Responsibility in the Wake of Littleton
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, the second of Elizabeth Farnsworth’s post-Littleton discussions conducted on consecutive evenings in Denver this week. The first, broadcast on Wednesday, was among a group of high school students. Tonight’s involves parents and teachers in the Denver area.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you all for being with us. Last night, I talked with a group of students from Denver urban and suburban schools and I was struck by their agreement that the life of a high school student is, as one put it, a life of extreme pressure. And they said — several of them said that what happened at columbine could happen anywhere. Is that how you see it? You teach at the school where we are right now, Ellen Maresh. How do you see it?
ELLEN MARESH, Denver: Yes, I do I know I and other teachers and students have been surprised sometimes it doesn’t happen more often, given the pressure. I do think students are under extreme pressure. There may be a hundred times more pressures on students today, I think, than there were when I was in high school. For one thing, I think, as many of us know, they have access to every opportunity, every possible situation, and so the choices they make now are choices that, I think, we were prepared to make as adults, and adults were making those choices for us when we were in high school. I think, in addition to that, academic pressures are much more than we sometimes acknowledge. We think of schools as not being as demanding as in truth they are. Indeed, the pressure is on all of us in schools these days to do more and to achieve more, and the kids feel it. They’re hearing us, they’re feeling the pressure, some of them meeting those demand, but with considerable costs, and others of them checking out because they think they really can’t meet those demands.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Bill Pendley, you’ve got a son — you’ve got two sons, really, in high school, in a more suburban school, right? How do you see these pressures?
WILLIAM PERRY PENDLEY, Evergreen: It’s a different world out there and there is a whole universe of things that they see every day. The news is a lot different, it’s a lot tougher to watch– just basic information, and there’s a lot more on the screen, in the computer and the Internet, that they can be exposed to. And I think also, at least in our area, sort of a bedroom suburb of Denver, there’s a lot of pressure from dual professional parents that the kids succeed, and you’ve got to compete, you’ve got to get the good scores and so forth. So, I think the pressures are there, and that’s the key role for parents. Parents have to be there and be that buffer, be that insulation for the kid.
SHONYA WILMES BOND, Littleton: There are just different pressures all along. The kids do not have neighborhood ball like they used to. It’s all organized sports. And they have to be the top, they have to compete. If they’re not on the top of it, they’re cut at the high school level. There’s not enough opportunity at the high school level for mediocre and an average player to play. And I don’t think that’s only in athletics. I think it’s academics, I think it’s music, I think it’s art. The kids are just slowly getting cut out of things and finding no place for them to just even be. I mean, I think that they battle just for an existence.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay, given this, Reverend Landis, what’s your responsibility as a parent to make sure that a kid is not in trouble or about to do something dangerous to somebody else?
REV. SCOTT LANDIS, Englewood: I think it’s real important that we’re available and listening to them. We came out from the Philadelphia area, and one of the pressures that — that I don’t know if you all know if you’ve lived in this community, is our schools back east were sort of lock-down schools. You went in the morning, the doors closed, and then you went home at night. And we were really surprised to see the open campus design that they went into. All of a sudden they could go to a supermarket for lunch or home during off hours, and that was something that I faced in college, what to do with time during the day. So there was this tension of wanting to know everything that they did and every hour and realizing that I no longer had that kind of control. So being able to listen and hear clues that they were giving to us on what they were dealing with, what they needed, without invading.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes. How interventionary would you be? Okay, do you know what your kids are doing on the Internet?
REV. SCOTT LANDIS: I have no idea. (Laughter)
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Does anybody? Is anybody monitoring that closely?
WILLIAM PERRY PENDLEY: Absolutely.
PERSON IN GROUP: Yes.
WILLIAM PERRY PENDLEY: You know, I talk to my son about things that they popped onto on the Internet. I’ve talked to other parents who have done the same thing. And I think there’s a part of the kid that says — that wants the grownup to know and to say -
PERSON IN GROUP: Stop it.
WILLIAM PERRY PENDLEY: — “You shouldn’t be doing that.”
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Peter Doherty, your child, your daughter, was a student at Columbine and escaped safely.
PETER DOHERTY, Littleton: Correct.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, in the wake of that, how do you see your responsibilities as a parent?
PETER DOHERTY: I think it’s critical that parents really understand much more clearly what’s going on with their children, providing opportunities and outlets for them other than school, but I really believe that it’s a dual effort between parents and faculty, because those are the sets of people that see your child the most. You have to have a good rapport with faculty to understand that “Hey, there is something going on here that you might want to be aware of.” And faculty has to be comfortable with being able to call the parents and say, “Is there something going on?” And I think that rapport needs to be set up.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Does faculty feel able to just call? Do you feel that if there’s a problem you can just call a parent?
LEONARD FOX, Aurora: I think with some parents. Some parents are unavailable and it makes it really difficult. For me, most of the kids that are in need of the most attention seem — their parents seem to be the hardest to get in contact with, at least for me. Others are really involved, their kids involved, and those are really available parents. But I think for me, the hardest ones to contact are the ones that need it the most.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Linda Young, are there enough counselors? Are there places for teachers to go — are there places for you to go if you as a teacher, which you have been, see a problem with a student, or you as a parent, which you are, see a problem with your child?
LINDA YOUNG, Denver: Yes, I think there oftentimes are, but then they have a lot of pressures and many, many students that they work with, and they may not always be able to solve the problem. And something that I think is very much lacking today is networking among parents. When I was growing up, my mother knew all of my friends’ parents. That has not been the case with my children. And, frankly, I believe that it is a good thing to rat on kids frankly I believe that it’s a good thing to rat on kids. But we oftentimes just don’t know people to do that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you as a teacher actually tried to end some harassment in your school.
LINDA YOUNG: Mm-hmm.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us about that and what you did.
LINDA YOUNG: Well, many of the jock students are wonderful kids, and so I certainly don’t want to generalize about a group, but I found groups of about five or six young men who would sign up for the same teacher, they would come into the class with the aim of harassing me and fellow students. They’d make sexual comments; they’d make sexual noises; they’d pick on other kids in the class. I finally called our police liaison in and he spoke to them about this issue. One of the young men said “This is war.” Well, the next referral I wrote ended up in the counselor’s basket — nothing was done — and I did not feel that I got the support I needed.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think, Mr. Pendley, about the issue of school responsibility?
WILLIAM PERRY PENDLEY: Well, I think teachers need to be more proactive in reaching out to parents. Everybody’s got voice mail, everybody’s got recorders, everybody — almost everybody has a fax or something like that. I just think teachers need to reach out and say, “Hey, we have a problem here with your son or your daughter and we need to work on it.” I also think that parents need to know other parents and to report problems. We had a situation — my son came home once, told us about a friend of his who was talking about suicide, and we turned him in. It’s a tough thing to do because my son caught a lot of heck for it, even recently, but I’d do it again today.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All of you are willing to say that parents really do have to know and even intervene in ways that would sometimes be seen as somewhat aggressive by their kids.
REV. SCOTT LANDIS: If I thought that one of my children were doing something that I thought was going to be destructive of their own life or someone else, I’d probably intervene, but I would let him know that I was checking it out. I feel that he has rights and responsibilities and I do as well as a parent, so I’d want to connect in that way. But we’d talk about it and then we’d try to work together on some solutions.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Anybody else on that?
PETER DOHERTY: Well, I think it’s a trust factor, and we talk to our kids about trust all the time, and as you go through life, they do things that break that trust down, they do things that build that trust up, and so I think it’s a matter of trust. If you see that you do not really trust what they’re telling you or how they’re acting, then I think you should intervene.
MARTHA URBINA, Denver: I think that there’s so much that needs to be done. I mean, from my perspective, I think that surveillance cameras need to be up and running in all schools. I mean, this is the 1990′s. We have them; use them. In a lot of cities and counties throughout the United States, they have– what do you call them — metal detectors. You know, I think there should be two police officers for kids. The vandalism in the parking lots are very high. I mean, it’s — they have to go to a neighboring school for a football game and it’s fear when they go.
LEONARD FOX: I just think we’ve to be careful not to send mixed messages, because we’ve talked about increasing security and we’ve talked about trust. How do you tell a kid, “I’m going to put 50,000 cameras on you, but I trust you” — you know, “You’re going to be good, but I’m going to monitor you, I’m going to put guards at the gates, but we trust you”?
MARTHA URBINA: These are the same kids that are going into the local Wal-mart and they get video-cameraed in all the different stores that they go in.
LEONARD FOX: Do you think that they’re trusted?
MARTHA URBINA: But it doesn’t matter. That’s the way the society operates we live in, everywhere you go, everywhere you go.
LEONARD FOX: We’re going to monitor them like prisoners.
MARTHA URBINA: Yes, but it’s everywhere you go, you have that security issue.
SHONYA WILMES BOND: I guess a true healing for me and I true solution to the problem would be not to react out of fear and start doing more security issues, more, you know, tightening down the bat, because almost in a way it’s punishing the kids for what some other children were lacking in terms of feeling loved or cared about or valued. There are times when kids are really cruel to each other; there’s always a child on the outside. And so in terms of just parenting or the teacher, it comes down to talking to your own children. We talk to our kids at school, and we just say, “Wait a minute, would you want to be treated like that? If you had the choice here, would you show some kindness or would you switch lives with that person?”
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Fox, do you think that schools can do all the things that people seem to want them to do? Are schools equipped to fulfill the needs of kids who don’t have parents, for example, that are paying attention to them?
LEONARD FOX: To answer real frankly, no. What I really believe is that there’s got to be some common understanding of the expectations of school and why you send kids to school, and the expectations of what happens at school and whether teachers are in there to really address these academic pressures that parents are demanding from schools. I mean, schools are under attack all the time, not being academically driven, being too social. And then you turn around and have a tragedy and say “Well, you should be paying more attention to how my child is feeling.” I’m like, “Well, I can’t get to chapter seven if I’m talking to Johnny about his emotions,” and — so there’s got to be some kind of conversation, some kind of agreement about the general expectations of school. And if that’s allowable, then we’ve got to let the systems know, because there’s a lot of pressure on — I mean, we talked about the pressure on students, and to release some of the pressure around the expectations if you want schools to address the emotional child.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Down deep do you think it’s possible that this is an event which won’t be repeated in this way, that it’s a one-of-a-kind event, two very aberrant kids, and that it’s not something that we have to think of as kind of emblematic of our times?
SHONYA WILMES BOND: I would think that it has the possibility to happen again. I mean, my hope would be that it would not and not of that magnitude. I think that really, in a way, it’s telling us something if we’d be willing to listen and to learn from it, and it was an extremely costly lesson, but I think that there are a lot of children out there who are lacking a lot of care, a lot of nurturing, not only maybe at home, within friendship groups. I don’t think it’s a home issue, a school issue. I really do think it’s a world society issue.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That’s all the time we have. Thanks very much for being with us.