Savage, random shootings repeatedly terrorized people over the past year. As shocking as the deeds themselves, was the identity of the perpetrators-not masked madmen, but mere boys, students of the public schools of the United States!
The potential for this kind of nightmarish violence is disturbingly widespread. One survey's findings "suggest that for every classroom of 30 students, in every school building in America, on average one student has attended school with a gun in grades six through 12" (Gun "Nightmare" Gets Better, But Still a Reality For Schools, © 1998 MSNBC, Friday, June 19, 1998) (emphasis ours throughout.).
Overtones of shock, perplexity, fear and desperation spoke through news reports as the incidents of school shootings mounted throughout the school year of 1997-98. Why is this happening? Who is responsible? What can be done to stop it?
School and community officials, along with politicians at all levels, have banded together with parents in a common sense of urgency to make schools safe again. While numerous solutions or partial solutions have been suggested with great passion, none offers an obvious or certain fix. Soberly, circumstances augur more of the same for the 1998-99 school year, with more kids killing kids.
The Profile of a Gun-Toting Student
What profile does a gun-toting student fit? "Students who said they carried a gun were:
Less likely to live with both parents…
More likely to be in trouble with the police…
More likely to join gangs…
Less likely to get good grades…" (ibid.).
Not surprisingly, drug usage is also part of the profile. "Among the gun-toters, two-thirds said they used illicit drugs…at least once a month" (ibid.).
Disquieting trends in the emotional maturity level of youth are an evident factor. Ron Stephens, head of the National School Safety Center, says we are talking "about kids who are 'more callous, less remorseful and have a lot of anger inside'" (ibid.).
Music and entertainment preferences need to be added to the profile. "The 13-year-old Arkansas boy accused of gunning down classmates was influenced by the violence portrayed in the rap music he played repeatedly before the shooting, his English teacher told [federal] lawmakers Tuesday [June 16, 1998].
"Mitchell Johnson listened to gangsta-rap artists including Tupac Shakur and Bone Thugs 'N Harmony 'over and over' in the months leading to the March rampage in Jonesboro, Ark., said teacher Debbie Pelley. Often, he sang along to the lyrics, like the ones about 'coming to school and killing all the kids'" (Music Warning Labels Probed, by Eun-Kyung Kim, © 1998 Associated Press, June 16, 1998).
Increase Police Presence?
Much touted is the addition of more law-enforcement officers, either resident on the school property or in increased patrols around school perimeters, or both. President Clinton threw the weight of the White House behind this concept "by ordering his cabinet to find ways to put more police officers in schools before classes resume after the summer break" (Clinton Wants More Police In Schools, by Randall Mikkelsen, © 1998 Reuters Limited).
Accepting for the moment that funding for such a program can be created, how much hope should we realistically place in this idea? What's to prevent a student from committing a violent act out of the sight of an officer? At least one shooting occurred this past year in a school that had a resident police officer. The officer was on the second floor when the shooting took place on the first floor. Increased police presence is clearly not a complete solution.
Potentially enhancing the effectiveness of this plan is a sweeping concept offered by Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher. "[Create] a School Resource Officer Program to place a law enforcement officer in school full time to spot and counsel troubled students, to educate others on violence and to arrest those who commit crimes" (Pennsylvania Attorney General Fisher Recommends Actions To Address School Violence, © 1998 PR Newswire, June 22, 1998).
Not to say this is without merit, but such a concept is, to say the least, ambitious. Is it reasonable to expect that such a program could succeed where home and communities have failed?
Look again at the profile of a gun-toting student. Broken or single-parent homes, criminal history, gang affiliation, low personal achievement, serious defects in emotional maturity and illicit drug usage are colossal social factors, not to be counteracted by limited interactions with law enforcement officers on staff at the local school. Even if it could achieve the impossible, this is another long-term program, not one which offers security guarantees for the immediate future.
Razor Wire and Metal Detectors—For Public Schools!
Some propose that schools need to be made into high security, restricted access areas. Prevent the guns from ever entering the schools. Sensible though this is, what is necessary to accomplish it demands a heavy price. "'We may soon see kids being locked in, fences placed around school, razor wire and metal detectors, [School Superintendent Jamon] Kent [of Springfield, Ore.] said. 'I am not sure our communities, parents or our kids want that to occur.'
"The tough issue is: 'How do they react without overreacting?' said Ron Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center. 'You don't want to ignore a ticking time bomb and you don't want to be too Draconian in what you do'" (Violent Year Has Schools on Edge, by Will Lester, © 1998 Associated Press, Wednesday, June 17, 1998).
It is indeed hard to visualize this in "America, the land of the free."
Calls for bringing the full force of the law down on gun-toting kids and their parents are being heard repeatedly. Pennsylvania's Attorney General Mike Fisher has made several tough suggestions to his state legislature along this line. They include a one-year mandatory minimum sentence for any person convicted of bringing a gun onto school property and holding parents responsible to the families of victims when their minor child kills or injures with the parent's firearm (ibid., Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher Recommends Actions To Address School Violence). His ideas echo those of many Americans.
Attendant costs of trying and incarcerating the young criminals, as well as the civil litigation must be considered if this is the course America takes. Again, while these factors may deter some from their crimes, deterrence works over time-perhaps not in time for the next school year.
We haven't even touched on the hotly debated gun control issue, which some offer as another piece to the ugly and complex puzzle before the parents and communities of the United States in the late 1990s. But enough has been said to convey that the puzzle is indeed ugly and complex.
Lasting Change or Quick Fix?
No instant or even quick solution presents itself. The circumstance in which the United States finds itself was determined by millions of choices of millions of individuals over the course of decades: choices to use or to sell drugs, choices to buy or to market violence as "entertainment," choices to break up a home or to produce children without marriage, and choices to rear children without instilling a sense of personal responsibility [or is it simply the lack of knowing how to rear children?].
The cost of changing the frightening crisis of kids killing kids far supercedes any proposal reviewed in this article. Reversing the factors that brought on the current predicament is the only way to bring about lasting change. Millions of individuals will have to learn what is right, decent and moral. Those same millions will have to choose the right way and live it, regardless of what those around them do.
Yes, the children of the United States are sadly lacking in the ability to manage their desires and disappointments in an acceptable way. But do the adults have the heart and the sense to set the example?
People of the U.S. are not "comfortable" with too narrow a definition of right versus wrong. They would fit quite well in the time of unstructured leadership in the history of ancient Israel. "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit" (Judges 21:25 Judges 21:25In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.
American King James Version×, New International Version throughout).
There is a price to be paid for such an approach to life. The country is paying part of it with the current experience with school violence. These young people were conceived and reared by the people who now struggle to control them (not to focus upon parents to the exclusion of non-parents). The youth of the United States are the products of the United States, in toto.
In God We Trust
There was a time when it was important to the leaders and citizens alike of the U.S.A. to orient their lives-home, school, entertainment and government-around a simple belief and practice of the Ten Commandments. The American anthem, "God Bless America," proclaimed the stolid creed of liberty in law. Somewhere along the way its citizens lost sight of the fact that true liberty is by and through the law of God.
Deadly gunfire now echoes across the U.S. landscape. Unless its people undergo a profound repentance, more is sure to follow. Sad to say, that will include more kids killing kids. Would that these Words of God would echo more loudly than the report of any weapon: "Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever!" (Deuteronomy 5:29 Deuteronomy 5:29O that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children for ever!
American King James Version×.)