For anyone who needed further convincing, the murderous rampage in a Pennsylvania Amish community should serve as the final proof that school violence can erupt anywhere.
Of course, there has been ample evidence of that disturbing fact for nearly a decade now.
It has happened in Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Oregon, Mississippi and, most infamously, in Colorado, where the massacre at Columbine High School left 15 students dead, including the two young shooters.
A more recent outbreak of school violence now has claimed the lives of six students and a principal in three separate incidents in a single week.
In Missouri, a 13-year-old’s planned bloodbath was thwarted when his assault rifle jammed after firing one shot into the ceiling of a middle school. The boy, wearing a trench coat, told police after his arrest that he was fascinated by the 1999 slayings at Columbine – the very sort of copycat admission that we hoped never to hear, of course, and that now gives us more reason to worry about the safety of our children.
And so, with school violence grabbing headlines and the attention of nervous parents all over again, school officials in Maine and across the country are forced to review their school safety protocols, to tweak the emergency procedures that they all pray will keep them from becoming the next community to be traumatized by a form of senseless crime that once was unthinkable.
While statistics consistently show that kids are safer on school property than just about anywhere else, such information may be hard to swallow if you happen to live in a community that’s reeling in the aftermath of yet another deadly attack.
Meanwhile, President Bush, speaking at a conference on school violence in Maryland this week, emphasized that we must not expect the federal government to play a lead role in responding to such tragedies, that its chief function should be to provide information about strategies that can assist parents and schools that must wrestle daily with the potential threats posed to their children.
Several speakers at the conference, many of them school-violence experts, suggested that the nation place a greater emphasis on character education, that the teaching of values, morals, respect and common decency become a part of the curriculum in schools.
Unless we’re willing to accept a future that includes armed sentries at the doors of every school, bars on the windows, barbed-wire fences, children passing through metal detectors on the way to class – schools that resemble prisons or potential battle zones, in other words – striving to instill in every child a strong, healthful set of values and ethics may be one of the few reasonable options available to us.
It certainly couldn’t hurt.
Yet as part of that education, we also must teach kids that alerting authorities to behavior at school that deviates dangerously far from the norm is not a violation of one’s code of ethics but an essential and obligatory element of it.
The postscripts of so many school shootings are filled with clues that should have set off alarms among students and teachers but didn’t. As the news stories now tell us, the Wisconsin boy who recently killed his principal bragged all the time to schoolmates and neighbors about getting into trouble. No one spoke up, however, until it was too late.
The two young murderers at Columbine repeatedly sent out ominous signals that fellow students, some teachers and even their parents shrugged off as mere idiosyncrasies, the oddball self-expressions of a couple of loners and misfits.
They apparently saw nothing genuinely worrisome back then in the Nazi swastikas that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold wore, their incessant talk of guns and decapitation, their obsessive writings about hatred and death in school essays, or even the class-project video in which Harris bragged about the newest additions to his weapons collection.
The killers maintained a Web site with instructions on how to build pipe bombs and built 30 explosive devices at home, all without their parents knowing a thing about it.
“Like the rest of the country, we are struggling to understand why this happened,” Klebold’s parents said after the slaughter.
“We never took them seriously,” said one Columbine student.
“They were just a little weird,” said another.
They were much more than that, of course, as we found out too late. They were seriously disturbed individuals, just like the tragically alienated and hopeless young school killers before them and since. And until we learn to recognize and take seriously the dangerous traits these damaged psyches keep hidden in plain sight, and get them the help they so desperately need before they snap, we’ll never be able to say that any school kid in America is truly safe.