In front of 200 kids who assembled for physical education classes, the killers then turned toward the bleachers and fatally shot a 15-year-old student before he could reach for a .45 caliber pistol concealed in his right coat pocket, police say. Stray bullets wounded three innocent victims. Panicked students trampled a pregnant 16-year-old girl.
The pride of John McDonogh that day may be measured by the reported heroics of Joshua Myers, a 15-year-old special education student on the school football team. As his classmates fled, Myers walked over to one of the girls who had been shot, picked her up and carried her to emergency responders.
Myers' rescue efforts have been overshadowed by the police investigation of seven suspects in the gangland-style retaliation murder of the McDonogh student. Now, as public debate focuses on school security, the first step should be to listen to the students themselves.
Joel A. Dvoskin, a respected forensic psychologist at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, participated in a "psychology autopsy" of the notorious mass murder of 12 students and a teacher by a pair of suicidal students at Columbine High School. "In prison, the best security you have is knowing your inmates," Dvoskin says. "In schools, the best security is having a relationship with your students. What you hope is that somebody knows about [a planned attack] and comes forward."
Important questions linger. Did that communication take place at McDonogh? If it did, why didn't it prevent the tragic events? If it didn't, how can we increase the students' willingness to share crucial information?
"Kids will not participate in a snitch system that only gets their friends in trouble," Dvoskin warns. "Rigid and punitive 'zero tolerance' policies will only create an illusion of safety, by driving the most troubled teens underground."
Dvoskin says the Columbine team came up with several other general conclusions. "We do not believe that it is possible to predict which troubled teenagers will become the next shooters," he says. "Thus, the only sensible policy is to identify and help all of the kids in trouble; not because they will become violent, but because they need help."
After the McDonogh shooting and stampede, authorities should budget for mental health services for several years. "It's not about yanking kids in and doing a grief (therapy) group with them the day after the shooting," Dvoskin says. "You might find somebody who is getting through the day and a year from now develops an alcohol problem that looks unrelated to this incident."
Peter Scharf, a criminologist at the University of New Orleans, says the McDonogh shooting shows we are now "paying for years of benign neglect" of public schools. He also warns that the roots of the problem cross racial and class demographics. "Parental passivity and kids not recognizing the duty to report trouble in the making is a problem in these cases that crosses racial and economic boundaries," he says.
The proliferation of guns in the hands of so many kids makes New Orleans a tinder box, says Scharf, who praises Project Safe Neighborhoods, a federally funded program led by local U.S. Attorney Jim Letten that is engaging in a major effort to dry up the seedbeds of illegal guns.
The new administration of New Orleans Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Amato is conducting an ongoing school "safety audit" in the wake of the McDonogh tragedy. Amato should meet with the private Metropolitan Crime Commission (MCC), which has been trying to fund a safety survey of school students since before the non-fatal shootings of two boys at Carter G. Woodson Middle School three years ago.
Designed by a professional educator, the survey asks kids to identify strengths and weaknesses of school safety on the premises and en route to school. Students can identify specific concerns, including intimidation by gangs, bullies and drug sellers. "The kids do not have to give their name," says MCC director Raphael Goyeneche. "It's not a snitch program. It won't cost the school system a penny. We would raise the money in the private sector, fund it and turn the information over to the school system as well to use it to apply for grants for programs."
Amato's predecessor opted instead to go with a police-school liaison program -- even though the two initiatives are not mutually exclusive. Amato should consider supplementing the police presence with the best security of all: increased dialogue with students.