Archive for Thursday, March 26, 1998

SHOCKING SHOTS

March 26, 1998

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Focusing on how two boys might be punished for the shooting in Arkansas misses the larger point of how such incidents can be prevented in the future.

Americans aren't easily shocked by violent acts, but the school shootings Tuesday in Arkansas hit so close to home that it's hard to escape their emotional impact.

This is the middle of America, a school not unlike schools in Lawrence or thousands of other towns. The children could be your own or the ones who live down the block -- except four of the children in Arkansas and one of their teachers are dead today.

Even worse is the fact that their deaths were at the hands of their peers, two boys, 11 and 13 who went to school every day with the same children they aimed their guns at on Tuesday. The older boy got angry and for some inexplicable reason involved his cousin in a deadly plot to get back at his classmates for some perceived transgression.

How can this happen? More important, how can it be prevented?

Perhaps because they couldn't offer any good answers to those questions, news accounts of the shootings seemed to focus an inappropriate amount of attention on the legal situation of the boys suspected of the shootings. In Arkansas, we're told, children under 14 can only be charged in juvenile court and aren't eligible for the death penalty. A U.S. attorney was looking into whether the 13-year-old might be charged with a federal firearms violation.

Deciding how to punish two boys is far from the most important concern raised by the Arkansas shootings. It's hard to imagine the boys pondered the possible penalties their actions might carry before they hatched their deadly plan. Were they influenced by violent television or movies? Were guns too available in their homes? Were they not taught the proper respect for the weapons?

What was going on at school that might trigger such violent emotions? Could teachers or administrators have picked up on some cues? Should students have taken the boys' veiled threats more seriously? Was this an avoidable tragedy?

As a nation, we can only hope so.

Tougher gun laws might not have prevented these deaths, but the Arkansas incident does offer food for thought about how even legally obtained weapons can result in the deaths of innocent people. The shootings also should make us reflect on violence in America and how often people seem to turn to violence rather than conversation or negotiation to vent their anger or seek revenge.

There appears to be little question that the two young boys are responsible for the deaths of four fellow students and a teacher, and it would be wrong to try to soften that fact by blaming this tragedy on their home environments or other factors. Nevertheless, this shocking shooting should cause parents, teachers and friends of school-age children to be more alert to similar potential situations and try to figure out how to prevent our children from committing or becoming the victims of such senseless violent acts.

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