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TRAGEDY IN COLORADO

School District Sets Standard for Crisis Prevention

April 26, 1999|CLAUDIA KOLKER and RICHARD T. COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

HOUSTON — As the people of Littleton, Colo., faced the aftermath of the worst student violence in U.S. history, about two dozen pupils and teachers gathered in a grove of pines at a peaceful elementary school here last week to grapple with a different challenge: preventing such violence.

No one knows exactly how to vaccinate schools against murderous outbursts by disturbed and disaffected students. And all across the country, especially in seemingly peaceful suburban schools, officials have too often assumed that what happened to Columbine High School in Littleton could never happen to them.

But such incidents are on the rise: The rate has more than doubled since the 1995-96 school year. And here in suburban Houston's huge Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, violence prevention efforts such as the activities in the pine grove have become as much a part of the curriculum as reading, writing and arithmetic.

With its 19 staff psychologists, scores of counselors, and programs

to identify and help emotionally troubled students, Cypress-Fairbanks has one of the most comprehensive violence prevention programs in the country. "They have been a model for crisis prevention and crisis intervention" nationwide, said Howard Knoff of the University of South Florida. Knoff is past president of the National Assn. of School Psychologists and an expert on school violence.

Unlike school systems that drift back to other concerns when the latest tragedy fades from the news, Cypress-Fairbanks has sustained and expanded its commitment to violence prevention for more than two decades.

Scott Poland, who heads Cypress-Fairbanks' division of psychological services after 20 years at the district, has been a nationally recognized leader in the effort to develop programs of violence prevention, anger control and mental health counseling in schools. And his efforts to build such programs here have been strongly supported by school district Supt. Rick Berry, who has made "violence prevention his No. 1 priority," Poland said.

Positive Attitudes Clearly Visible

It is impossible to know whether the special efforts here have averted a Littleton-type tragedy, but teachers and counselors at Cypress-Fairbanks say reductions in anger and confrontational behavior, as well as more tolerant, positive attitudes toward peers and the school community, are clearly visible among potentially troublesome students who go through the system's various programs.

What Poland and others in the field fear is that school officials elsewhere will not sustain their interest in violence prevention, once the memory of Littleton begins to fade.

"These sad incidents unquestionably galvanize public attention," said Rodney Hammond, chief of the violence-prevention division of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. "I would hope that what we do afterward is maintain an interest in prevention."

Hammond noted that, although incidents like the one in Littleton remain relatively rare, they are increasing at an astonishing rate. Only two cases of multiple homicides in schools were recorded between 1992 and 1995. Since late 1995, there have been 10 such incidents, counting Littleton.

Exactly what causes some students to commit mass homicide is not yet known, Hammond said, and intensive research is needed to find answers. In the meantime, he said, programs such as those at Cypress-Fairbanks offer some of the most promising strategies available.

And school psychologists and others involved with violence prevention argue that the skills they try to impart are equally vital for academic success.

"Denver brings us back to what skills are really important," said Lloyd Mattingly, a Lakeview, Fla., school psychologist who trains teachers all over the country in how to teach anger management and related skills that contribute both to academic achievement and violence prevention.

That's what Cypress-Fairbanks students were working on in the grove last week. The scene could not have been more idyllic, or seemingly further removed from the tragedy of Littleton, or of West Paducah, Ky., or Jonesboro, Ark., two towns where violence erupted last year.

Games Teach Trust and Cooperation

Sunlight warmed the pine needles carpeting the ground. Groups of kids dressed in T-shirts, ball caps and baggy pants were engaged in a series of games.

One group confronted what amounted to an oversized teeter-totter, which they pretended was a boat they had fallen out of while at sea on a whale watch. The task was to get everyone back aboard without letting either end of the teeter-totter touch the ground.

Jumping onto the middle, where balancing would be easy, was forbidden because the imaginary boat's red-hot engines were located there.

Any ideas? asked the facilitator, a cheerful woman in baggy shorts.

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