Looking for Early Warnings

"A $136,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice will give Oak Harbor police a chance to study the causes of school crime and violence this year. The hope is that by getting involved early, tragic school shootings that have happened elsewhere in the country will never happen here."

  • Friday, September 24, 1999 4:00pm
  • News

“Oak Harbor police were called to a single location 214 times last year. They handled 144 separate complaints of assault, malicious mischief, harassment and weapons violations. Hundreds of other incidents of sexual intimidation, bullying and threats were handled without calling in the police.The scene was Oak Harbor High School. And surprisingly perhaps, many people still consider it a pretty reasonable place — not much different from any medium-to-large-size high school in the country. On the other hand, the Oak Harbor High School environment, with its cliques, numerous fights, black-garbed students and peer pressures, is also not much different from high schools in Littleton, Colo., Fayetteville, Tenn., Pearl, Miss., Bethel, Ala. and Springfield, Ore. where a handful of students have taken school violence to a deadly extreme over the past three years.That’s why school officials, local police, students and social service agencies have joined forces to take a serious look at some of the causes of violence and to head them off before they get out of hand. This summer the Oak Harbor Police Department received a highly-sought grant from the Department of Justice that could get things started.The grant, known as a COPS grant because it is distributed by the office of Community Oriented Policing Services, totals $135,853. It will pay for a field study into intimidation and harassment on the Oak Harbor High campus and the writing of an action plan. Oak Harbor is one of only six cities in Washington to receive such a grant.“This is a problem-solving grant,” said Valerie Stafford of Citizens Against Domestic and Sexual Abuse. CADA wrote the grant proposal and will be a major participant in the study. “Instead of just throwing a lot of money at something, they’ve asked us to really identify the problem,” Stafford said. “We will be trying to find out who is bullying whom, who is being intimidated and who is doing the intimidating.”Looking back at the possible causes of a student shooting incident at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., last spring, Oak Harbor Police Chief Tony Barge said Columbine and Oak Harbor high schools share a lot in common — particularly in terms of student mix, rural city location and cliques. At Columbine, two student outcasts belonging to a group called the “Trench Coat Mafia” killed 15, including themselves. and wounded 23. The two gunmen, aged 17 and 18, dressed in black and had a long-running feud with student athletes and other school cliques.“As soon as Littleton hit the media, we knew we had to submit a (grant) application,” Barge said. He said daily influences on young people such as music, television, movies and teen peer pressure are at work everywhere.“We have those influences here. No community is isolated,” he said. “This is a large high school. You would expect to see conflict there — especially interactive conflict. Hopefully through this grant we’ll come up with some idea of where the problems are and the effects of them.”GAINING TRUSTThe COPS grant will put a trained professional in the school to study the problems that lead to violent acts. Barge said the person will not be a police officer but will have a good understanding of police work. Though the grant calls for the person to observe student behavior and conduct interviews with students, Barge said the mere nature of intimidation and harassment will mean students and their inter-relationships will have to be treated with care.“We’re very sensitive to it,” he said. “It’s all contingent on parent approval. We wouldn’t hold private sessions with students without parental permission.”Aside from parents, students themselves will naturally be reticent to talk. That’s why it will be important to gain their trust and cooperation. Right from the start, the committee that formed to apply for the COPS grant included two students and students will be actively involved in carrying it out as well, said CADA’s Stafford.“It’s very collaborative. We don’t want it to look like the police department is going to come in and start doing a lot of things,” she said. “There will be a lot of observation, people watching what’s going on. And we’ll be asking students to help us watch.”Oak Harbor Police Officer John Little spends his days on the high school campus as the school resource officer. He said getting kids to open up to adults, and the police in particular, is often a long process.“I’m slowly getting there,” he said. The Oak Harbor Police Department’s officer in the high school program is in its third year this fall, and it is the second year for Little. He said one of the first steps has been to get students to come see him even if they don’t have a problem. He’s not above resorting to a tasteful form of bribery.A jar in his small office holds a colorful collection of suckers which are free of charge to any student who stops by or brings a friend in to introduce. The sucker promotion works. Little’s office often becomes crammed with kids dropping in after lunch. It gives him a quick but important chance to ask them how things are going or if there are any problems brewing. Occasionally, he leaves his police uniform at home as a way of getting even more casual with the kids.On the other hand, Little stays alert and watchful. He said he doesn’t try to judge kids on appearances, but he does look for attire and behaviors that might signal gang activity or efforts at intimidation.WHAT NEXT?Barge said his department will probably hire a study coordinator and a crime analyst before the end of October. The grant specifies that the study must be completed this year. School officials say they have not yet met to discuss how to put the study in place at the school.Barge said the hope is that the study will lead to a plan for dealing with harassment, intimidation and bullying on campus. That may involve starting intervention programs at earlier grades. He said problems at the high school are sometimes born at the middle school level and students who are victims of intimidation early on, often become bullies themselves later.Stafford said the study may also help agencies such as CADA better understand the causes of dating violence which has been on the rise as of late. Barge said that despite perceived advances in equal rights, there is still a fair amount of sexual harassment among young people.“I see a lot of disrespect from boys to girls,” he said.Stafford said that armed with a good plan, future grant money may become available to put it to work. She said the COPS grant is a good and pro-active beginning.“I think this is a good way to start looking at the problem,” she said. “It may not be a quick fix … but it’s better than burying your head in the sand.””

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