One day last month, a handgun was hidden under a bush at Palm Middle School in Lemon Grove, Calif., and a deadly plan was about to unfold. After school, a student would retrieve the weapon, don a ski mask and shoot a teacher who had given him a failing grade.
But before the plan became reality, a student overheard talk of the plan, called home and told a parent. Police were notified and swooped in later that day to confiscate the gun and foil the plan. Three teenaged boys were charged in connection with the incident.
It was the latest example of a student with knowledge or suspicions about potential violence at a school speaking up to help prevent a tragedy. Five years ago, troubling information about Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris was available to authorities before the two students unleashed their bloody assault on classmates and teachers at Columbine High School, but it didn't reach the people who needed to know.
Since then, school officials and law- enforcement officers across the nation have worked to avoid similar tragedies. They have bolstered security on school campuses with physical measures, such as surveillance cameras, access-control systems, two-way radios and metal detectors. But the key to thwarting serious violence, officials say, is to create a climate in which students feel comfortable coming forward with information.
“Most of the serious incidents we have had in our schools have been brought to our attention by kids,” says Larry Borland, director of security for Douglas County, Colo., schools.