School Violence Spurs New Policy Debates

By: - May 26, 1999 12:00 am

WASHINGTON – Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold helped redefine the national agenda when they opened fire on their classmates at Columbine High School, sweeping gun control measures, school safety and media bills through a number of America’s state legislatures.

The two boys, who shot their way into the national spotlight when they gleefully massacred their peers at a Colorado high school last month, have caused the country to pause.

On the one-month anniversary of the April 20 Columbine shooting, and the day that a Georgia youth opened fire on his classmates sending six to the hospital, the Senate voted in favor of the Juvenile Justice bill, which had become a battle over gun control.

Last week, the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth and Families, held a hearing on youth violence. “I have observed in regard to the event at Columbine High School that there is a thin veneer separating civilization from barbarism,” said Colorado Congressman Thomas G. Tancredo.

He then read from an Ed Jones column published in the Charlotte Observer: “Could it be that the hammer blows of Littleton are directing us back to our true center? Could it be that what we’re witnessing is the spectacle of a proud, secular America being humiliated, brought to its knees — not by a Hitler or a Stalin or a Milosevic, but by its own children?”

The education subcommittee was trying to draw out community views on youth violence. The witness list read like a who’s who in the latest round of school shootings. High school students Ryan Atteberry from Thurston High School in Oregon, Adam Campbell from Columbine High, Stephen Keene from Paducah, Kentucky and Brigid Moriarty and Carla Williams from Sherwood High in Maryland testified.

Out of the mouths of babes came cynicism, pain and optimism. While Campbell said little can be done, Keene, whose brother was shot and three friends murdered during a prayer group meeting in the school lobby, suggested bringing the Ten Commandments back to the classroom wall and giving teachers control of their students without fear of law suits.

Keene said the pain didn’t end with the funerals. “You can hardly control yourself sometimes cause you’re crying so bad,” he said.

“Something must be done,” said Brigid Moriarity. But she didn’t think “passing loads of legislation” would fix the situation. “It has to be something that we students are all involved in,” she added.

At least 24 state legislatures had bills that were affected or inspired by the shooting at the Colorado high school. In some states, gun bills and school safety bills were already on the docket. But after the massacre, a flurry of school and youth violence-related bills stormed the states, and bills that may not have had a chance before April 19 have passed easily since.

Harris and Klebold’s actions appear to have had an impact on gun control legislation in 16 states as well as in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Before the Colorado incident, but during the 1999 legislative season, three states — California, Vermont and Idaho — had passed gun control laws relating to schools.

Since the incident, Colorado and Tennessee pulled permissive gun bills from the floor, Alabama and Michigan delayed gun measures, and Utah is considering a special session to address the issue. Delaware, Oregon, California, New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Texas and Illinois have passed or are considering gun bills. Twenty-four states acted to liberalize gun laws in 1998, and still more states were on track to join them when last month’s shoot out brought the pro-gun lobby to a halt.

School safety bills are being deliberated or have been approved in Washington, Oregon, North Carolina, South Carolina, New York, Wisconsin and Virginia. This year, before Littleton erupted in violence, Illinois, Ohio and Tennessee had passed new school safety bills.

Nevada, Louisiana and Maine are tackling the issue by passing bills requiring psychological evaluations of disruptive or violent youths. Before the shootings, 13 states had instituted laws that hold parents responsible for their children’s behavior. President Clinton has urged Congress and other states to consider similar measures.

Gun manufacturers, movie producers and video game makers have been hit with negative publicity and regulations are being considered. New York, Minnesota, Arkansas, Alabama and Washington lawmakers have introduced bills to hold video game creators responsible whether with rating systems or all-out bans.

“There is no question that this (increased scrutiny) is something that has been stimulated by the events in Littleton,” Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association, told . Lowenstein said he understands Congress and the public’s concerns.

In the wake of Columbine, conferences on youth violence have been held at the White House, among the governors and state lawmakers in Washington State and West Virginia, as well as in numerous school districts.

Connecticut and Wisconsin’s Governors have also pledged to hold statewide conferences on the issue.

But it isn’t just the states that are flooded with youth violence bills. The public outcry has reached Capitol Hill too. The US Congress has been in reaction overdrive contending with a gun control lobby that has the upper hand. And Republicans are chasing after Hollywood with renewed vigor.

In the states this year, bills have followed the same trends, focusing on guns, movies, video games and discipline.

Connecticut is considering a bill to allow courts to order students who make violent threats to attend counseling sessions at parents’ expense. Students would sign contracts with police officers, parents, court officials and school officials, and if they fail to meet the terms of the contract could be held in contempt of court.

Maine is focused on three bills that include: a student code of conduct, alternative study programs for students who have continual behavior problems and peer mediation and conflict resolution programs. The bills would also allow schools to refuse to admit a student expelled from another district.

Wisconsin’s Superintendent of Public Instruction wants to hold regional meetings and workshops on crisis management and emergency response to school violence. Authorities have also been asked to compile crime and violence data.

Nevada is creating an 11-member Commission on School Safety and Juvenile Violence with the goal of creating a statewide plan to respond to school violence, reducing the accessibility of guns to youths and cutting down on youth crime.

Louisiana may soon join Maine in passing a bill requiring students to respect their teachers. If the bill passes, Pelican state students will have to stand when the teacher enters the class and respond to the teacher with terms such as: “Yes Sir” and “No Ma’am.”

North Carolina may get tougher on bomb threats. Students who pull such a prank would be hit with a one-year suspension. North Carolina has joined other states in launching a hotline for students to report rumors of intended violence.

South Carolina is seeking million for school safety officers, Washington wants million for a series of violence prevention programs and New York is considering collecting school floor plans for the use of local authorities in emergencies like the one at Columbine High.

New York’s Governor wants to get tougher on kids who tote a gun to school and give teachers more latitude to discipline students.

Detroit is marching forward with its suit against gun manufacturers and Maine’s Senate rejected a measure that was intended to stop cities from suing gun makers. Some Wisconsin Democrats are determined to block a bill under consideration that would prohibit cities from suing weapons manufacturers.

In Massachusetts there had been talk of repealing the 1998 Gun Control Act that made acquiring a gun more difficult and toughened penalties. Governor Paul Cellucci has vowed to veto any bill that would alter or repeal the current laws.

In Texas, the Senate passed a bill that requires authorities to hold a gun-packing youth for up to 48 hours. Lawmakers want authorities to assess how the child got the gun, what is going on in the child’s life and why the child is committing a crime.

New Jersey is focused on “smart guns” that are fitted with technology that allows the gun to fire only in the hand of its owner. Governor Christie Todd Whitman favors a less radical approach – allowing gun owners to have either a trigger lock or the smart gun technology.

Illinois lawmakers approved a bill that would hold a gun owner responsible if a youth uses a firearm to kill or maim. Governor George Ryan urged the legislation in the face of opposition from the Illinois Rifle Association.

Members of the PTA, NEA and general public in Utah have repeatedly pleaded with the state legislature to hold a special session to deal with guns and youth violence. Governor Mike Leavitt, who is leaning toward calling the session, is expected to make a decision by next week.

Since the May 20 shooting in Georgia, the state School Superintendent wants to allow school principals to carry pepper spray or stun guns. One Georgia county is thinking about buying two sets of text books for students in an effort to eliminate book bags and lockers.

Last year, 36 states considered some kind of school safety legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Past approaches to school violence have included sharing juvenile records with teachers, increasing the use of police, installing metal detectors and video monitors and strengthening penalties against students who bring firearms to schools. 

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