Seventeen-year-old Cliff Riggins is a self-described theater freak who wears black nail polish, listens to Godsmack and has experimented with Wicca, a neopagan religion involving witchcraft. At West Mecklenburg High School, located just off Billy Graham Parkway on the outskirts of Charlotte, North Carolina, these are not activities that get him chosen to head up the pep rallies. That duty is usually reserved for a crowd known around school as the “preps,” who wear a lot of Abercrombie & Fitch and all seem to work at the county pool in the summer. Although Riggins has found a groove for himself at West Meck by spending lots of time in the theater department, he’s frank about the fact that he’s never really fit in. “I guess I’ve always liked to color outside the lines,” he says.
While Riggins is used to getting weird looks in the halls, he never expected that his unusual tastes would make him a target of criminal suspicion. After the Columbine shootings, when the perpetrators identified themselves as members of an outsider group called the Trench Coat Mafia, he was pulled aside and confronted by teachers about his tendency to dress in black and occasionally wear a long coat. “FBI agents wear trench coats!” says Riggins, who has never been in a fistfight. “Maybe I don’t look like everyone else, but it’s not like I’m gonna go shoot up the school.”
A new school-safety initiative launched at West Meck this fall means there is no end of aggravation in sight for students like Riggins. The WAVE, which stands for Working Against Violence Everywhere, is a corporate-sponsored program that features a toll-free number students can call anonymously to report classmates they deem dangerous. To help identify potential offenders, the WAVE, which is run by the global security giant Pinkerton’s Inc., distributes brightly colored pamphlets outlining the “Early Warning Signs.” Behaviors listed include “social withdrawal,” being “easily angered by minor things” and experiencing “excessive feelings of rejection.” The program enjoys the support of North Carolina’s Democratic Governor, Jim Hunt, and is being introduced statewide in public middle and high schools.
The WAVE provides students with wallet-sized plastic cards stamped with the WAVE Line 800 number, entitling them to discounts and free gifts from the program’s corporate sponsors. This fall participants were offered a buy-one, get-one-free Go-Cart or Bumper Boat ride at Celebration Station, an amusement park. Tamara Park, a spokesperson for Pinkerton Services Group, explains: “Students need to know that corporations are invested in their future. If kids get a discount when they use their WAVE card to buy a burger, it gives them incentive to hold on to the card and reminds them that corporations care.”
While the corporate-sponsored reward system is unique to the WAVE, similar “early warning” behavior checklists are surfacing in a slew of national school-safety programs aimed at identifying potential young offenders before they strike. This fall the FBI released a forty-five-page report titled “The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective.” Although the FBI study says it discourages “profiling” of students, it lists twenty-eight characteristics that are supposedly associated with past school shooters–among them watching TV without parental supervision, having a failed love relationship or demonstrating narcissism or inappropriate humor. Other warning-sign behaviors include depression, alienation and appearing detached from school. For Riggins, the report reads like a checklist for his high school experience. The FBI maintains that the study is intended only to help teachers evaluate a student who has made a violent threat, but others argue that creating such a list is inherently dangerous because of its potential for misuse as a profile.