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Archive for Friday, April 30, 1999

SIZE AND TRAGEDY

April 30, 1999

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Would downsizing have prevented the Colorado high school murder spree?

The Lawrence High School of several years ago had at least one similarity to the Littleton, Colo., high school that has been so much in the news. LHS had about 1,800 pupils before Free State High opened, the same number of youngsters as there were this year at Columbine High in Littleton. At the time, LHS was the largest high school in Kansas.

But were the chances for a killing spree sharply heightened here because of Lawrence High's size? Is there any guarantee the seeds of hate which claimed 15 lives at Columbine couldn't sprout into disaster here in one of two smaller high schools? The answer on both counts probably is "no."

A good deal of attention is being focused by some on the notion that there is safety in smaller schools. The Vicksburg, Miss., Post, for example, said editorially: "Columbine was a big school. And it follows that the larger the school, the easier it is to get 'lost,' to escape personal attention from administrators and faculty. What principal can know 1,800 names, much less 1,800 personalities?"

But there have been senseless murder sprees at far smaller schools in Kentucky, Arkansas and Oregon. And what about the rash of threats and fears which have surfaced recently at much smaller schools in our area, such as at nearby McLouth? We are in a period when sizable numbers of people, many of them youngsters, are losing at least part of their sanity in an attempt to be clever, troublesome or even fatal. It is going to take a while for such copycat aberrations to phase out, and we can only hope new eruptions can be prevented by closer study and perusal of student bodies.

But to declare that enrollment size is a major factor in what happened in Littleton touches on only one aspect of the ghastly problem of pupils killing fellow pupils and teachers. The kind of hatred and bitterness which have produced such atrocities can fester in and explode from any youngster or youth group in any school of any size. The frightening thing is that there are so many imponderables that there is no way to rule out repeats in today's turbulent, violence-prone climate.

It is no great revelation to recognize that the bigger a school, the more unrecognized and isolated some pupils might feel. But that can be dealt with beyond mere cutting of enrollment figures. Parents, teachers, administrators, fellow pupils, all these and more have a role in letting things reach the horrible stage where a Columbine High massacre occurs.

But to declare that a large enrollment is the key factor in any school tragedy is simplifying things dangerously. There are a lot more factors to consider in trying to keep new "Columbines" from developing.

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