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Archive for Thursday, April 22, 1999

KEEP ASKING

April 22, 1999

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We may not have any answers concerning the brutal shootings in a suburban Denver school, but we must keep asking the questions.

Even hundreds of miles away, the news from Littleton, Colo., stuns and saddens all who hear it. It's hard to imagine the terror and pain that is hanging over the Denver suburb following a school shooting rampage that ended in at least 15 deaths.

They were mostly students, reportedly slain by two fellow students who seemed to treat their crime as sport, laughing at those who begged for mercy. The two shooters, who committed suicide after the attack, apparently viewed their actions as some sort of payback for being treated as outcasts. They singled out the "jocks" and took special aim at a black student, saying, "I hate niggers." One taunted a student hiding under a desk by saying "Peek-a-boo" before shooting her.

Their cruelty was so shocking and their actions so cold-blooded that they defy explanation. Although their victims were largely random, the shooters certainly weren't acting on impulse. A sheriff's representative said officers had found close to 30 explosive devices in the school and in the suspects' vehicles and homes. Some were timed to detonate, others were similar to grenades. The details are chilling. The students were interested in Nazi history. The attack took place on Adolph Hitler's birthday.

It's hard to imagine a more terrifying situation. The first question most people asked was "Why?" Next was "How can we keep it from happening again." Both questions are difficult to answer.

What makes any human being turn as vicious as these two young men did is a question for the ages. Fellow students and school staff members described the attacker's anti-social behavior and resentment toward more-popular students. They knew the two outcasts were different; some students probably even considered them dangerous, but no one took their threats seriously. And that, perhaps is one of the lessons that can be learned from this horrifying incident.

Whether it's in Chicago, Littleton, Colo., or Lawrence, Kan., schools simply can't afford not to take reports of threatening behavior seriously. Not every comment should result in the evacuation of a school building, but school counselors, teachers and staff need to stay close enough to students to evaluate the information they're receiving and observe possible changes in students who might be prone to violent behavior. It may be an argument in favor of smaller schools in which teachers can know students better and students can know teachers well enough to go to them if they sense trouble. If school administrators have to investigate 500 threats or rumors to avert one tragedy like the one in Colorado, their time would be well-invested.

We may all feel helpless to explain or respond to events in the Littleton high school, but we can't afford to simply shrug the shootings off as something that won't or couldn't happen here. It's happened too many times in recent months in communities from Oregon to Mississippi. Even if we don't have the answers we must keep asking the questions of our children and of ourselves to try to prevent such a tragedy from someday hitting even closer to home.

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