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Tim Wise "School Shootings and White Denial"



Healing After A Mass School Shooting: Let It End

You've seen the headlines; you know the stories….

DATELINE: December 1, 1997 - Three students dead, five wounded after a 14-year-old student opens fire on a prayer circle at Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky.

DATELINE: March 24, 1998 - Four students and one teacher are slain, 10 wounded when a 13-year-old and an 11-year-old trigger the fire alarm at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas and pump bullets into the student body.

DATELINE: April 20, 1999 - 14 students and a teacher are killed, 23 wounded when a 17- and 18-year-old go on a shooting spree at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

DATELINE: March 15, 2001 - Two dead, 15 wounded after a student takes up arms at Santana High School in Santee, California.


Becky and I were cruising...

...And if you're like me, you've asked yourself the same, troubling questions: Why have our schools turned into battlefields? Is it a reflection of broken families, shoddy school systems or our society as a whole? What is the root of this violence? How can we prevent it? And, once it's already happened, how can we heal?

My search for these answers led me to Springfield, Oregon - a community that has endured immense tragedy with admirable grace. Let's start with the history. On May 20, 1998, a 15-year-old student named Kip Kinkel was suspended from Thurston High School for buying a gun on campus. The police took him in for questioning but released him that same afternoon. Hours later, Kip murdered his mother and father, both of whom were well-known Spanish teachers in the community. He spent the rest of the evening planting explosive devices around his home.

The next morning, Kip put on a trench coat and drove to school with a .22 caliber rifle, a .22 caliber handgun and a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol. He then walked into the crowded cafeteria and fired 51 rounds of bullets. One student was killed almost immediately; another died within 24 hours. Twenty-five students were wounded, some severely. Kip had intended to empty all three guns and finish himself off with the two bullets taped to his own body, but fate intervened. One student, who had already been shot, tackled Kip and several others helped wrestle him to the ground. The cafeteria was then turned into a makeshift ER as students bustled about with paper towels, tending to their friends' wounds as they awaited police and paramedics. It was all over in 57 minutes. The memory, however, lingers on.

Springfield, Oregon is just a stone's throw away from Eugene, a liberal college town chock-full of used bookstores and coffee shops. The media like to call this sort of place an "All American Town" - an interesting choice of words, considering that Becky and I hardly saw any people of color. Perhaps that is what has so mystified America about these mass school shootings: They almost always occur in predominantly white communities, with white gunmen. We seem to accept that violence is a daily part of life in schools in South Central Los Angeles and the Bronx - so much so that it hardly even makes the papers any more. Why is it only news when white students get shot? These are the questions that tumbled about in our minds as we drove through the tree-lined streets of Springfield.

We were invited to this community under the condition we not actually talk to students about the shooting. It was a request we honored. They have already recounted this horrific story countless times before. Within hours of the shooting, hundreds of journalists from all over the world descended upon their school and have returned several times since to scope out more details. A few students grew so sick of it, they actually mooned some reporters as a way of telling them to go away.

Instead, Becky and I focused our research on the admirable way in which the school and community have managed to move on. Our foremost question was whether anyone had made sense of the recent waves of school violence in largely white communities. Had anyone uncovered the root of this madness?

Jamon Kent, superintendent of Springfield's public school district, pointed to the "bullying" factor. "I don't put the blame on the family but on society as a whole," he said. "Students are quick to the trigger because of violent video games; they can download all they need to know off the Internet. They also have easy access to guns. Kids can go to Dad's locker, take out their gun, go to school and say 'Don't mess with me.'"

Kent backed up his statement with some chilling statistics. From 1995 to 1997, countries with strict gun policies reported a relatively small number of homicides by gunfire. Australia had approximately 13 deaths a year to guns; Great Britain -- 33; Japan - 60; Canada - 128. The United States, meanwhile, had 13,220!

While thousands of students in this nation have steady access to guns, only a handful have ever used them to shoot indiscriminately at their classmates. What exactly sends them over the edge? Were the Kip Kinkels of the world somehow born without compassion? Did they suffer from abuse or neglect in their childhoods? Were they picked on one too many times by their peers? Or did they simply watch too much violent TV, play too many violent video games, and ingest too much violent music?

The journalists, police and FBI investigators who have examined these school shootings could not find a single common thread. The gunmen did not fit a "profile." In fact, the only thing they really had in common (besides being white) was that nearly all had talked about their plan in some form or fashion beforehand. It's hard not to wonder, then, why they weren't taken more seriously. Would it have been different if the student was Latino or black? Tim Wise, a columnist for Alternet.org, thinks so. "When whites discuss murderous intentions, our stereotype of what danger looks like causes us to ignore it," he noted in an essay entitled "School Shootings and White Denial."

Yet the fact that these students are talking about murder before they actually commit it instills me with a feeling of hope. As Rosemary Pryor, spokeswoman for the city of Springfield during the ordeal, put it: "If they are actually talking about it before they do it, they might be trying to seek help. Now it's up to us to respond."

Springfield is in the midst of doing just that. They have recently been awarded a "Safe Schools, Healthy Students" federal grant that has allowed them to implement a number of amazing programs, including school-based mental health services, a law enforcement service officer program, and a comprehensive school program for students who have difficulties in a traditional school setting. They have also worked to increase the level of awareness in their student body.

"I hope students are learning from all of this that it is okay to 'narc' on their friends sometimes," said Yvonne Atteberry, the mother of a Thurston student who survived a gunshot wound to the face. "You need to tell someone if something is wrong."

It has been nearly three years since Thurston High School was struck by this tragedy. They are now in the process of constructing a memorial to aid in the healing process. A series of basalt panels will tell their story along a walkway - the bricks of which represent the students and faculty. Twenty-five rhododendron plants will commemorate those who were physically wounded and two water fountains are planned for those who were killed. At the end of the pathway will be an inscription that reads: "Let it end."

As Becky and I drove away from Springfield, something Yvonne Atteberry said resounded in my mind. She ended our conversation with a quote from her son Ryan: "Life is like a deck of cards. We are all dealt a hand and we have to play it."

Springfield has undoubtedly been dealt a hard blow, but it seems to be coming to peace with it. Hopefully, the other schools that have met with violence - most recently Santana High School in Santee, California - will also be able to move on.

Still, as sad as I am to say it, I fear that the shootings won't end until our society realizes that violence is color-blind. It can take place in an "All-American" kind of town or the inner-city ghetto. Neither should be acceptable to us. We need to start taking the threats of students - all students - a great deal more seriously. They just might be cries for help.


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Being a parent is a 24/7 job that never ends
Neda - Thinking of having a beer while pregnant? Think of your baby and think again!
Irene - Righting a national wrong as old as our school system
Stephen - Forget classrooms! There are more things to learn and great ways to learn them
Rebecca - It isn't boot camp. It's teaching in America's schools