TOPICS > Education

Reflections on Littleton

May 20, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: For that, we’re joined by NewsHour regulars essayists Clarence Page, Anne Taylor Fleming, Jim Fisher, Richard Rodriguez, and Roger Rosenblatt. Clarence, it has been a month since the Columbine shooting. Now there’s another shooting today. There’s been national soul searching about this, many questions asked, many answers given. What’s your response to that national soul searching?

CLARENCE PAGE: Well, I’ve been covering school violence for many years, but almost all of it has been what you would call inner city or urban violence. It has been intriguing to me to see this national dialogue that’s been sparked over the last month by the violence in a middle class, predominantly white suburb. Here we seem to have hit the heart of the American dream in a way, the sort of high schools that so many of us parents work hard to try to get our kids into.

And we see these problems we normally associate with poverty and other kinds of family breakdown, et cetera, hitting right at the heart of it. So we have a dialogue. In the beginning of a dialogue, everybody comings to the table with their own agenda. So we have some people who blame it all on too many guns, others who blame it all on not enough prayer. I think that we are just now getting to the point of getting to the bottom of it, which is troubled kids. All of these episodes have in common some troubled kids.

That’s normally the age where the suicide rate is highest, and we’re seeing here perhaps kids with suicidal tendencies trying to go out in a blaze of glory, as it were. And this is the most mysterious, toughest issue of all. We can’t legislate this away.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Anne Taylor Fleming, what has struck you most forcefully about the response?

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: What struck me most forcefully is not the public response, some of which Clarence was just talking about, but the soul-searching among all of the parents I know who have kids in school — not kids that they think are going to go out and you know, blow somebody away. And instead of using the word “troubled” I’d probably use the word “lonely.”

A lot of my friends feel that their kids are lonesome, that they’re way too pressured. It’s a little bit like the piece that we just saw before, the conspicuous consumption. Everybody’s moving too hard, trying to make too much money, spending too little time with kids. And in fact the studies show that kids spend more time doing home work, more time in school, more time doing chores, more time being programmed in order to fit into their parents’ very programmed schedules.

So I think what you’ve got, a lot of kids being pushed really hard by parents who are feeling pushed, and what I’m seeing, which is really encouraging to me or interesting to me, leaving aside the guns and the violence and all that, is parents addressing in their own lives, “what are we going to do; is this the way we meant to raise our kids; are these the kinds of families we meant to be part of?” And trying to find some way, hopefully, to dial back and really just relax and spend more time hanging out.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Jim Fisher, is that the sort of response that you’ve been struck by?

JIM FISHER: Well, the response I have heard is initially where were the parents, because most people here feel that the first sniff of gun powder or sawing off a shotgun would have had mothers wailing the kid over the head with a ball bat. I think I agree with Clarence in the fact that we had here in Kansas City, we had two young men killed and two women badly wounded the night before last, and this was in the inner city and they were not high school students, and they were probably not in the best part of town, but it’s ho-hum.

We have had our minority kids dying like flies for fifteen or twenty years, and only now do we see that Columbine High School somehow allows the politicians and the news media to become so self-absorbed in just this one incident when it’s been going on for years and years. I was amazed to go back and look — 50 years ago, in 1949, a kid who was marginalized– he was not a kid, he was 28 years old– named Howard Unra, got up in East Camden, New Jersey, walked down the street and in 12 minutes killed 13 people.

And what — there was no great soul-searching. He was nuts. And I think that’s one of the things we’re never going to understand these kids, they’re dead. But they were not nice people. They were evil little creeps. And I think that’s one thing we have to take away from this.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Richard? Your response to the response?

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Well, at some level, I think agree with Clarence and Jim in saying that this — that there has been with a brown and black version of this story for a long time. But it is also, to miss a point, just to leave it at that, it seems to me that we are seeing now in America, both in rural America and suburban America a young white, male anger and no one is wanting to identify it that way. We’re talking about them as little thugs, little runts, little evil specimens that are somehow disconnected from the body civic. Are they our children? Do we know them? Have we seen them on our sidewalks? Do they live next door? Or are they in fact some specimen that we know nothing about it? You know, we may be seeing a blazing white male anger in this country related to Timothy McVeigh, related to the Civil War, related to the Gold Rush in California where one out of five men in this state died in violence looking for gold. No one wants to talk about that possibility. If, in fact, we were talking about brown and black, we would be dealing with it as sociologists; that we are dealing with a white anger here I think leaves us absolutely unprepared for talking about in fact the American house, the kid down the hallway, the kid that we know, the kid that we have always trusted, the kid who does our lawn when we go on summer vacations.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Roger Rosenblatt, do you agree that the response has missed that?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Well, I think all this — all the above makes a great deal of sense to me, but I must say that I come back to what was dismissed earlier as a natural reaction. But it’s my reaction. Get rid of the guns. We have a — we had the Second Amendment that said you have the right to bear arms. I haven’t seen the British really coming by my house looking for it. And besides, the right to bear arms is not an absolute right anyway, as New York’s Sullivan Law proves. We talk about ourselves as a violent society, and some of that is right and some of it is claptrap. But I think if you took away the guns and I mean really take away the guns, not what Congress is doing now, you would see that vile violent society diminish considerably. Then add the things that Anne and others mentioned before. The most impressive piece of writing that I’ve seen to come out of Littleton was done by a fellow who did an op-ed piece who had graduated from Columbine High School ten years ago, and he talked about the absence of place, by which he meant the absence of any community, even the school itself, is not in a town. So that the people who talk about looking out for the isolated, looking out for the kids who are out of it, trying to make sure that all activities in high school and in communities are inclusive are on the right track. So I would say look out for the lonely, but I’d certainly say get rid of the guns.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Jim Fisher, of the various solutions or explanations you’ve read, what stances out as the most useful?

JIM FISHER: Well, I don’t think there is — I don’t know if we’re ever going to solve this. I was down in a little town called Front Neck, Kansas, a week or so ago, and they had planned long before Columbine — it’s an Italian American town, strong Catholic Church. And what they’re going to do down there and this was planned long before Columbine, is every kid gets a scholarship, every kid, the weirdoes, the nerds, the in’s, the out’s, the jocks, the cheerleaders. And this town, without a sugar daddy– you’ve seen the stories around the country where Hughing Kaufman here in Kansas City, the big millionaire used to own the Royals, promise to send a class to college. Well, this town, Front Neck, Kansas, is going to do it on their own. And it was explained to me that the idea is to show every kid that he’s valued, no matter who he is. And again, the one thing that Front Neck’s got, is if you go — if you get in trouble in school, you’re going to hear about it not from the school, you’re going to hear about it from other parents, which I think is, as corny as it sounds, it does take a village to raise kids. You’ve got to have people not just the parents, but you’ve got to have in-laws and neighbors looking after saying, “Johnny’s doing something wrong, Mary, you better look into it.” And there’s that kind of pressure that I think is down deep is going to be what’s going to solve this.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Richard, gun control, the village caring? What other solutions that have been advanced in this period really stood out?

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Well, I’m struck by the architecture of Columbine High School. It looks like a factory. It looks was impersonal as something alongside an interstate. I’m struck by the fact that we have announced to our children that we have come up with this information technology, the Web, we are now discovering early in the technology that the longer a child plays on the Web, the more lonely he becomes. These children live in their own bedrooms, they live separated from the rest of the family. Everyone has their own television in these houses. The houses are built as far apart from each other as possible. The American dream, it turns out, is as isolated in its ambition as the very children these freaks we are talking about. We are the freaks. We are the ones that are afraid of living too close. I don’t want to live next door to you because if I overhear your music, that somehow that’s not my ambition. I want to raise my child on a street where I don’t hear a noise, where I don’t see people going by. I want to live in isolation, and I want to send my children to a school where basically they live in isolation from each other. The enormous calamity of this conversation has been, I think, that it has missed the enormous failure of public education. We may be seeing the end of public education in America because what clearly our schools are not doing is teaching children that they belong to the same communal whole. You go to American public schools now, and the cafeteria tables are arranged like a parody of the American city where every separate subgroup now is in its own conversation. And where are those children getting those clues if not from the very suburban parents who fled the city in order to get away from proximity?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Any solutions that stand out to you? This — also you talked about the parents who say their kids are so pressured. Any solutions in all this discussion?

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Well, let me just endorse gun control here with Roger. I want to go down that — I mean I think we did get guns out of airplanes. We need to get them out of schools. I mean that’s just starting. And I think ironically I started talking about loneliness and that’s sort of where we’re ending up. You know, obviously, it’s a soul search for parents individually, as well as collectively. And I see no trouble with this soul search. I think this is healthy. I mean the idea that it isn’t is anathema to me. And the idea because it’s white, we’re now doing it, that’s sometime an unfortunate piece of America. But so what? At least we’re at the table, we’re talking about it and let me tell you, every place I go, I hear parents talking about what Richard’s talking about, trying to figure out how to bring their kids back into a family, back into a school. I also think that the public schools need to be cut, you know in thirds maybe so we don’t have you know, 2,000 kids warehoused in a factory. All those kinds of, you know, those are brass tax solutions and philosophical solutions, but I think we ought to keep talking about it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Clarence, do you think anything will change as a result of this?

CLARENCE PAGE: I hope things change. You know, I’m concerned about the shape of the debate right now, though. The gun issue, for example. I, too, am pro gun control. However, I’ve alienated a good many of my pro gun control friends saying guns aren’t the problem. Like I’ve said on this show before that kids have had guns for decades without shooting each other. If we wait until a child is looking for a gun, that’s too late. It’s true we need smaller schools, we need a better sense of community, we need to know each other better. I’m saying a fragmentation of modern society, in this — the most suburban era America has ever been in and it’s getting more so, where we do not know each other within our own family within our own community, and I’m worried right now you know, the American Civil Liberties Union and others have noted how all of a sudden we have profiling of different kids, kids who are different. If a kid wears black to school now, black clothes or happens to like Goth or heavy metal or Gangsta Rap or something, they can be profiled now as a future Timothy McVeigh or a Klebold or Harris. That’s the wrong approach, but that’s kind of a backlash I guess that happens when people are kind of in a panicky mood. I hope that we change enough to recognize and understand our kids and ourselves and the need to have smaller schools and a better community spirit.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And finally, Roger, do you think anything will change as a result of the killings at Columbine?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Well, like all of my friends and colleagues, I think that the dialogue helps and talk about these matters helps a great deal. I must say I realize how simple-minded I sound, but I do think that in some cases, simple-mindedness is the only way out.

CLARENCE PAGE: Never you, Roger, never.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Get rid of the guns as much as possible and I really mean get rid of the guns. The kids don’t get guns often from fairs or gun shows. They get them from their parents. So the — I come back to that, and to again, to agree with my friends and colleagues on this, to address the loneliness. I did see one concrete thing which struck me as sensible and it seemed useful. In one school, they have something called peer intervention by the students themselves. And these students are assigned by the school to look out for trouble spots, for the lonely and the isolated and the potentially dangerous and to talk among themselves. So if the trouble has now erupted within the students, maybe also the help will come from the students.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you all very much.