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Columbine Legacy: Schools Safer?

When 16-year-old Sean Fitzpatrick walked into his Spokane, Wash., high school last fall and fired a shot into a classroom wall, authorities quickly responded.

School officials evacuated 2,000 students and within 15 minutes of the first 911 call, a SWAT team had contained the teenager inside a chemistry lab.

Although the Spokane school was well-prepared, experts warned as the five-year anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre approached Tuesday that the focus on school security has declined.

Even in Colorado, some schools have not followed up on recommendations and the use of prevention programs has diminished.

"The problem is that when public attention fades away, momentum also does," said state Assistant Attorney General Don Quick, who served on the Columbine Review Commission and continues to meet with school officials on safety issues. "We're trying to prevent that."

On April 20, 1999, two teenagers walked into Columbine High School in Littleton with guns, knives and bombs and killed 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves.

In response, schools across the nation adopted violence prevention and response programs. They also worked more closely with law enforcement — a relationship that came under scrutiny in the aftermath of the Columbine attack.

At Columbine, no officers entered the building until about 40 minutes after the first 911 call from the school. Critics have said that decision might have contributed to the death of teacher Dave Sanders, who bled to death from gunshot wounds.

For decades, police were trained under a doctrine that had patrol officers wait until SWAT teams could be assembled to enter shooting scenes.

"We realize now that time is not on our side," said Curt Lavarello, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

After Columbine, a review panel recommended that Colorado schools develop violence prevention and response plans and update them regularly, and install a formal procedure to assess students as potential threats.

Children were encouraged to report suspicious behavior by other students, a tactic that has led to numerous arrests or expulsions nationwide, and schools began using anti-bullying programs.

But while Columbine prompted schools to catch up on a decade of negligence regarding safety planning, progress has stalled and schools nationwide are in a dangerous backslide, said Kenneth Trump, president of a Cleveland consulting firm, National School Safety and Security Services.

Administrators faced with a choice of hiring a security officer or a tutor are likely to go with a tutor because of the increasing emphasis on test scores, Trump said. And tight budgets leave teachers precious little time for crisis or anti-violence training.

"Because of our human nature, the reality is that we're at high risk of not moving forward again until there's another spate of high-profile (school violence) incidents," Trump said.

Surveys show that public school students in Jefferson County, the home district for Columbine, feel more secure and believe that employees deal effectively with bullies, said spokesman Rick Kaufman. Students also are increasingly willing to report threats or suspicious behavior by other students.

"A message we truly harp on is you can never let your guard down," Kaufman said. "It's when it surprises us that we wish we would have stayed vigilant."

At Lewis and Clark High in Spokane, officials have opened its doors for training by SWAT officers and firefighters. Emergency evacuations and lockdowns are practiced nine times each year, a planning committee meets monthly and a crisis team meets four times per year to update plans.

Prosecutors in Washington have not yet decided whether to file adult or juvenile charges against Fitzpatrick, who was shot and wounded by SWAT officers when he pointed his gun at them. He had written a suicide note, and apparently had no intention of hurting anybody but himself.

No one knew that when he walked into the school, said principal Jon Swett.

"You can plan for and be confident in what you practice, but every situation is different and teachers and staff have to be able to think on their feet," Swett said.

By Jon Sarche