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Can 'profiling' prevent school violence?

Its critics fear that some kids would be branded unfairly

Wednesday, October 27, 1999

By Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

For two decades, agents in the behavioral science unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., have relied on psychological profiling to develop behavioral "fingerprints" of the Ted Bundys and the Jack the Rippers of the world.

Now, as a measure to improve school safety, one of Pittsburgh's largest suburban school districts is thinking of following suit.

North Allegheny Assistant Superintendent Richard Domencic has proposed the district look into what some consider a radical tactic in the battle to stem school violence: student profiling to identify students who are believed to be prone to violence.

"You will never know if you overreact," Domencic told the board when he presented his proposal last month, "but you will always know if you underreact."

Domencic said he was intrigued by reports that FBI and Secret Service agents have been instructing school officials across the United States on behavioral science and psychological profiling.

While he conceded he wasn't sure exactly how profiling would work at North Allegheny, Domencic stressed he wouldn't be in favor of "branding kids."

"But if local law enforcement and the FBI have developed more sophisticated ways of identifying kids at risk, why would we not want to investigate it?" he asked.

"I'm not proposing we do it, just that we explore it," said Domencic, who has a background in security and defense and is familiar with the development of criminal profiles.

But North Allegheny school director Joe Morrison has rejected Domencic's proposal.

"I think it's absolutely arrogant for anyone, with or without a psychology degree, to think they can come up with a psychological profile for these kids," he said at last month's meeting.

"FBI agents? Secret Service? ... This is not the Kremlin. This is an educational institution."

Morrison said he was concerned that students could be unfairly labeled and that information collected in the profiles would be put in files that followed the child for the rest of his educational career.

"This will be stigmatic for these kids," he said. "This is a business we shouldn't even consider getting into."

North Allegheny has not reported any incidents of gun violence.

Terri Royster, a supervisory special agent for the FBI Academy in Quantico, confirmed the agency was sharing information with schools throughout the country but shied away from the term "profiling."

"It's more about identifying warning signs and risk factors," she said. "The message we're trying to send is: Don't wait until you have a school shooter. Identify kids that could potentially be a problem at an early age and get them involved in counseling or other appropriate programs."

North Allegheny listed student profiling as one of several measures for preventing school violence in a proposal it submitted to the state recently for a $200,000 Safe Schools Grant. Other ideas included conflict resolution instruction and character education at the elementary- and middle-school levels.

North Allegheny is not alone in its thinking. Along with a strict dress code and a policy prohibiting gangs and hate groups, the Granite City School District in Illinois requires all staff to report immediately student behavior that, based on a list of 20 specific characteristics, could lead to armed violence. Students who are identified as "at risk" are evaluated by a team that includes a police officer, a social worker, a clinical psychologist and a school administrator.

Among the Illinois district's 20 troublesome characteristics:

a history of tantrums and uncontrollable angry outbursts;

a preoccupation with weapons, explosives or other incendiary devices;

a preference for television shows, movies or music expressing violent themes and acts;

writing school essays that "reflect anger, frustration and the dark side of life."

Using this approach forces everyone -- from the bus driver to the secretary to the teacher -- to take anti-social behavior seriously, said Granite City Superintendent Steve Balen. The fact that three of the four team members aren't employed by the school district ensures the student evaluation is not an "emotional process."

"It's too early to tell whether the six-month-old policy is working, Balen said. But, he added, "It gives us one more tool."

The Wallingford, Conn., School District in also is considering adopting student profiling in an attempt to identify problems with violence before they arise.

Superintendent Joseph Cirasuolo, who also is president of the American Association of School Administrators, has said that educators intervene in reading problems and other learning difficulties and should do the same if a student appears prone to violence.

Like the Granite City plan, Wallingford's profiles -- or "behavioral evaluations," as the board agreed to call them -- would be developed with the help of social workers, psychologists and law enforcement officers. Parents of students who fit the profile would be notified and recommended for in-school counseling or out-of-school treatment, and those referrals would not appear on a student's permanent record.

Cirasuolo did not return several phone calls from the Post-Gazette.

Gavin de Becker Inc., a safety and privacy consulting firm based in Studio City, Calif., this winter will pilot a computer program it claims will help school officials identify troubled students who pose an elevated risk of violence.

The program, called Mosaic-2000, rates students on a scale of 1 to 10 based on a series of questions about behavior, each with a range of possible answers.

Responses to the carefully worded questions -- which were crafted from case histories by 200 experts in behavioral science, education and law enforcement -- are weighed against one another as well as against those cases where the outcome is known; the higher the score, the more the student's situation resembles those which have escalated and is in need of intervention.

According to vice president Bob Martin, the program works better than the more often used checklist because it takes the dynamics of the particular situation the school district is concerned about -- bringing a weapon to school, threatening another student with violent language -- and puts them all into context with one another.

In asking about guns, for example, the range of answers includes everything from "no known possession of a firearm" and "owns his own firearm" to "friends known to have ready access to a firearm."

The risk-assessment program, which was co-developed with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, will be tested in 25 elementary, middle and high schools in California, Ohio and Oregon beginning in December. The main focus, however, will be in high schools.

Martin said the program does not profile students but "evaluates a system and the context it is occuring in."

He added other versions of Mosaic are already used by public safety agencies in screening threats to Supreme Court justices, members of Congress and federal judges and prosecutors.

Others are warily eyeing the use of profiling by schools. State Rep. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, who earlier this year introduced a bill called the School Violence Prevention Act that would require all school districts in Pennsylvania to develop a comprehensive violence prevention plan, said she was concerned that North Allegheny might be embarking on a "dangerous and slippery slope."

Her concerns are similar to school director Morrison's.

"When you begin to profile students, it is going to have a negative impact," she said. "Kids who are labeled will end up with a stigma and be treated differently."

Vic Walczak, executive director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, also worried that such a measure would unfairly target kids.

"It all depends on the criteria that are used as part of the profile," he said. A policy based on clothing, appearance or religious or political beliefs, he said, would be on "shaky territory." On the other hand, if the profiling focused solely on students' behavior, "you're on firmer ground."

"We'd have to see how it works," said June Arnette, associate director for the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif., a nonprofit organization that serves as a clearinghouse for current information on school safety.

While she said she liked the idea of identifying early warning signals -- the center developed the checklist of 20 warning signs adopted by Granite City -- profiling is "not an exact science," she said.

Because so few incidents of mass murder have occurred on school campuses in the past decade, a good data base of information on those students who've committed these violent acts probably isn't available, she said.

"But if we're identifying factors in a kid's life that might cause problems or set them up for academic failure, getting them help is a good idea."

The ACLU's Walczak agreed that school officials should carefully consider the consequences of student profiling before putting it into practice.

"Districts would have to be so very sensitive because what they would be saying is, 'Here is a student who may not have done anything wrong, but based on some criteria, may cause problems somewhere along the road.' "

But Domencic believes student profiling is worth exploring.

"If a kid is going to distinguish himself as someone with a propensity for violence, we'd be fools not to want to know that or to keep an eye on the situation," he said. "Not only would we be derelict in our duties but, by neglect, could unwittingly be permitting someone a freer hand" to commit violent or dangerous acts.

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