Fear, Lockdowns and Barriers to Student Freedom

In 1999, when two troubled teenagers went on a rampage killing 12 students and teachers at Columbine High School, national pandemonium ensued.

High schools went into lockdown, every scribbled note left in a locker was scrutinized and, say civil libertarians, there was a chilling effect on personal freedoms.

After another loner, Seung-Hui Cho, slaughtered 32 people at Virginia Tech this week, educators warned that the post-Columbine effect might forever change the freedom of intellectual thought that has been the hallmark of America's open campuses.

"There tends to be a reactive feeding frenzy, and there is nothing as horrible as what went on at Virginia Tech," said David Osher, managing director of the Washington, D.C.-based American Institutes for Research.

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"There are things that can be preventative without moving into the type of overreaction that we saw post-Columbine and post-9/11," he said. "Everyone in a trench coat is not out to shoot people."

"If we try to treat our college campuses like we treat our airports, it's not going to be a solution," he said.

As the tragedy at Virginia Tech unfolds, authorities have learned the killer left a trail of clues: a monosyllabic relationship with his roommates, allegations of stalking, macabre writings and talk of suicide.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that school shootings are still not commonplace. School shootings only make up 1 percent of the total number of youth homicides in the United States, according to the CDC's Web site, and "schools remain a very safe place for children to spend their days."

Wendy Roth, who co-wrote "Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings," said the post-Columbine effect had been ubiquitous.

"One of the things we saw in schools was increasing zero tolerance with very little judgment allowed," said Roth, a sociology professor at the University of British Columbia Canada. "Any student suspected to be a threat was suspended or expelled."

"I hope this does not occur at the university level," Roth said. "There has been enough backlash against Big Brother aspects after 9/11 and universities know restrictiveness is not the way to go."

What Roth recommends is a system that encourages students to report "disturbing" incidents among their peers. "Stories that are part of an English paper or comments made need to be dispersed in one place."

But, Roth said, information should be in the hands of guidance counselors who have the expertise to interpret such information. Such practices are largely absent in high school and colleges, she said.

At Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, professor LynNell Hancock sometimes feels ill-equipped to deal with students who are showing signs of depression.

"We could certainly use some training in how to recognize depression and when to refer students and when not to," said Hancock, who teaches classes in youth issues and education. "I have been flummoxed in the past over my lack of training when I have seen students with severe depression."

But Hancock also worries that in the panic following the Virginia Tech incident, teachers may misinterpret creative student expression.

"There is a real distinct line between psychosis and creativity, and hopefully we recognize that," said Hancock.

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