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But the post-Columbine story is not always about overreaction. Officials at some schools, including those that have witnessed tragedies, have found ways of persuading students to communicate calmly their worries to teachers they trust. At Deming Middle School in New Mexico, where Araceli Tena was shot in the head by a classmate in 1999, principal Mike Chavez has visited every classroom to talk about the damage of spreading baseless rumors. The Santee news didn't cause a flurry of bogus threats or panicky tips at Deming this week, as it did at so many other schools. Similarly, officials in Jefferson County, Colo., home of Columbine, say the results of two surveys--one taken last year and one just before the carnage--show that the district's students did not feel less safe a year after the killings. Which is sad in a way: you don't fear what you know intimately. It's the rest of us who are hysterical.
To be sure, some good has come as a result of the soul searching. In Hoyt, Kans., where three students were arrested last month after they allegedly planned to bomb Royal Valley High School, student-council president Tara Goodman, 18, says the barriers that once divided students from teachers have vanished. In Oxnard, Calif., where cops killed a Hueneme High School student who was holding a classmate hostage in January, principals throughout the district now have two-way radios to be used if the phone lines go dead. Those will come in handy during any kind of disaster.
Anything seems possible after Columbine, but should it? Students at our high schools may be the best authority on this question, and they are a lot less worried than their parents about getting shot. Although 70% of adults in an April 2000 poll said they believe a shooting was likely in their neighborhood's school, in a fall 1999 poll a similar percentage of students said they feel personally safe from campus violence. Says Joanne McDaniel, director of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence: "We still have a lot of people saying it could not happen here, but we have a lot more who are realizing they need to be vigilant." The question is, Can administrators and students be vigilant without being vigilantes?
--Reported by Wendy Cole and David Thigpen/Chicago, Nancy Harbert/Albuquerque, Rita Healy/Denver, David S. Jackson/Twentynine Palms, Jeanne McDowell/Los Angeles, Tim Roche/Atlanta and Rebecca Winters/New York
TIME.com ON AOL Chat with John Cloud about school violence on AOL at 7 p.m. E.T. on March 14. Keyword: Live.