Geeks Freak Over School-Violence Hotline

SAN FRANCISCO (03/31/2000) - Tech Web site was blanketed with more than 800 user posts yesterday in response to an article titled, "Geek Profiling." Media critic Jon Katz wrote that North Carolina is the first state to take part in a pilot program called "WAVE," in which high school and middle school students can call an 800 number if they believe a fellow student or teacher is showing warning signs of violence.

WAVE, which stands for "Working Against Violence Everywhere," was developed by Pinkerton's, the billion-dollar-a-year private investigation firm whose most famous employee was hard-boiled detective novelist Dashiell Hammett. W.A.V.E., commissioned by North Carolina Gov. James D. Hunt Jr., is designed to prevent another Columbine. "In most cases (of school violence), they found there were warning signs," explains Jim Powell, the senior vice president of Pinkerton's Special Services Group, the division which is spearheading WAVE.

"Someone knew this was going to happen but didn't know who to tell." In the first phase of WAVE, unveiled in February, Pinkerton's built a remote call center to answer students' calls. Students are assured complete anonymity when calling - they never have to give their names. An operator asks them questions and records their answers. A log is then sent back to the individual schools, where a school point person can investigate the complaints.

To encourage students to use the help line, Pinkerton's plans to roll out WAVE's "Education" campaign in 40 public schools in North Carolina. This aggressive branding campaign would include heaps of collateral, including posters, pamphlets for students and parents, T-shirts and wallet-sized cards. A Web site also will contain inspirational articles about responsibility, including a section on the site where students make the equivalent of an anonymous phone call.

A is available now. WAVE is based on a 20-year-old Pinkerton's service called Alert Line, designed for adult corporate America. Alert Line serves more than 800 businesses around the world (according to Pinkerton's) and allows businesses to set up their own toll-free lines for workers to make anonymous calls regarding concerns about workplace violence or harassment. Powell says Alert Line callers rarely cry wolf. "People who deliberately call in to try to defame coworkers is extremely low," he says. However, Powell says he realizes that the adolescent mentality might present a greater challenge, hence the aggressive education campaign.

A pamphlet for parents details early indicators of violence. The warning signs include "low school interest and poor academic performance," "social withdrawal," "excessive feelings of rejection" and "inappropriate access to, possession of and use of firearms." Katz reacted strongly to these "indicators" in his article on SlashDot: "In the lunatic world of American education, and the surreal aftermath of Columbine, it now seems perfectly reasonable, even sensible, to suspend and force into counseling children who are angry, depressed, who wear white, game obsessively, or who say intemperate and stupid things." SlashDot's community agreed.

One post joked, "Think of it this way - once this program kicks off, there'll be fewer postings on SlashDot... ;-)" Katz goes further. "This Orwellian phobia (who do we turn in next?: "dangerous" parents, neighbors and sibs?) has been a staple of the most venal political systems in the 20th Century, from Nazism to fascism to Communism." Another SlashDot poster remembered that there is a 1981 afterschool special called The Wave about, unbelievably, a Nazi experiment in a public school. Sure enough, the describes the TV movie as based on a true story in which a high school teacher "plays a mental game with his students."

The Wave was actually based on a first-person account by teacher Ron Jones and published in the Whole Earth Review in 1976. Editor Michael Stone describes it thus: "The story, Take As Directed, was about an experiment that (Ron Jones) called The Third Wave, which he had run in a world history course he taught. He wanted to see how easily he could inspire Nazi-like behavior in his students, and the experiment was depressingly successful," Stone says. Pinkerton's was far from pleased about comparisons of WAVE to the Third Reich. "The confusion tends to center around the incorrect assessment that this is a program that encourages students to - I'm trying not to use the words they use - encourages students to 'tell on' other students," says Mark Leaf, Pinkerton's public relations director. "And there have been a couple of really distasteful parallels to other countries and other times in this world's history, to other events that, um, really have nothing to do with this, frankly."

But what of the fear that the harmless geek who listens to Goth music, wears black fingernail polish, eschews organized religion and engages in "antisocial" behavior would be targeted by such a campaign? "The key that we point out here really clearly is people need to take behaviors in the aggregate," Powell says.

"Not individually." And there were other "gross misunderstandings" in Katz's article, according to Pinkerton's. Katz incorrectly states, for instance, that students would receive cash incentives to use the WAVE call-in number.

Actually, Powell says, students who carry a WAVE card (with the toll-free number printed on it) would receive discounts at local shops.

Pinkerton's says this is an incentive, not to call the number, but to get into the WAVE spirit of things. "We will look for sponsors," Powell says. "A dollar off at a pizza place if you show your WAVE card. So the students get some benefit with being associated with the program. It doesn't mean calling in, it means embracing the positive message of responsibility."

WAVE is free to schools. In order to underwrite the high cost of WAVE education (nine posters per school that are changed four times a year for variety, business cards, pamphlets, etc.) Pinkerton's will be looking for more than just pizza parlors to help foot the bill. Pinkerton's is trying to hook a corporate sponsor or sponsors, which would benefit from an association with WAVE's "positive message." Sponsors would get placement on the WAVEamerica Web site and have their brands printed on one poster inside each school, Powell said.

Sponsors also would be encouraged to provide career advice and scholarships because "they have a concern about the ethics and values about tomorrow's workforce," Powell says. If SlashDot computer geeks' reaction is any indicator, high-tech sponsors might be shooting themselves in the foot. If antisocial behavior and resistance to a corporate-sponsored environment of "responsibility" is rooted out of American high schools, high-tech America increasingly might have to look overseas for computer programmers.

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