Wuchner to alert him of future fights among students, as well as students with weapons or drugs. "He's taking care of the little things before the big things happen," Boyle says. "We didn't have a problem [with violence before]. And we didn't want to get to that point."

Angela Pascopella,, is associate features editor.