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PART SEVEN: "Columbine High School" (May 4, 1999)
"This is a tragedy; there's no other way to look at. You make firearms for people to have fun with...and to defend themselves with."
--Tom Deeb, co-owner of Hi-Point Firearms, the Mansfield, Ohio company which made a 9 mm semiautomatic carbine rifle used in the in the Columbine High School massacre.
Eddie and Kelly have watched me watch the televised coverage of the high school shootings that put Littleton, Colorado, at the front of every news broadcast in the country. They've watched a little bit of the broadcasts here and there, asking the occasional question, but, generally, they drift out of the room after a couple minutes. I try to answer their questions as best I can, but I know I can't give them the clear answers they want. I'm pretty sure no one could.
The question they haven't yet asked is whether something like this could happen in their school. That's the question I'm truly dreading because the only honest answer I could give them is that, yes, it could. I'm not sure there's a school in this country where it couldn't happen.
When I was growing up, I can't think of a single instance of a gun being brought to any of the schools I attended. The closest I can come is when I was in kindergarten. An older kid--he was the neighborhood bully and he lived down the street from me--brought a knife to school, waving it menacingly in front of myself and other kids. I ratted him out, the principal took the knife away from him without any problem, and the kid kicked my ass on the way home from school. By the week's end, we were playing catch across our front lawns. As neighborhood bullies go, we could have done a lot worse and this kid grew up to be a good man.
That was then. In the now in which my children and I live, I know that several area kids will be expelled or suspended each year because they brought guns to schools. Or because they made threats of one kind or another.
I also know that, should violence erupt, there will be fingers a'pointing all over the place, seeking out someone or something to blame for whatever new tragedy befalls. After Littleton, the usual suspects were dragged out. Accurately or not, the list to date has included, in no particular order: guns, movies, kids, video games, Marilyn Manson, parents, police, comic books, homosexuality, school officials, Hitler, the Internet, and the American Civil Liberties Union. I apologize if I've left out anyone's preferred scapegoat. There are only so many pages in this newspaper.
Sooner or later, my kids *will* ask me the dreaded question and I will have to tell them that it *could* happen here. But I'll also try to explain what they can do, what all of us can do, to try to prevent it from happening.
Eddie. Kelly. I know it's hard to understand that two kids could walk into their own school and start killing other kids. It breaks my heart to have to tell you that it could happen even here in Medina. And I can't give you any easy answers as to how we can keep it from happening here. But maybe we can figure out a couple things that might work.
Last night, as I jotted down notes for this column, I was also watching one of the local news broadcasts on the television. Near the top of the program was a report that the connected Brown Middle School/Rausch Intermediate School in nearby Ravenna was evacuated after a bomb threat was received through the Internet. The city's pre-school program is also located in Brown.
First and foremost, you have to talk to your parents and your teachers when kids make threats. I'm not talking about when Johnny tosses a snowball down Jimmy's back and Jimmy yells out, "I'm gonna kill you!" There are already enough folks out there who would like to turn our halls of learning into mini-prisons. I'm talking about when the threats get specific.
If Jimmy tells Johnny he's gonna get his dad's semi-automatic rifle--bought, no doubt, for the sheer fun of it--and blow Johnny away, that's something you need to tell me about.
If Jimmy tells someone he's gonna blow up the school or that he's made a "hit list" of students and teachers he wants to kill, that's also something you need to tell me about.
If Jimmy starts talking about getting rid of blacks or gays or Jews, if he praises mass murderers like Hitler, if he tells you he knows how to build a bomb, if he says he's brought a gun to school, if he actually you shows you a gun, these are all things you need to tell me about immediately.
And not just me. You have to tell your teachers immediately. And we have to tell Jimmy's parents and the police. That tired old "there were no warning signs" excuse just doesn't cut it anymore. There were lots of warning signs in Colorado, but not enough people willing to heed them.
I've tried to teach you that we all have to share this world, that different doesn't automatically mean bad, that everyone should be treated fairly. I know it can be confusing to live up to what I'm saying, especially when you're also being exposed to the casual racism of some of your relatives and the tolerance of that racism by too many of your other relatives. You can still love them, but you also have to understand how wrong they are.
For my part, I can promise you that when you come to me with your fears I will act on them. I'll talk to your school and I'll talk to the other parents. And, if comes to that, I'll talk to the police. Better ruffled feathers than the terrible consequences of ignoring the warning signs.
I promise you there will be zero tolerance for intolerance in our home. When fingers point in the aftermath of a tragedy, they need linger much longer on the underlying alienation, hatred, and resentment that so often fuel these tragedies.
I promise you I will not ignore any warning signs that I see in you, as much as it pains me to think of my own children in such ways. I will--given reasonable cause--invade your privacy to learn what you do. I will--no matter how embarrassing this may prove--be a part of every part of your lives. I will--no, I won't back off--know who your friends are and what kind of young people they are. With the great privilege of parenthood comes great responsibility. No matter how much it annoys you...and it will.
I promise you I will do my best to protect you and to raise you to be better adults than we have been...and to pray that your children will not have to share their classrooms with the fear of Littleton and West Paducah and Jonesboro and the others. There are no acceptable losses in this war.
And, most of all, I promise I will always love you. I have to believe love will ultimately prove stronger than the hatred around us. Abandon that belief and we are all lost.
The next day's edition of the Akron Beacon Journal described parents desperately searching the empty parking lot of the school with pagers in hand. The authorities had taken the pre-schoolers to a nearby school. The older students waited in Brown's football and soccer fields for buses or parents to take them home.
No bomb was found, but it would be incorrect to say no one was hurt. Everyone was hurt. The students, the parents, the teachers, the police, every one of them had to face the unthinkable in those anxious moments.
Are there answers? That there are no easy answers is certain. But there must be answers somewhere and, as is generally the case, the most likely place to find them will be within ourselves.
Discuss this column with me at my Message Board.
Heroes and Villains: Real and Imagined
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Part 7 |
"My Back Pages" (September 22, 2001)
"My Heroes Have Always Been Heroes" (March 24, 1995)
"There Are Heroes Among Us" (April 5, 1995)
"Heroes and Hope" (April 10, 1995)
"Crisis of Faith" (April 19, 1995)
"Oklahoma City" (April 26, 1995)
"Making It Right" (May 16, 1995)
"Columbine High School" (May 4, 1999)
"Unfinished Business" (September 23, 2001)