LENOIR CITY, Tenn. -- A teacher and coach for 25 years, Dave Moore carefully unfolds a small white paper from his wallet to reveal a single handwritten word:
Though Littleton, Colo., is more than a 1,100 miles from this small, low-crime community west of Knoxville, Tenn., Moore looks at the paper every day as a somber reminder that he is a "teacher of life" to the 965 students at Lenoir City High School.
He vows that Columbine will never happen in Lenoir City and last year launched "The Care Club" to ensure that.
"I know what's missing in our schools today, and it all starts right here," he says, pointing to his heart. "It's all about caring."
Turns out, Moore's observations are in line with the findings of many researchers studying school violence and the young people most at risk to cause it.
A report by the National Association of School Psychologists before the April, 1999, Colorado school massacre found that isolation and teasing or bullying by other students was a common thread among teens involved in five other school shootings.
Other experts cite a lack of parental involvement in education, schools that have become large and impersonal, and community indifference due to busing.
Many educators also have distanced themselves emotionally from students because they worry about lawsuits and invading parental rights. They are more focused on academics as state and local governments hold them accountable for student grades.
While other factors also play a role, all such trends are being reassessed in the wake of Columbine, which left 15 people dead in the worst school shooting in U.S. history.
"Columbine was the Pearl Harbor of school violence," said Pam Riley, executive director of the Center for Prevention of School Violence. "Most everything is fair game now."
Though the chance of being murdered at school is rare, the frightening images from Littleton, Paducah, Ky., Pearl, Miss., and Jonesboro, Ark., are seared into the minds of Americans.
Riley said the knee-jerk response was to armor America's schools with metal detectors, surveillance equipment and two-way radios. Having invested millions there, policy makers and parents are now focusing inward on the root causes of violence.
"We live in a society with Rambo hearts and Terminator heads," Riley said. "More and more school districts are ready to look beyond the hardware now.
"They want schools that know the kids and care for the kids. They want suggestions how to address the people aspect of this problem -- things like character education, conflict management and helping kids to be more civil."
It's the "people aspect" that led Moore to start developing "The Care Club" in 1997. He had watched too many students slip through the cracks of indifference. The nation's string of school shootings strengthened his resolve to take action.
"Everybody needs to know they are cared about, but so many kids come from broken homes today and their parents are so busy working, they don't know what care is -- how to receive it or how to give it," Moore said.
He believes such prolonged detachment can lead students to violent behavior, even homicide and suicide.
"Until every person -- including the kid with a mohawk and an earring in his eyebrow -- knows they are worthy of the same care as the valedictorian or the captain of the football team, we're going to have problems in our schools," he said.
To encourage that, Moore's extracurricular club hand-delivers birthday cards to each student, calls to check on those absent for three days or more (as a caring gesture, not a truancy call) and organizes community service projects.
The club also matches new students with others with similar interests, bakes cookies for the teachers' lounge, monitors a CARE helpline and sponsors weekly activities designed to break through the walls of cliques and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Assistant principal Chip Orr said the program doesn't cost much money, but it's still very expensive.
"This takes time. It takes effort. It takes consistency. You have to talk to the kids on a daily basis. You have to slowly chip away at the walls," he said.
Students initially were cool to the idea when the club began last fall. But by the end of the school year in May, more than 400 had participated. And students and educators said they could see a difference.
Graduate Doug Moore, a senior soccer star who is not related to Coach Moore, talked about the club as he sat in the school cafeteria. He pointed to tables where the jocks sat at the beginning of the school year, and to other tables unofficially reserved for rednecks, preps, freaks and freshmen.
"Last year, nobody would leave their little circle. This year, people learned to move from group to group. It's like, if you dress different, who cares? If you listen to different music, who cares?"
Joe Downs, who just finished his junior year at Lenoir City, says he is known as a "freak" because he's "unlike anyone else."
When The Care Club delivered his birthday card Dec. 12, "it made me smile for the first time in quite a while," said Downs, who says he grapples with depression. "It was nice to know somebody actually cared about my birthday other than my family."
To Coach Moore, the key is simple:
"Caring is contagious," he said. "Is it going to save everybody? No. But you live by example and hope somebody notices."
Moore is not the only educator trying to change the American school system's behavioral model from the inside out.
In the last five years, thousands of programs have spread exponentially to teach everything from anger management and resolving conflict to good manners. Like Moore's, most are developed locally. Others come from researchers and private entrepreneurs, said Denise Gottfredson, a University of Maryland criminology professor who in 1998 surveyed schools nationwide about their strategies.
What works and what doesn't is still up for debate.
"This is a brand new field of research, and one of the biggest hurdles is getting accurate statistics from principals and superintendents," said Paul Kingery, director of the Hamilton Fish Institute, which researches school and community safety issues.
Based on initial studies, however, the most effective programs are long-term in nature, experiential in style (using teaching methods such as role playing) and include the entire student body, Kingery said.
"What doesn't work is pulling kids out of the classroom for an occasional assembly or special class," said Kevin Dwyer, president of the National Association of School Psychologists.
"It has to be integrated into the school's philosophy so that the teachers reinforce right behaviors, as do the custodians, bus drivers and cafeteria workers," he said.
Gottfredson says homegrown programs have the benefit of a champion who cares about them, lobbies for them and can recruit local support. "The downside is they may not make use of the national research," she said.
For Moore, who hopes to spread "The Care Club" concept to other schools, all the research in the world can't displace his own personal experience and observation.
"I think back over my own education. I don't remember the academics as much as I remember the people who went the distance and showed care toward me," he said. "They made the difference for me."
Pointing to his heart again, "It all starts right here."
On the Internet:
Hamilton Fish Institute - http://www.hamfish.org
National Resource Center for Safe Schools - http://www.safetyzone.org
To contact The Care Club, e-mail email@example.com or wecarelchs(at)aol.com; phone is (865) 966-CARE.
Peninsula Clarion ©2014. All Rights Reserved.