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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence
cluding building fences around the school and requiring every student to wear an identification tag. The combination of the fences and the identification tags led a number of students to independently voice the complaint that the institution felt more like a jail than a school; one student dubbed it “Heathcatraz.” Given the inefficacy of the fences at actually keeping people out (as a number of students routinely demonstrated by going over or under the fences), students worried that in the unlikely event of a future shooting, the fences would do less to keep the shooter out than to keep innocent students in. School officials in turn noted that Carneal brought the guns in through the band room, and that the fences give school personnel needed control over access to the school.
The identification tags were an object of particular bewilderment and outrage among the students. They accurately pointed out that ID tags seemed premised on the idea that outsiders were the likely source of problems, when, based on tragic past experience, it was students at the school who should be the primary concern. Some students and parents criticized both the identification tags and the fences as knee-jerk responses by the school board to give the appearance of action without actually addressing the issue.
One change that was almost universally praised is the addition of school resource officers (SROs) to McCracken County high schools and middle schools. Before the shooting, there was little to no police presence at Heath, and officers were called to the school no more than once or twice a year. The school resource officer at Heath, who was hired in the August following the shooting, is a former Paducah city police officer who works for the school full-time and is in charge of maintaining security.21 Like traditional police officers, SROs carry a radio, gun, handcuffs, and a club, but they try to blend into the school by wearing a “soft” uniform of slacks and a collared shirt. In our observations, the SRO at Heath has successfully integrated himself into school life and has befriended a number of the students. Tips he has received from students have led to several arrests for drug and other contraband violations. While he related that initially some in the community were suspicious of an armed presence in the school, over time he has become an accepted, liked, and valued resource at the school. Both he and the former principal emphasized that students were more apt to trust someone who does not report directly to the school hierarchy, and as such the school resource officer is sometimes able to get a better sense of what goes on among students, especially less academic students, than teachers and administrators. Teachers were also very supportive of the resource officer, because it relieved them of some of the more serious discipline duties that they did not really want. One teacher said the SROs might be useful in preventing school violence: “An ID badge and a fence won’t stop a potential shooter, but a security officer might.”