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Putting Out a Hit

The news stories pop up with a regularity that triggers yawns instead of gasps: A student's "hit list" has been found in a locker, notebook, or online. It contains the names of classmates and categorizes them according to the harm the writer wants to inflict upon them—ranging from "kill" to "knock out cold." As hit lists become almost commonplace, school officials and experts are debating both what the lists mean and how best to respond.

"It's like a fad ... It becomes something that's popular to do," says a university professor who's studied kids who kill their peers. Some students argue that the lists are simply a way to release anger and stress. But others, like Ronald Stephens of the National School Safety Center, say hit lists—especially the online variety—can portend real danger. "Challenges or threats that are communicated in written form have a tendency to escalate," Stephens says.

Paradoxically, while hit lists have become more common, school violence has actually declined since the early 1990s. But those statistics don't comfort school officials when they're faced with a hit list at their school.

What do you think? Are hit lists a "blueprint for deadly action," or essentially harmless?

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