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California and the West | SANTEE SCHOOL SHOOTINGS

Shootings Result in Privacy Trade-Offs

Violence: School incidents in U.S. have been followed by new laws that encourage schools and police to share data that were once closely guarded.

March 09, 2001|JONATHAN PETERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The flurry of fatal shootings at schools has prompted a wave of new laws across the United States, as legislators have sought to encourage sharing of information between educators and police that was once withheld because of concerns about privacy.

Since 1999, at least 16 states, including California, have enacted laws to regulate the sharing of students' records between schools and other government agencies--information sharing that traditionally was considered off limits. Overall, 42 states have adopted such laws since the early 1990s, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The new laws regulate the sort of information that may be passed among schools, juvenile justice authorities and social service agencies. In some cases, the laws require or at least enable schools to inform police of violent incidents involving students; other statutes push law enforcement agencies to notify school officials of violent crimes committed by students.

"There are going to be those that argue that we're violating kids' rights, and [that] it's going to become a police state," said Kenneth S. Trump, a Cleveland-based school security consultant who tracks fatalities on school campuses. "But kids' rights are being violated if they're being shot at in schools. . . . There's a need for the right balance."

Yet even the trend of sharing information among agencies has distinct limits: It is of no value if a young person has never caught the attention of authorities and, therefore, has no record for them to share. Apparently, that is the case in Santee, where 15-year-old Charles Andrew Williams is accused of killing two classmates in a deadly rampage this week.

"I have not yet heard anything about the shooter at Santana High School being [known] in the local agencies," said Bernard James, special counsel for the National School Safety Center in Los Angeles and a proponent of such laws.

In addition to the push for sharing records, states have struggled to respond to the rare yet catastrophic shooting incidents on their grounds in numerous other ways. They have created school safety centers, required schools to devise emergency plans, broadened the definition of crimes on campus and toughened penalties.

A recent New Hampshire law requires school employees to report incidents of bullying to the principal. Georgia and Virginia have added character education to their school curricula. It has become a crime in Rhode Island to point a reproduction of a firearm on school property, and Arkansas lawmakers now hold parents legally accountable if their child takes a gun to school.

While safety experts debate the effectiveness of such efforts, politicians--who have faced enormous pressure to do something--have been trying to do a lot of things. According to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures:

* At least 18 states have broadened the grounds for mandatory expulsion to include physical assault or possession of any weapon on school grounds.

* At least eight states have authorized student property searches on school grounds. Six states now require school districts to adopt codes of behavior for inside the classroom, with Kentucky mandating that the code be distributed to parents.

* Almost half of all states now have general prohibitions of weapons on school campuses. And a Washington, D.C., law bars anyone younger than 18 from taking a firearm within 1,000 feet of a school, day-care facility, public pool, playground or youth center.

Although states always had a keen interest in school safety, the 1990s shootings have sparked fresh examination of rules and laws. After killings in Kentucky, Mississippi and Alaska in 1997, attention turned in many places to the basic safety of school facilities. This review prompted the installation of cameras, metal detectors, better lighting and other security measures.

Two years later, when two students killed 12 others and a teacher before killing themselves at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., educators put new emphasis on the students themselves and how they got along with one another, said Joanne McDaniel, acting director of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence, in Raleigh, N.C.

"It's one thing to create a physically safe environment. That's the first step," she said. "Then you move beyond the safe environment and say, 'How do they treat each other?' "

Under this approach, policymakers have placed a greater reliance on such student-oriented services as mental health and steered greater public resources into programs for anger management, conflict resolution and peer mediation.

Concern that potentially violent individuals might not get the social services and counseling that they need has encouraged greater cooperation among schools, police and social service agencies.

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