Sunday, April 19, 2009

Some thoughts about the Columbine anniversary

What lessons did we learn from Columbine?

When Klebold and Harris shot up the Littleton, Colo. high school April 20, 1999, I was in my final month as the editor of The Carthage Press and far removed from both the carnage and any personal knowledge of what goes on in the classroom.

My introduction to the classroom came less than four months later when I was hired as a creative writing teacher at Diamond Middle School. During the last 10 years, I have listened each time a shooting incident happens as know-it-all critics blame teachers every time a teenager picks up a gun and takes it to school.

The criticism came close to home in 2006 when Thomas Gregory White took an assault rifle to Memorial Middle School in Joplin, fired a shot into the ceiling, then aimed the weapon at Principal Steve Gilbreth. Fortunately, the weapon jammed, sparing Gilbreth and keeping White from forever being added to the list of young criminals such as Klebold, Harris, and Charles "Andy" Williams, whose murderous actions forever damaged their schools and communities.

On the Joplin Globe website, following an article on Thomas White's preliminary hearing, a reader commented, "Why did his teachers not notice anything was wrong with the kid?"

That comment angered me, especially since I knew his teachers were all asking themselves the same question.

I wrote the following response to that question in the March 8, 2007, Turner Report that day and I haven't changed my mind one bit.

Please do not put this off on the teachers. In the first place, teachers have 25 to 30 students in six classes or between 150 and 180 students per day. Don't expect them to be able to pick out one student who might eventually become violent when no one has yet determined what exactly leads to these incidents. (And we certainly try to keep our eye out for this type of student.)

In the wake of the Columbine shooting in 1999, the FBI released a 40-question survey, if memory serves me correctly, with a list of the traits that school shooters might (with an emphasis on that word) have. As I pored over that list, I discovered the items on it applied to nearly every student (and most of the teachers).

What is truly remarkable are the large number of students who are helped because teachers, counselors, and administrators reach out every day to students who have been bullied, students who until a teacher made an effort, thought that no one was in their corner.

Is there more that can be done to prevent bullying? Of course, and each year schools provide more training to teachers to help them deal with the problem. Bullying continues, but teachers are constantly working to lessen it.

We always hear about the students like Thomas Gregory White who slip between the cracks, but we never hear about all of the incidents that may have been prevented...because of teachers, counselors, and administrators who made the extra effort. Those are the stories that never get told."

Why do we never hear these know-it-all critics talk about the place where the intervention needs to be made- the home. Thomas Gregory White had ready access to guns even though his father, a convicted felon, possessed them illegally.

I have never read a story about a school shooting in which the parents of the shooter say, "I always know someday he was going to take a gun and shoot up the school." A teacher is with a child for 45 to 50 minutes a day, for 174 to 180 days a year. And we are supposed to be able to read minds?

Believe me, teachers are on the lookout for aberrant behavior. We take our responsibility seriously. We work every year to deal with any bullying incidents, and we take pro-active steps to stop them from occurring in the first place. Our methods of dealing with bullying are revised each year, and all personnel receive training for dealing with it. Yet none of us have any guarantee that someday violence will not touch our schools.

Despite all of this, every study shows that schools are the safest place for our children, Even in 1999, the year of Columbine, there were actually fewer incidents of school violence in the United States.

Again, this is because teachers, administrators, and counselors do not have their heads buried in the sand. Unfortunately, the media never writes about our successes.

Sadly, students receiving an education in a safe environment is not considered news. Yet that is what takes place every day in schools across the United States.

So tomorrow when the networks begin their anniversary stories on Columbine, remember why it still resonates with us. School shootings are rare. If teachers and administrators are going to be blamed every time an incident occurs, then shouldn't they receive the credit for maintaining the only safe, stable environment that some of these children will ever know?


GCook said...

As a classroom educator I couldn't say it any better than what you did. Thank you Mr. Turner!

RC said...

Thanks for sharing your post, I linked to it on my own blog.

I think it's a real challenge to think about portraying the safety of schools, because school safety is so "assumed." But I think your point is very true.

I think another part that makes Columbine such an oddity is that it's school violence to such an extreme in a place that would have typically been viewed as immune to such actions. If this had happened in the Bronx I don't think it would have had the same reaction.

Denny Crane said...