Image: Bill Dedman
By Bill Dedman Investigative reporter
updated 4/19/2007 5:51:13 PM ET 2007-04-19T21:51:13

The federal official in charge of school safety is no stranger to the Virginia Tech campus. His daughter is an alumna.

William Modzeleski is the director of the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program for the U.S. Department of Education. With researchers from the Secret Service, he wrote the study on past school shootings (requires Adobe Acrobat) as well as the guide for schools on ways to prevent attacks.

His view is that many of these rare events can be prevented — and have been prevented — by teachers and other adults paying attention to students and intervening. It's important to remember, he said, that the violent teenagers and young men usually work on their plans for a long time, and often let others know of their grievances.

"I don't think we can say that 100 percent can be prevented,” he told “It is reducing the odds. We do feel because kids send off signals, we have a better likelihood of intervening. How many other cases are out there where counselors and teachers have intervened, where we have prevented these things from occurring?"

Best advice?: Listen
Modzeleski has spent time at several of the schools that have had mass murders. His advice: Listen.  /  Department of Education
William Modzeleski, director of the Education Department's Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program.
"Listen to the kids. These things take a lot of time to recover from. This week, next week, you'll have memorials. Six months from now, those who are injured will be back in the school. There's a lot of pressure to move on. You have to pause and say, ‘We need to constantly be connected to our student population — including the faculty. Too often we forget about the faculty."

The guide encourages schools to:

  • Foster a culture of respect, where bullying and teasing are not allowed.
  • Create connections between students and adults, so students are encouraged to open up to someone.
  • Break the code of silence, giving students a confidential way to tell what they see or hear or are concerned about.
  • Adopt a threat assessment approach, in which the key question is not has this person committed a crime, or has this person made a threat, but does this person pose a threat. Cooperation and information sharing among police, teachers and counselors is important -- and investigation, too: Does this person possess a weapon?

Modzeleski says he has no way to know how many schools have implemented a threat assessment approach. The focus of the Education Department has been more directed at K-12 schools, but he knows that some college staff members have attended the training.

More information on the safe schools program is available on the program's Web site. A CD-ROM with the training materials by sending an e-mail to

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