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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Columbine: Five Years and a Day
(I was hoping it would be just five years, but I've had a busy week.)

On April 20, 1999, I was substitute teaching for the Milwaukee Public Schools, long-term in the building where I finally landed a real job and have been teaching since.

I first learned of the shootings in Littleton, Colorado, from NPR in the car after school on my way to my second job at a Sylvan Learning Center (subs don't get paid that well, and we were living beyond our means on Milwaukee's posh East Side). The news was shocking for two reasons: first, obviously, because of the scope and magnitude of the tragedy, but also because I had been paying close attention to news of such shootings, and there had been nearly a full year without one.

The reason I spent that 1998-1999 school year subbing was that I left the full-time teaching job I held for the 1997-1998 school year. I taught in a suburban Milwaukee high school, a school I have much maligned in other places and so won't name. (I also often malign the Milwaukee Public Schools, but I now have the equivalent of tenure, so I don't care so much.)

That school was almost exactly like Columbine. It was also almost exactly like Heath High School, in West Paducah, Kentucky, where three students were killed in December of 1997. Or Thurston High School, in Springfield, Oregon, where Kip Kinkel killed two and injured dozens more in the cafeteria in May 1998.

That's not why I left the school--there is a whole mosaic of issues surrounding my departure--but I was always keenly aware of the school's sdemographics as the death toll elsewhere (and media frenzy about the issue) rose at a staggering clip.

At my school that year, a year that was punctuated with news of these shootings (though not Columbine yet), there was not a single student of color. At all. The district was really almost exurban, with a few poor farming communities (and a few poor students), but mostly house farms and warehouse churches. A handful of my students had moved out there from the city recently enough to still be interesting, but most of the kids were vanilla in the worst way. Everything was someone else's fault, they lived in a very white box that they never left, and they had no conception of just how insular their lives were.

The only thing, I sometimes think, that might have sufficiently shaken them up, would have been a school shooting.

Did I know kids like Kinkel, or Harris and Kliebold, who I really thought could go through with it? I don't think so. But there is no doubt: If I were going to die at a school, that's the kind of place where it would happen.

The funny thing, of course, is that now I teach in Milwaukee, a city not known for its peaceful, idyllic streets. The murder rate is about 4 times the national average. Violent crime is a constant threat, it seems. And yet, I feel utterly safe here in this urban, majority-minority population school. Far safer than those days in the winter of 1998 when every other day, it seemed, some school shooting or another was in the news.

That's not to say I succumbed to the media hype: I knew well, and often argued with people (sometimes even my students), that children are far less likely to die in school than in their parents' cars on the way to or from school. But, like the Season of Gary Condit, or the Summer of Shark Attacks, or the Year of JonBenet, the media had one story for a long time, and that was how anti-social, maladjusted, oft-teased kids were all set to kill your child at school tomorrow.

But then, respite. That summer was, of course, free of school shootings. And the next fall. Anniversaries of various shootings came and passed without nary a puff of gunpowder. And then the unthinkable happened. Columbine was followed, of course, exactly one month later by yet another shooting, at Heritage High School in Conyers, Georgia.

Yet the images that we all have from these shootings, the trauma that we all feel at least a little but of tucked somewhere in the backs of our minds, is all Columbine. Columbine was, if you will allow the stretch here, the 9/11 of school shootings: not the first, not the last, but the most horrific and lasting.

There was not quite the same walking-around-numb feeling on 4/20 or 4/21 that there was on 9/11 and 9/12, but I certainly remember, at least in the high school setting where I was working, a sense of sobriety and somberness that transcended the usual routine, for both staff and students. But at that urban school, that under-served, under-resourced, and under-performing school in the central city, there was absolutely no sense of additional danger.

That's not to say Milwaukee Public Schools students don't have conflicts, don't bring weapons to school, don't fight. They do. They do a lot. But in MPS--at my school, anyway--there is never random violence. Period.

If there's a fight in the hallway, it's between students who have been building up to it for some time, not against victims chosen by chance. I know that when a student brings a weapon, it's usually because they feel that they need protection from a specific person or people, not because they could walk up and down the hallway and attack just anyone. Teachers, especially, who always seemed to be targeted in those school shootings, are almost never the target of intentional violence here. If one of us gets in the way breaking up a fight, we might take a punch (it's happened to me), but the kids just don't come after us. Again, I felt then, and still feel now, safer at school than many other places.

There's an irony to that, I guess. It is, however, an important point to stress: Schools, up to and including urban schools, are safe.

People have mostly calmed down about the issue of school shootings (even though they still happen) and it is no longer driving news cycles or school policy. But out of that spate of school shootings in 1997-1999 came something else that I need to touch on just a little bit before closing this commentary, and that's Zero Tolerance.

Zero Tolerance is the kind of thing that, in theory, it's hard not to get behind. I mean, who doesn't want to keep weapons and drugs and other such evils out of our schools? (The big fight right now at my school is about hats and cell phones. Eeeeee-vil, I tell you.)

But Zero Tolerance, like any inflexible policy, is a bad thing. Besides all the now-too-familiar silly things we hear about (students severely punished for carrying, say Scope or Tylenol; or any of the other dozens of nightmares), it disproportionately affects minorities like the students at my school.

Thankfully, many schools and districts are moving away from it. If I had more time, I'd throw references at you about that, too.

Anyway, I've rambled on enough, as is my wont. But I figure all of you who come around here regularly expect that by now. Back to work . . .

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