Silencing youth will not stop the violence

Lessons of Columbine shooting difficult to determine; listening to students seems a good start

Two days after the shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., the Student Press Law Center started hearing the stories we knew would come.

A student in Pennsylvania called to say that his school had looked at his Web site, which included links to various "Gothic" sites on the Internet, and demanded that he take it down.

An Ohio school suspended a student journalist for 10 days and threatened to expel him for having written a horoscope in the student newspaper suggesting that Scorpio's who were uptight with the college application process blow up their houses or assassinate the president to relieve stress. The satirical column was written six weeks before the Colorado attack. Police also filed criminal charges against the student.

An adviser from California called to report that his principal had demanded that the yearbook staff remove a section from the yearbook that showed students playing paintball.

An Idaho student journalist reported that his newspaper adviser suggested that they write a story explaining their feelings about the shooting. When the student wrote that while he deplored the violence he nevertheless felt some empathy for the shooters, whom he believed were picked on and made to feel like outcasts by "popular" students, his article was censored and he was sent home from school.

It is an understandable human response to tragedy to demand action. Doing something - anything - seems to help restore a feeling of control over a world inexplicably gone awry. Failure to act, on the other hand, implies resignation and weakness, an acceptance of our vulnerability.

Unfortunately, the "quick fixes" that follow tragedies such as Columbine are usually no more helpful than giving morphine to someone with a broken leg. The patient may feel better but the leg remains broken. Worse, while the pain is masked, infection can set in.

The reality is that a genuine cure to such tragedies - if a cure is even possible - cannot be achieved by a quick fix. It may make some feel safer to enact tough dress codes, to crack down on teen access to the Internet or to gather up all the students with "weird ideas" and a fascination with computer games, but it won't solve the bigger problem.

Neither will it help to prevent students from communicating openly and honestly about the sometimes frightening, sometimes confusing and sometimes ugly world in which they live.

We don't cure problems by muzzling the messenger that brings the problem to our attention. We must first listen. Even when the message hurts to hear. And if we are trying to solve the problems faced by young people, who better to listen to and to help us understand those problems than young people themselves?

To be sure, there are bad kids. But most - by far - are not. Unfortunately, too many Americans don't take the time to figure out the difference. Kids scare them. And they want the quick fix.

For example, last spring, nine students from Killian High School, in Miami, Fla,, produced an underground newspaper that contained racist themes and talk of violence. (See story, page 9). The "adult" response was not only to jail the students involved, but also to propose sweeping changes to the free expression policy that governed the school district's official student media. No matter that the hundreds of students working on those publications had no connection to the nine Killian students or that Miami's student publications consistently took top honors at the various national student journalism conventions. It was, in effect, a "quick fix" to a problem that never existed.

On the night of the Columbine shootings, President Clinton addressed the country: "[W]e must do more to reach out to our children and teach them to express their anger and to resolve their conflicts with words, not weapons."

That's good advice and we hope that he means it. Unfortunately, just two weeks later, Vice President Gore convened a national meeting on school violence that spent much of its time targeting young people's access to the Internet.

You can't have it both ways.

We may never know why tragedies like Columbine High School happen. What we do know, though, is that we won't hear the messages we desperately need to hear from our young people if we don't let them speak.


reports, Spring 1999