The grade-school drawing looked typically innocent, at least in its style. The subjects were two stick figures, one of them wearing a loopy smile. But the teacher in San Bernardino, Calif., who found it stowed in a student's desk was alarmed by the story line. One grinning stick figure wielded a gun. The other, frowning, had just been shot.
The sketch, from the hand of an eight-year-old with a penchant for nasty temper tantrums, was drawn only days after a six-year-old in Michigan fatally shot a classmate, so school officials decided to be on the safe side. They brought the drawing to the attention of Gary Underwood, chief of police for the city's public schools, who ran the child's case through the department's new computer "threat-assessment" program, called Mosaic-2000. With a battery of 42 questions--Is the student harassed by peers? Has the student recently experienced rejection?--Mosaic purports to calculate rough odds on whether a child will turn violent.
Long used by law-enforcement and government agencies to examine threats made against their personnel, Mosaic software is now being field-tested in about 20 public school districts from Jonesboro, Ark., to Los Angeles to Salem, Ore. In its assessment of the stick-figure artist, the program suggested that the boy shared several traits with past violent offenders and guided the school to put him in counseling and under close watch. "When those kids walked into Columbine with bombs, no one was expecting it," says Underwood. "We're now on alert if this child comes into school with a bulge in his pocket."
This is the level of vigilance in the American public school a year after Columbine. On average, it may be a safer place than ever--the number of school-associated violent deaths dropped 40% from 1997 through 1999--but it feels scarier with each new well-publicized shooting and threat. In the year since the Columbine massacre, understandably nervous school officials have cycled through a series of responses, from lock-down drills to see-through knapsacks, with the impulsiveness of seventh-graders buying the boy-band CD of the moment.
Now, though, administrators are quietly shifting their sights from metal detectors to "mental detectors." Commonly known as profilers, these programs aim to detect violence-prone kids before they act by comparing them to those who have already snapped. Investigators from Columbine and Jonesboro have tutored administrators across the U.S. on the telltale signs that in their cases went tragically undetected or unheeded. The FBI, which last fall circulated a 20-point "offender profile" culled from common characteristics of school shooters, will release a report on the topic next month. And the Secret Service, at work on its own study, is interviewing school shooters to see what makes them tick--and then explode.
Along with its findings, the Secret Service plans to give schools an instructional video and a set of probative questions. In addition, numerous questionnaires and checklists are being sold by private firms or drawn up by school officials themselves. One screening test for students is titled simply "Questions for Killers."