The search for ways to protect, and better serve, youth
A year after the tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., the country still struggles for an adequate response. This, not unlike the Oklahoma City bombing also being remembered this week, was an event almost beyond comprehension, happening in a setting of prosperity and civic pride. It appeared to contradict every easy assumption about American life.
In what seemed a terrible climax to a series of violent incidents at public schools, two young men, the products of middle-class suburban families, took guns and explosives to their school and methodically tried to kill as many fellow students and teachers as they could before turning their guns on themselves.
Twelve were killed and 23 injured. There have been few darker days in recent American memory.
But it's a darkness the nation is determined to emerge from. The year since Columbine has been abuzz with ways to prevent such tragedies and deal with underlying causes:
*More emphasis is being put on character education, conflict resolution courses, and other ways of helping young citizens understand themselves better and solve problems.
*Related to the Columbine anniversary, President Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton will host a White House Conference on Teenagers May 2. The purpose of the gathering, says the president, is to "talk through the challenges of raising responsible children."
*Countless schools have instituted stronger security measures. Just as important, administrators, teachers, and parents have striven to do a better job of identifying and helping students who might be prone to violence.
*Communities have established closer liaisons between police departments and schools.
*State governments have established school-safety centers to coordinate efforts and share ideas among all schools under their jurisdiction.
*The federal government has pumped money into security measures. Mr. Clinton just announced $120 million in new federal grants to increase police protection of schools.
*Gun control has been pushed front and center. Though efforts to strengthen laws at the federal level have flagged, some states are pushing forward. The gun-control plan recently proposed by Gov. George Pataki of New York, for example, is groundbreaking.
The list could go on. But action in halls of government or schools, though useful, may be far less important than a shift of attitude in the relationships between students, between teachers and students, and - perhaps most important - between students and parents.
The overriding need is to open the thinking of young people to constructive self-examination and a capacity to care for others. That's how moral voids like those that seemed to envelop the school shooters can be filled. That's how negative influences, such as violent entertainment media, are neutralized. How to accomplish this?
A vice principal at North High School in Naperville, Ill. (see story on page 1) wants to focus fresh attention on the kids in the "middle" - not the outstanding students, or the ones on the brink of failures - but those who may just be getting by, and may be feeling no one cares. Just a bit of positive attention from a teacher, or well-motivated peers, can make a big difference.
In some communities, like Manatee County, Fla., teen clubs have been formed to encourage volunteer work helping the needy. When youngsters are given opportunities to serve others, they often respond enthusiastically, and learn key moral lessons in the bargain.
Religion and spiritual teaching and example build moral sensibility and regard for others. One of the darkest sides of the Columbine tragedy was the young gunmen's scorn toward those who professed a belief in God. That underscores the need for all spiritual seekers to deepen their concern for youth and their understanding of the power of love over hate.
What's clearly not needed is a climate of fear where every youngster who dresses strangely, or writes about dark themes, or seems attracted to violent imagery is regarded with suspicion. All children require respect and genuine interest, based on their innate intelligence and capacity to grow.
Columbine must serve as a continuing wake-up call to build better communities that embrace the troubled youth among us. That would be the best memorial to the students who fell there.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society