horizontal rule
D I G I T A L         blue dot         N E W S
horizontal rule


George Edw. Seymour, Ph.D.

Sorting through a school tragedy [1]

"Shootings in a Denver suburb again raise questions about school safety. While violence is down, this is the ninth incident in three years."

Brad Knickerbocker (bradknick@aol.com)
Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor


"Nine times over the past three years it's happened somewhere in the United States, and nine times stunned Americans have wondered why. A student with an irrational grudge or some deep hurt comes to school with a gun. Deadly violence follows. Then the search for causes. And finally a renewed effort to respond in a way that ensures schools will be a place for growing and thriving, a safe place and not a place of fear or deep loss.

"It's happening again this week in Littleton, Colo., where officials are sorting through the disturbing details of an attack by two heavily armed students that killed at least 15 people in the deadliest school assault in US history. Colorado Gov. Bill Owens (R) spoke for many Americans when he stood outside Columbine High School in this Denver suburb of 35,000 and said, "We have to ask ourselves what kind of children we are raising for this to be happening all over the US." And yet experts do not see this - or the earlier school shootings in Springfield, Ore., Jonesboro, Ark., West Paducah, Ky., Pearl, Miss., and elsewhere - as reasons for parents to be keeping children at home.

"Despite these acts, schools by far are still the safest places for your kids to be," says John Yeakey, a training specialist at the National Resource Center for Safe Schools in Portland, Ore., an agency funded by the US Departments of Justice and Education. Overall, the rate of crime in schools has dropped slightly during the past five years, and 12 to 18 year olds are more than twice as likely to be subject to violent crime when away from school than they are when in school.

"Still, about 1 in 10 public schools experiences at least one serious violent crime per year, and there has been this trend in what seems to be random gun violence. Mr. Yeakey warns that "schools need to be alert in coming months" to the possibility of copy-cat episodes. Some schools have responded with strict prevention measures. In Fairfax County, Va., every high school and some middle schools have uniformed police officers in the hallways....."


So what caused this tragedy, because without knowing the root cause(s) and addressing them, such events will happen again. Here is the Christian Science Monitor's reasoning in four paragraphs:

"Responding to Littleton : The Monitor's View . Americans had hoped the string of school shootings that marred recent academic years was over. But Tuesday's violence at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., was the worst such incident yet. It fills the nation with compassion for the victims and their families. And it compels each of us - as teachers, students, parents, church members, public officials - to give renewed attention to the problem of deeply disaffected young men with ready access to deadly weapons.

"Practical steps include stronger controls on access to guns. Such controls are only one small facet of a solution, but they're emblematic of a society that rejects violence. School-safety measures are another step. Many schools, including Colorado's, have zero-tolerance policies on bringing weapons to campuses. Guards and security systems are increasingly common in schools. They may become necessities, even in the rural and suburban schools such incidents seem to affect most. But they have to be weighed against giving schools too penal an atmosphere.

"All these steps, however, fall short of addressing the basic need - helping all young people discover constructive ways of dealing with frustrations, feelings of rejection, and anger. Most of the teens involved in these incidents have shared those attitudes, hardened into hatred and violence. Their actions have often mirrored the darkest side of current popular culture. Countering such tendencies requires deep reflection in homes and schools. Conflict-mediation courses may help. Encouraging students to tell teachers, parents, and administrators about disturbing subcultures in schools would help. Persuading children that kids they label "dweebs," "nerds," or misfits need a lot more than scorn would definitely help.

"Religious communities have basic resources to offer. They can reach out - both directly and through prayer - to kids tempted to be part of this evil. They can also guide countless others to use compassion and spiritual insight to help right young lives veering toward destructive behavior. It's work that every American should take up immediately."


  • First, we must have compassion, not only for "the victims and their families," but also for the families of the boys who created this tragedy, as well as for their schoolmates. This was a winless event where everyone even close to those who were injured or died deserves our compassion.
  • Second, it is not easy to understand what it means to, "give renewed attention to the problem of deeply disaffected young men with ready access to deadly weapons." There is no way to tell deeply disaffected young men from disaffected young men, and anyone with the inclination has access to deadly weapons. The admonition sounds good, but is vague without definitions and specifics.
  • Third, the advice, "Practical steps include stronger controls on access to guns. Such controls are only one small facet of a solution, but they're emblematic of a society that rejects violence," may be useful, but will not stop bombs and knives. Guns are not the bigger issue, and in contrast to the CSM position, this society practically "worships" violence. It is everywhere, in judo classes, in the movies, on TV, in children's games, at sporting events, etc. We pay, in both dollars and time, for these events, or else they would not exist.
  • Fourth, our schools already look more like prison yards than assemblages of inquiry and learning. Any increased allocation of dollars is not better spent in that way.
  • Fifth, all would agree that we should be, "helping all young people discover constructive ways of dealing with frustrations, feelings of rejection, and anger." But who specifically should be doing what in that regard?
  • Sixth, "Conflict-mediation courses may help. Encouraging students to tell teachers, parents, and administrators about disturbing subcultures in schools would help. Persuading children that kids they label "dweebs," "nerds," or misfits need a lot more than scorn would definitely help." Words and asking some students to tell on others" sounds good, but is unlikely to help because everyone knows these things. Worse, it positions responsibility in the wrong place.
  • Seventh, Religious instruction is no guarantee; Marilyn Manson attended Heritage Christian School.
  • Finally, anyone who believes that Oklahoma City or Columbine High School are the last of such events is living in a state of denial. We must learn and then act in new ways.


At one school the over-simplified version by teachers was that there is a, "lack of absolutes to deal with, no clear cut right/wrong standard. Kids get away with treating other kids unkindly, hurt kids retaliate first silently, then verbally, then physically, then torment, and finally, rationalizing that killing is the only way to get one's point across. When things haven't been dealt with at the beginning, the root grows, hurt becomes anger, anger-hate, hate-rage, rage-action."

Another younger teacher writes, "I also have not heard anything from the students or parents, but I have a comment myself. I have heard more than I ever wanted to know about this incident over the past few days, and have heard alot about the students, the parents, the community, and the nation. I have also heard all kinds of analyses from students and experts about the condition of these boys and warning signs. Their parents issued statements expressing their grief for the victims and all involved. I want to make the comment that this must be just as hard, but in a different way, for the parents of those who committed the crimes. They, like many others that day, lost their precious children, but they also have to live with the fact that those children are the reason this all happened. I cannot imagine the grief and guilt and anguish and all the other emotions that must be running through their minds. I hope and pray that those who are thinking of or praying for the parents of the victims lift up a special prayer for these parents, and I hope that no one ever shuns them because of this crime their children committed. I know that there may be those who blame the parenting styles or something else, and this may be a factor, but those parents have enough grief as it is."


"As of today (Thursday) I have heard only one mention of the incident at school, and that was from a parent. She picked up her daughter on Tuesday (I believe, may have been Wednesday but it was the day it happened, so I hadn't heard yet) and I had heard her dad was to pick her up, so I mentioned that. She said, "He was going to, but he was glued to the TV listening to that news story about the school in Colorado..." and proceeded to tell me (very upset and animated, unlike this mother) the story and about how she couldn't believe that things like this were allowed to happen, and how were we supposed to send our children to school and expect them to be safe, there ought to be whatever precautions necessary (metal detectors at every entrance, police outside the schools, etc.) to make sure that our children are safe when we send them off to school...etc. Said that one of the boys who killed the students said to another student, "I'm going to kill you because you're the wrong color" and then committed suicide himself. She was absolutely appalled. I, likewise, am devastated and do think they ought to do something to prevent weapons from being taken into schools but was saddened by the condition of our teens and the seemingly lack of help for people who seem to need or want it. There was obviously some very deep anger/depression/fear in those kids ... I can't imagine the grief of the parents."

Another parent after talking to her family's children said, "Talked alot about discussing such stories with parents and adults. Seems like the big difference between telling and tattling is that younger kids are more than happy to tattle on anything and everything and teens don't like telling a word to anyone [who is] not their peer. Probably cause they got scolded so much as young kids for all the tattling."  

According to Intelligent Network Concepts "The parents of Isaiah Shoels, one of the students killed in last month's shooting at Columbine High School, have announced plans to sue the parents of the two gunmen for $250 million. - the suit claims the parents of gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold failed to supervise their children adequately."


In death's wake, the media have responded in obvious ways. The Columbine incident "prompted CBS to swap out a scheduled airing of Promised Land. The family drama was to broadcast a story Thursday about a school-related drive-by shooting." Also, WB's teen-hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer will not run a deadly schoolyard plot that was scheduled on the one-week anniversary of the Columbine incident. And, "Marilyn Manson's scheduled April 30 show in Denver is another victim of the shooting's aftermath. Local concert promoters pulled the plug on the show this week, saying they didn't want to antagonize locals with the shock rocker." "There was also news Thursday that MGM was about to lead a sweeping video recall of the 1995 Leonardo DiCaprio film, The Basketball Diaries....The Basketball Diaries, featuring a dream sequence in which a trenchcoat-clad Leo blasts away at classmates, recently was named in a lawsuit filed by the families of school-shootings victim in West Paducah, Kentucky."

Although it is common for media, especially entertainment and advertisement media, to disavow their negative influence on formative minds, these four independent examples imply a complicity not easily discharged by words. Parents and teachers and youth counselors of all sorts need assistance to discern the good and worthy from what is harmful to children, and providing accurate and useful information about media should be both a community and a Federal responsibility---only because the Government has the necessary resources and could insure consistent standards. Meanwhile, information resources like the SIR Movie/Video Guide can serve as an example or prototype for similar sites.


The President's State of the Union Address on January, 19, 1999 contained 6,414 words, and of those the following were about violence and our children.

"We must break the deadly cycle of drugs and crime. My budget expands support for drug testing and treatment. It says to prisoners: If you stay on drugs, you stay behind bars. And it says to those on parole: To keep your freedom, keep free of drugs.

"Congress should restore the five-day waiting period for buying a handgun. And you should extend the Brady Bill to prevent juveniles who commit violent crimes from buying a gun. We must keep our schools the safest places in our communities.

"Last year, we were horrified and heartbroken by the tragic killings in Jonesboro, Paducah, Pearl, Edinboro, Springfield. We are deeply moved by the courageous parents who are working to keep guns out of the hands of children - so that other parents don't have to live through their loss.

"One of them is Suzann Wilson of Jonesboro, Ark. After she lost her daughter, she came to the White House with a powerful plea: "Please, please, for the sake of your children, lock up your guns. ... Don't let what happened in Jonesboro happen in your town." She is here tonight with the First Lady, and we thank her for her courage and commitment. In memory of all the children who lost their lives to school violence, let's strengthen the Safe and Drug-Free School Act . . . let's pass legislation to require child trigger locks . . . let's keep our children safe."

Yet, upon reflection, it is unclear how eliminating drugs, reinforcing a five day waiting period, and requiring trigger locks would have prevented the subsequent tragic events at Columbine, and then Heritage High School in Georgia. The shootings at a high school in Georgia on the one month anniversary of Columbine represents the sixth mass shooting at a U.S. high school or middle school since October, 1997.

Where is the Congressman or Congresswoman---, where is the news reporter---, where is the academic or practitioner who will stand up and say that reacting to symptoms will not work. What we witness happening in our schools are symptoms of a much deeper problem among too many young students. Teenagers killing their peers is symptomatic of a deeper problem that we must first discover and then correct. How many independent violent and tragic acts in our schools will it take before we become informed, and then tell our Nation's leaders to rise and act appropriately.


Thirty-nine years ago Leonard Eron (1960) studied all 875 third grade children in Hudson, New York, concerning aggression, violence, and bullies. He threw in some filler questions about TV, and inadvertently discovered the first "real world" evidence for the adverse effects of TV on children's aggression. He returned to Hudson when those same kids were 19 and 30, and drew similar conclusions. Eron's research is the first such study to measure the effects of TV on children in real life.

More than 30 years ago, long before any of our current high school students was born, Karl Menninger reviewed a book and wrote, "I know of no better collection of such material. The articles are...readable, sophisticated, and stimulating." He was referring to the edited book titled, Violence in the Streets. [4]   The first sentence in the preface of that book reads, "Americans are painfully becoming aware of the important place violence has in our lives." Apparently not enough Americans. That book contains articles by Bruno Bettleheim, Lewis A. Coser, Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley, Jr., Lewis Yablonsky, Kenneth B. Clark, and others. Perhaps we should listen, even today, to more people like these.

In 1976, Cybill Shepherd stared in Martin Scorsese's movie "Taxi Driver" where Robert De Niro portrays a seriously deranged New York taxi driver. But more than twenty years later Cybill has never seen the entire movie because she hates the violence in it. When asked in a 1997 radio interview she admits that it is "disturbing" to act in a movie that she will not watch. She says she needed the work. Both Stanley Kubrick (known for "Clockwork Orange") and Scorsese were repulsed when they learned that their films drove others to commit violent acts. Yet it is surprising how many movie critics laud this film, and how available it is to kids.

Starting in the mid-1980s, Joe Scheidler and Randall Terry met in Pensacola to start "Operation Rescue." Scheidler does not condone violence, however other more radical groups will be responsible for at least "153 actual or attempted arsons and bombings during the following decade," and close to $13 million in damages. The most exorbitant crimes will be committed in Mesquite, TX (1985: $1.5 million), Bakersfield, CA (1993: $1.4 million), and Kalamazoo, MI (1986: $.75 million), all of which remain unsolved (U.S. News & World Report, November 14, 1994).

In 1993, violent crime (rape, robbery, aggravated assault, and homicide) in the US reached a staggering 4.2 million cases a year, and arrests for such crimes averaged less than one-fourth the crime rate. Wilson and Herrnstein (1985), [5] point to three trends associated with crime: (a) shifts in age structure affecting the proportion of younger males, (b) changes in the benefits and costs of crime, and (c) society's investment "(via families, schools, churches, and the mass media) in inculcating an internalized commitment to self-control," and it can be added, a personal code of honor. Crime is a mature motif that this Nation has yet to take seriously. It is always someone else's problem.

Also in 1993, it is unsettling to consider that a computer game company called id released a 3-D game called "DOOM" wherein the primary focus is to destroy almost everything moving that you meet before they destroy you. After releasing a series of free and commercial games, they claimed that more than 15 million copies were distributed free (many to children), and that millions are able to link to their games over the InterNet. Are you aware of the extent and impact of such games?

When psychologist Mary Pipher spoke to 4,000 women in San Diego in 1997, one of her first comments was that she won first prize for Girl Scout cookie sales as a young girl in a small Nebraska town of 420. When she mentioned that she sold those cookies door to door, it is reasonable to wonder how many mothers there that evening would permit their daughters to do that today. Her book, The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families is highly recommended. Likewise, in 1996, both first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Michael Gurian published books that point to the critical need to reform the way we think about children. Hillary published, It Takes A Village, and Michael published, The Wonder of Boys, both of which also stir us to realize that each child requires the attention of the family, the extended family, the school, and the community. Have you read any of these three books?

Starting in the mid 1960s, our social world started shifting in ways that are being felt today. Anyone not tracking the rates for murder, robbery, divorce, unwed mothers, trust in Government, etc., during the past five decades will be astonished (cf., Fukuyama, The Great Disruption, The Atlantic Monthly, May, 1999). Moreover recently, both professional wrestling and certain talk TV shows have captivated our youth. For example, in San Diego, the Jerry Springer show in the early evening regularly captures a larger TV audience than any of the news programs, and on some nights that show has a larger audience than the top two news programs combined. Many people are asking why? Shouldn't there be radio and TV news shows that children will recognize?

Ample reports, statistics, and evidence exist to support anyone's predisposition about why some children are violent. Some of the most commonly reported causes of violence by children are: commercials (including military), depression, drugs, family violence, gangs, genetics, guns, justice system, movies, parental failings, rap music, school failings, sports, and television. No rational person would choose one single cause; however if there are lessons here, one of them must be that we bear some responsibility for living in isolation until tragedy strikes our neighborhood.


As Socrates noted more than twenty-two centuries ago, there should be no greater concern for any Nation than its children. "According to Socrates, education is far more than instruction and mental discipline. It is also about devotion to virtue and consideration for others which, when practiced in the affairs of daily life, enables a progressively maturing vision of the highest reality." [6] Therefore, he argued, to enhance character and understanding, the early years of childhood should be guided solely by truth and what is real. We can understand that most adults discern fiction from reality, but children must be guided into adulthood. That is not how we raise our young in this Country today, and thus far too many families become victims.

This simple report does not provide the "solution to violence in our schools;" however, there are things you can learn and do that will contribute to a better society. Decide which of the following activities below, if accomplished by the vast majority of responsible adults, would make our Country a better place. Then fit them into your schedule.

  1. "Know Thyself." [7], and become informed.   Read some of the Recommended Viewings, listed below.
  2. Consider starting or participating in a club for children, either in or outside of school. For example, this one.  Moreover, discussion in such groups can center around respect for all forms of life as expressed by the Roots and Shoots program, and, perhaps surprisingly, Aikido, which seeks to avoid harm and to restore personal and interpersonal harmony. There are others.
  3. Read one or more of the books identified above, especially Mary Pipher's book.
  4. Give the children in your family more personal "face" time where you comment in reasoned and constructive ways, on the values and realities of life.
  5. At the turn of this century, the only fiction (read unreality) that children were exposed to came from books and verbal stories--a very small proportion of each day. And the events they saw had real consequences. Now, consider the percentage of time each day that our children hear, see, or participate in moral and beneficial events compared to aggressive, hostile, and especially unreal events (often without personal consequences), and then contemplate the implications on young formative minds. We, each of us, must figure out how to protect both the first two Amendments and our children until the latter are old enough to discern right from wrong. As stated above, "Parents and teachers and youth counselors of all sorts need assistance to discern the good and worthy from what is harmful to children, and that providing accurate and useful information should be both a community and a Federal responsibility---only because the Government has the necessary resources and could insure consistent standards."
  6. Recognize that, "The government is us; we are the government, you and I" as Theodore Roosevelt reminded us in a speech on September 9, 1902 right after he became President. When the best citizens fail to act to improve Government, then the outcome is bad Government. Therefore, become active in local Government in ways that benefit the whole society, not just special interests.
  7. Let's ask some teens; there are lots of very bright kids with exceptional insight in this Nation.
  8. As I wrote to eight Senators and my Congressional Representative, we need a Senate initiated Blue-Ribbon Panel "fact finding effort that will lead us in the right direction to end this `perpetual tragedy' in our schools and elsewhere." If you agree, you should suggest that also.
  9. Finally, you should call, fax, or write to your three Federal elected officals in the House of Representatives, and the Senate, and tell them that you want to see two new multimedia interactive courses designed that should be required in every sixth and ninth grade classroom in the Nation. Those age-appropriate courses will address the current ten school tragedies, show their effects and the wide consequences of such behavior to students, parents, teachers, schools, and the community, and then provide alternative behaviors for violence.

Each of the alphabetized Recommended Viewings below has an associated World Wide Web site. This list of Recommended Viewings is more than any one person can read, at least initially. The list is large for two reasons. First, the number of topics associated with violent children is large, and there is no agreement about the predisposing factors or what to do about them. Second, we all, collectively, need to start somewhere, and the more familiar you and your neighborhood become with the issues, the sooner each of us, collectively, can take some positive action. One way to tackle this list is to form a local neighborhood interest group to (a) discover the evidence about violence in your schools, and then (b) assign a few readings to each person who can summarize them, and perhaps others, for the group. Where are the success stories?


  • AAP Policy Addresses Violence And Children: Click here.
  • Bandura's Social Learning Theory: Click here.
  • Children and Violence: Click here.
  • Classics back in fashion at some schools: Click here.
  • Crime Prevention In Action: The Stories: Click here.
  • Department of Justice: Reducing Violent Crimes And Intentional Injuries: Click here.
  • Drugs, Violence, and Crime: Click here.
  • "Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools": Click here.
  • Family Violence Statistics in one state (Texas) Click here. .
  • Frontline's Little Criminals page: Click here.
  • Gratuitous Media Violence Can Increase Violent Responses: Click here.
  • In Loving Memory: Click here.
  • Influx of New Drug Brings Crime and Violence to Midwest: Click here.
  • Is Biology Destiny: Click here.
  • JAMA: Violence in Television Commercials During Nonviolent Programming: Click here.
  • Kids and Guns: Click here.
  • Myths Feed Denial about Family Violence: Click here.
  • Our Problem is Defining Violence: The statistics are frightening Click here.
  • Parental And Home Influences On The Development Of Aggression In Children: Click here.
  • Safeguarding Your Child From Gangs: Click here.
  • Similarities Found Among Killers: Click here.
  • Solutions '97 forum offers answers to teen violence: Click here.
  • Spirit of Columbine Tribute Center: Click here.
  • Sport, Violence, and Advertising in the Global Economy: Click here.
  • Sports Figures: Role Models or Bad Examples?: Click here.
  • Study: School Violence Starts Early: Click here.
  • Television, Violence, and Children: Click here.
  • The Best Place to Go: Click here.
  • Too Clique Or Not Too Clique?: Click here.
  • TV Violence Statistics (1995): Click here.
  • When Kids Kill: Click here.
  • Yahoo Links to School Violence: Click here.
  • Youth and Guns: Click here.


  1. Source: Christian Science Monitor, April 22, 1999. Paragraphs 1-4 and 6-9 are from the CSM. Photo by AP.
  2. The Christian Science Monitor is a highly respected news source, and is used in this report for that reason.
  3. Source: Six of the following seven comments can be found on the ACE page.  Patience is required to load that page.
  4. Endleman, S. (Ed.). (1968). Violence in the Streets. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.
  5. Wilson, J. Q. & Herrnstein, R. J. (1985). Crime & Human Nature: The Definitive Study of the Causes of Crime. New York, Touchstone.
  6. Source: Socrates: Midwife to Our Souls. By W. T. S. Thackara.
  7. "Socrates' basic prescription for wisdom is to "know thyself." Simple words -- but an immensely difficult task." To the extent that we fail in that regard, some of our children suffer greatly.

horizontal rule
blue dot
horizontal rule

This Digital News report was posted on Wednesday, May 5, 1999.
This Digital News report was revised on Dec. 26, 2013.
On May 30th, all Recommended Viewing links were working.
Copyright © 1999 by Digital News:    All rights reserved.
Send e-mail to:
Digital News
Site Meter
New counter added May 22, 1999
View This Guestbook       or       Sign This Guestbook
Guestbook added June 3, 1999