The lives of professional educators are never easy, but from April 20 through the end last school year, life became even more difficult for Michigan school administrators and teachers nationwide. In many ways, preparation for school this fall has never been more daunting.
After the April 20 Columbine High School (Colorado) tragedy, officials were hard pressed to focus on their daily routines while wondering if they were missing something; some signal that would indicate the possibility of a similar tragedy in their own public school.
"You feel like you have to take every rumor seriously," Justine Bollella, a pre-algebra teacher at Plymouth-Salem High School in Canton township told The Detroit News recently, "They have been checking on every rumor."
Since April, the news media, educators, lawmakers, and psychologists have wracked their brains over whether catastrophes like Columbine, in which two student gunmen killed 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves, can be averted. Indeed, one family member of the teacher who lost his life at Columbine charged recently that "there were all kinds of warning signs," and that "it could have been prevented."
Can school officials figure out all the signals and take all the precautions? Will it make a difference?
Unfortunately, although it might have been possible in the Columbine case, there is no way to know for sure. "It could happen any place," said John Palmer, superintendent of Cheboygan Area Schools, summing up a nationwide consensus for the Detroit Free Press, three months after Columbine.
"This is a community problem, not a school problem," says David Taylor, superintendent of Monroe Public Schools.
In the four weeks following Columbine, more than 350 students nationwide were arrested on charges related to threats against schools, school officials or classmates, and 30 of those involved an actual bomb or weapon.
In just three Michigan counties, there were 65 bomb threats against schools recorded. And there was one heart-stopping moment when it appeared as if the unthinkable might happen here: Four students at Holland Woods Middle School in Port Huron were discovered plotting a massacre that would have been worse- had it been carried out- than what occurred at Columbine.
Students who overheard conspiratorial conversations reported them to school authorities, those authorities alerted police, and police acted on the information they received. The system worked as it is supposed to, and no incident ensued.
When a bomb threat was scrawled on a bathroom wall at Seaholm High in Birmingham, Jeff Salz, a cabinetmaker whose daughter Beth attends Seaholm, rounded up 80 parents by telephone, who reassured students by stationing themselves all over the school on the threatened day.
On a single day in May, two 16-year-olds were arrested by the Macomb County Sheriff's department, after four homemade bombs were found in their possession, one powerful enough to maim or even kill; three school buildings in Macomb and Oakland counties were evacuated because of bomb threats; and an 18-year-old who brought a rifle and a sack of ammunition to school was arrested.
When Michigan public schools open this fall, there will be many changes, most of them not pleasant.
In the Carman-Ainsworth school district in Genesee County, staff members will be locking every classroom door from the inside once class starts, and teachers will patrol halls between classes. Fenton schools are considering security cameras and photo identification cards. Almont Community Schools will lock all doors to the outside except the main entrance.
Everywhere, bomb threat procedures are being reviewed. Many schools will be conducting random locker sweeps, and some have hired liaison officers: full-time, armed police who work with the schools, patrolling hallways and watching for intruders. Huron Valley School District is offering a $1,000 reward to anyone who provides information leading to the arrest of anyone who makes a serious threat of injury or property damage at its schools. And Oakland schools have set up a hot line people can call with information on potential threats to schools.
Michigan state lawmakers are pushing through the legislature a host of preventative measures. The Senate has set up a task force to determine what steps they can recommend to Michigan schools. Senate lawmakers also have passed legislation that encourages schools to: a) adopt uniforms for students to help take students' focus off status and onto academics and b) to train students in citizenship and ethical conduct.
The first of two bills signed into law July 6 would require the expulsion of any student who assaults a teacher or school employee, but would allow the student to seek reinstatement after 180 days. The second would permit teachers to suspend a student for a day if that student was disruptive or violent.
Parents expect the places their children learn to be peaceful and non-threatening. Some parents and students complain that they should not feel like "an armed camp." Everyone calls it a tragedy that metal detectors, police patrols, and backpack searches have become part of the American public school experience.
Educators agree that their immediate challenge is to focus on educating students and handle threatening situations as they are encountered and deal with them promptly and fairly.
Ann Arbor School Board Trustee Nicholas Roumel told the Ann Arbor News: "We can talk all we want about gun control, metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs, but the bottom line is that if we can make connections with students, that's what will make a difference."