Nov. 6, 2000 -- The nation was shocked when, on April 20, 1999, two students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., went on a killing spree -- leaving 15 people, including themselves, dead.
This incident and others like it across the U.S. have sparked renewed interest in ways to prevent school violence and identify at-risk teens.
A new study, published in the November issue of the journal Pediatrics, reports that teenagers who feel disconnected from their school, as the two Columbine gunmen presumably did, may be at risk for unsafe behavior and poor health. School connectedness, as defined by the researchers, means that the student cares about his or her school and feels close to school personnel as well as the school environment.
To assess connectedness, study author Andrea Bonny, MD, a physician and fellow in the division of adolescent medicine at Children's Hospital Medical Center of Cincinnati, and colleagues, surveyed 2,000 students in grades seven through 12 from eight public schools with high rates of school failure, teen pregnancy, and child abuse. They found that those students who feel "disconnected" were more likely to smoke, visit the school nurse, have poor health, and lack involvement in after-school activities.
Fortunately, Bonny says that these factors could potentially be changed, and identifying these factors will help develop school-based prevention strategies that are targeted correctly to those at highest behavioral and health risk. For example, school nurses may help identify disconnected teens and help them get the assistance that they need.
"The extent to which students feel 'connected' to their school environment is an important factor protecting them from unsafe behaviors such as violence and substance abuse and poor emotional and physical health," Bonny and colleagues conclude.
"We know school connectedness is protective, and we really want to find ways to identify students who are disconnected," she tells WebMD. Three of the four risk factors are health related, she says, which brings up the question of whether the school nurse's office is an appropriate place for screening and/or intervening.
More research is needed to answer this and other questions such as whether forcing children to be in school-related clubs will ultimately make them more connected, Bonny says.
But for parents, the implications are clear: "Promotion of involvement is a good thing and certainly won't harm the child," she says. "I think parents should be perceptive of child's health behaviors: Are they getting calls that the child is going to the school nurse often, or is the child smoking cigarettes?"
Parents can then start promoting better health beliefs and practices, Bonny says.
Statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics show that among adolescents aged 12 to 17, there were 2.7 million crimes committed at school including 253,000 serious violent crimes and 60 school-associated deaths from 1997 to 1998.
But the most recent statistics suggest that school crime and violence is actually going down, says June Arnette, associate director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif. "Indicators show that kids are safer in school than anywhere else," she tells WebMD.
"After Columbine, everyone wanted to get into profiling and trying to predict who has violent characteristics, but there was quite a backlash," she says.
There are not necessarily predictors but there are a number of early warning signs to help identify at-risk children, she says.
"Most of these kids ... had recent relational problems such as a breakup with a girlfriend or boyfriend or had told someone about their plan, so there was some knowledge that this person was planning a violent act," she says.
The children may have also been picked on and constantly bullied, so the violence is their way of striking back.
Most schools have implemented "threat assessment protocols" so that when a child makes a threat, school personnel and psychologists can then start collecting data and deciding what to do with it.
Then the psychologist may "call them into the office and tell them what they have heard, and try to get the parents involved," she says.