Archive for Thursday, April 22, 1999

DISTRICT NOT IMMUNE TO THREAT OF VIOLENCE

April 22, 1999

Advertisement

One lesson of the Littleton, Colo., school shooting is that a similar crime could occur anywhere -- even in Lawrence.

An unloaded .22-caliber revolver was found in February stuffed in a 13-year-old student's backpack at West Junior High School in Lawrence.

A Perry-Lecompton High School student was disciplined for bringing a shotgun onto school grounds and carrying ammunition inside the school in November.

In October, two Oskaloosa teen-agers were suspended for bringing a loaded .38-caliber handgun on school property.

None of these incidents led to bloodshed, but educators, students and experts agreed Wednesday that each should serve as a wake-up call that there exists potential for deadly violence in any school in any community in this nation.

"One thing that we have learned is that tragedies know no boundaries. Violence can happen anywhere," said Kathleen Williams, superintendent of Lawrence schools.

Mary Loveland, a Lawrence school board member, said there was no prevention plan or security system capable of guaranteeing highly motivated individuals would be blocked from attacking a school or other public building.

"You cannot protect people from the truly crazy folks."

On Tuesday, two students in black trench coats assaulted Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. They reportedly laughed and hooted during a shooting rampage that left at least 15 people dead. The two teen-age males concluded their grisly strike by committing suicide and leaving close to 30 explosive devices for law enforcement investigators.

Jerry Wells, interim executive director of the Koch Crime Institute in Topeka and a former Douglas County district attorney, said there were many youths in the country capable of similarly gruesome acts of evil.

"I think there are thousands, but percentagewise it's a very, very small group," he said.

Elaine Johannes, a community mental health specialist at Kansas State University, cautioned against singling out schools as especially dangerous places. Students ages 12 to 18 are more likely to be victims of serious violence away from school, she said.

"It's important to normalize, or buffer, the sensationalism that often accompanies this situation," she said.

Not a normal day

Algebra, civics and drama were mere diversions Wednesday in Lawrence schools. The main topic of conversation in classrooms and halls was the Colorado shootings, which spooked some local students.

Dain Dillingham, a 13-year-old student at Central Junior High, said his friends wondered aloud whether similar wrongdoing could occur in their school. He was among a minority of students convinced this variety of rage couldn't surface in Lawrence.

"It can happen in any school," countered Elizabeth Winter, another Central student.

Lawrence High senior Mike Reusch agreed without hesitation. Consider this: Littleton is a growing, well-to-do city with a low murder rate and populated by college-educated people living on the outskirts of a large metropolitan area. Sounding eerily like Lawrence?

"There's no doubt it could happen here," Reusch said.

Jamie Harper, a sophomore at Kansas University, said her family moved from Denver to Littleton because the suburban community was known as a safer place.

"This has shocked me," she said. "A lot of people my family knows go to that high school. My brother goes to Littleton High School and has friends at that school. It's just a suburb like many other places."

Joe Walker, another LHS senior, accepted that violence could visit his school but refused to change his life in response to a potential threat.

"I'm not going to let it stop me from doing things I'd do anyway."

Jeremy Osbern, a junior at Free State High School, said a teacher in one of his classes devoted 45 minutes to a discussion of the massacre.

"I'm not really afraid," he said. "If someone is set on doing it, they're going to do it. You can't prevent it."

Shooting reaction

Williams said building administrators in the Lawrence school district met Wednesday to discuss a review of staff crisis procedures.

"Prevention and planning are two of the tools we use to ensure safe schools," she said. "Qualified and caring staff members are our absolute best line of prevention."

She said it was critical to keep lines of communication open between students and staff.

"We encourage students to talk to an adult in their school if they have any concerns regarding their safety," she said.

Loveland said parents of today's youths need to look for warning signs. Who are their friends? Their friends' parents? How do they spend free time? What are they reading?

"Parents need to talk to their kids. They need to know what's bothering their kids. What values have developed. If they see danger signals in their own kids ... talk to people about it. Get some help."

Wells said the Koch Crime Institute had conducted research on school violence, relying on some of the top experts in the United States. A Koch conference on the issue is planned in July for Boulder, Colo.

He said people responsible for the deaths of 14 students or teachers in seven U.S. school shootings since 1997 had common "markers."

The suspects in Littleton apparently were no exception. Reports of the Littleton shooting indicate suspects Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were outcasts who wore black, played war games and sometimes wore Nazi symbols. They apparently were enraged about being isolated from the student body and issued warnings of their frustration in the form of threats.

"Most are crying out for attention," Wells said. "They lay down these clues and want a response. If they don't get one, that confirms their judgment that they're not a part of the school, isolated and seen as students that don't belong."

Wells said the availability of guns gave alienated teen-agers a violent outlet.

He said research suggested people involved in these crimes generally were deprived emotionally or abused as children. In response, he said, children throw up protective devices that numb themselves to most human emotions.

"What that does is accommodate this lack of love and caring that we normally enjoy. They become so angry that what they're doing is seen as something they need to do."

-- Tim Carpenter's phone message number is 832-7155. His e-mail address is tcarpenter@ljworld.com.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.