Watching For Warning Signs

Seth Trickey was, by almost all accounts, a model student. On the honor roll at his middle school in Ft. Gibson, Okla., the 13-year-old attended church and had lots of friends--not the kind of kid who would open fire on his classmates. And yet, police say, that is exactly what Trickey did on the morning of Dec. 8: moments after arriving at school, he pulled his father's 9mm semiautomatic handgun out of his backpack, then shot and wounded five students.

The attack highlights the tremendous difficulties school officials face in identifying students most likely to join the terrible fraternity that includes Kip Kinkel, Eric Harris and now, apparently, Seth Trickey. Kinkel, who killed his parents and two schoolmates in Springfield, Ore., and Harris, the purported instigator of the Columbine killings, both fit a common profile of troubled youths. They were alienated, angry and had a history of emotional problems. But so far at least, there's no outward indication that Trickey had anything more violent on his mind than football.

Experts say there's no foolproof way to spot potential killers, but early next year the FBI will release a report listing problematic traits to help educators and parents identify the seriousness of a student's threat. The report details warning signs in four areas of a student's life: personality, family, school behavior and other factors, such as drugs or alcohol.

That should help teachers and principals who usually don't have the training to differentiate between normal adolescent angst and genuine mental illness. Some indicators of a potential for violence: social withdrawal, excessive feelings of isolation and persecution, a history of aggressive behavior. "Teachers need to develop a lower threshold for concern" and alert a trained professional, says Dr. Frank Ochberg, a Michigan State University psychiatrist who helped prepare the report.

That's a good plan, but what's the next step? School psychologists--traditionally the first line of defense--are now often preoccupied in assessing kids who need help with learning disorders. Community mental-health networks have suffered budget cutbacks and there's a shortage of facilities to treat disturbed adolescents. As a result, many schools are adopting "zero tolerance" policies, pulling out kids who do anything suspicious. This works--sometimes. Expelling a student for violent imagery in creative writing "is an overreaction," says Julie Underwood, an attorney for the National School Boards Association, but a kid who brings a gun to school "should be removed, period."

Vigilance is the best defense. "There are always kids in the school who have heard unsettling comments and are wondering: is this kid safe?" says Underwood, and they should be urged to use hot lines to report threats from classmates. Teachers should also share information. "There may have been five people who saw part of the warning signal, but if administrators hear only one warning signal, they're not going to react the same way they would if they heard five," Underwood says. In other words, the more talking, the less shooting.