By Joel Berg, a freelance journalist and college professor.
What was supposed to be a typical Monday morning at Chardon High School near Cleveland, turned deadly as a former student opened fire in the cafeteria, sending teenagers running for the exits and diving under tables. Three have died, two more are injured and a community is visibly shaken.
Meanwhile, concerned citizens across the country are asking how school shootings like the Feb. 27 attack can be prevented. Schools nationwide have sharpened their preparedness ever since the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School outside Denver gained national attention. But officials largely have focused on reacting to violence, not preventing it, said Leta Finch, national education practice leader at Aon Risk Solutions.
"The sad thing is this isn't going to be the last time there's going to be a shooting on a school campus," Finch said. "If we want this to be the last time, then we better start moving quickly to prevent it from happening again."
Prevention can be complicated, however, Finch said. Privacy concerns are one factor that can hamper efforts. For instance, police do not always share information with schools.
The alleged shooter in Chardon, Thomas "T.J." Lane, 17, had earlier run-ins with the law and had posted potentially alarming messages on social media, according to news reports. Reports also indicate he had a troubled home life and at least one friend who was concerned.
"This student, in an ideal world, should have been able to know what to do with that information," Finch said, meaning the student could have known how to tell authority figures about Lane.
A second factor is the belief among parents and educators that, wherever else violence may occur, it ultimately won't strike their schools. As a result, adults tend to play down warning signs, or they fail to see violent tendencies.
"We like to think that those tendencies are overt when, in fact, for the most part they're not," Finch said.
Civil lawsuits have become a common postscript to school shootings, and the Ohio incident may prove no exception.
Parents whose children have died or been injured sue the schools, as well as other parties, alleging they should have seen signs or responded differently.
Lawsuits falter in some states, where so-called "sovereign immunity" laws shield public entities from liability. In other states, suits are often settled out of court for six- or seven-figure amounts. Payments are typically covered by general liability policies, though not always.
After the Columbine massacre, victims' families reached a $1.6 million settlement with parents of the two gunmen. Payouts were made under the parents' homeowners policies, according to news reports. A separate settlement of about $900,000 was struck with two men alleged to have supplied weapons used in the shooting.
A 2005 school shooting in Minnesota led to a settlement of $1 million between the school district and victims' families, according to news reports. Families received another $1.5 million in a settlement with the company hired to develop crisis plans for the district.
For schools, the impact on insurance coverage depends on several factors, including the event's severity and the initial reaction, said Dan Hurley, senior director of risk management and safety for Norfolk Public Schools in Virginia. After a shooting, an insurer likely would examine a school's safety program and gauge whether it needed improvement.
"In some of these cases, the school may have done everything, and something severe still could have happened," said Hurley, who also is president-elect of the Public Risk Management Association.
As schools assess their programs for handling violence, they should remain mindful of the more common risks they face: bullying, vehicle accidents, sports-related head injuries and sexual abuse, said Patrick Shaver, executive director of Schools of Ohio Risk Sharing Authority. Based in Columbus, Ohio, the authority is a nonprofit insurance consortium with 97 member school districts. Chardon is not a member.
"As tragic as these shootings are," Shaver said, "they're quite rare."
March 6, 2012
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