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Warning Signs Always There, Expert Says

Tragedy in Colorado

April 22, 1999|JAMES RAINEY and LOUIS SAHAGUN and HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It would be hard to find a high school in California that doesn't have its loners and misfits--the kids with the Mohawks, tongue studs, trench coats, or those whose idiosyncrasies are less obvious.

A day after two disaffected students went on a killing rampage in a Colorado high school, parents, teachers and school officials across the region said they have been painfully reminded of the need to differentiate typically alienated teenagers from those prone to deadly violence.

Although there may never be an exact science to identifying dangerous students, experts say schools must be more attuned to signs of impending trouble.

"One of the things I have been concerned about when I hear the reports from Colorado is that some people say, 'This came out of the blue,' that there weren't any warning signs or clues," said Jana Martin, a clinical psychologist and expert in adolescent behavior. "There are always warning signs."

But communities may struggle to heed the signs because school counselors are in short supply, parents often are busy and out of touch, and students don't know whether the teenager in the next seat is a menace or merely an iconoclast.

A spate of brochures, seminars and even a program to air on MTV this afternoon should help spell out the markers of adolescent violence. Experts said there are several things schools and families should be doing:

* School officials must take every threat seriously, no matter how seemingly innocuous. They must draw out loners and help them build positive relationships.

* Parents should talk with their children as soon as odd or isolating behavior begins and bring in other adults to help, if need be.

* Students should report classmates who behave strangely or make threats and be assured that they are not "ratting," but perhaps saving lives.

* Young people should be encouraged not to taunt or alienate those who are already on the fringes, perhaps exacerbating a dangerous situation.

Gunmen Displayed Bursts of Temper

Most high schools are rife with cliques and rivalries as teenagers struggle to establish an identity.

In Littleton, Colo., the two gunmen had reputations as outsiders, dressing in black trench coats, displaying bursts of temper and enduring taunts from more popular peers.

One North Hollywood student who also wears a black trench coat and face powder said Wednesday he is tormented routinely by classmates.

"Man, I had thought before about blowing up the school," said Luis Juarez. "Kids here are so judgmental it's pathetic. They call me 'freak,' 'Satan,' any little name that they want to throw out. Every day it's something."

Jeanine Loudermilk, a 15-year-old Ventura High School student, said her school is divided among jocks, geeks, white supremacists, gang members, surfers and break dancers, who often don't get along.

"There are a lot of kids that have problems and emotions built up inside," she said. "And I get scared thinking about how they could release that anger."

America has slipped well past the day when threats by young people can be considered merely idle or designed to grab attention, said Russ Newman, executive director for professional practice with the American Psychological Assn.

"Even if these students are not going to carry out the threats, it is not natural behavior," Newman said. "It is generally a cry for help and that ought to be taken very seriously. They should be talking to these kids to see if they need help."

The American Psychological Assn. recently issued a 10-page "Warning Signs" pamphlet to help students, teachers and parents recognize when a young person could be violent. Among the signs that violence could be immediate: loss of temper on a daily basis, increased use of drugs or alcohol, announced threats, carrying a weapon or pleasure in hurting animals.

Other more chronic markers of impending violence are when a child has access to or fascination with weapons, has been a victim of bullying, feels constantly disrespected or withdraws from friends and activities.

MTV Program Is Moved Up

Those warning signs are also at the heart of the program to premiere at 4:30 this afternoon on MTV and to be shown repeatedly in the coming weeks on the youth-oriented television network, a spokesman said. The program had been in the works for months but was released five days early because of the Colorado tragedy.

The awareness campaign will be kicked off in conjunction with the psychological association at a youth forum at Paramount Studios this evening. Administrators in many Southern California school districts on Wednesday urged their employees to renew their vigilance after the massacre at Columbine High School.

"We should err on the side of safety and caution and not always worry about what a parent will say if we contact them about their son or daughter's behavior," Jerry Davis, superintendent of the Manhattan Beach Unified School District, told his staff, in a typical statement.

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