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School shootings: No simple answers

by Wayne Woodlief

Thursday, March 8, 2001

In the wake of the Santee, Calif., school shootings - two kids dead, 13 wounded, countless others terrified and emotionally scarred - it's too easy just to shout for new gun laws and more metal detectors at the schoolhouse door.

The first isn't likely to happen on George W. Bush's watch. And the second is not enough by far.

Yet something more has to be done so our children can feel safe and secure in their classrooms without the additional burden of walking the halls wary of their classmates and nervous about whether the next outburst might be directed at them.

It could happen here; it could happen anywhere.

The tragic killings at Columbine High in Colorado in April 1999, show that. So does yesterday's shooting of an eighth-grader by another eighth-grade girl at a parochial school in Williamsport, Pa., home of the Little League World Series.

And we need to understand better what goes on in the heads of the kids who commit these crimes and the aftershocks - of sadness, depression and sometimes triumph over adversity - that affect their victims.

``Real Boys' Voices,'' a book published last summer by Boston area psychologist William S. Pollack, director of the Center for Men at McLean Hospital, is a valuable guide.

It speaks to the fear of violence, fear of their own violent impulses and the terribly stoic ``Boys' Code'' that causes too many of our sons to shut down emotionally. They may be seething inside and scared about it. But, without encouragement, few will open up and risk being labeled ``sissy.''

With a powerful chapter of interviews with boys from Columbine High, Pollack lays out riveting first-person stories and writes some solidly based prescriptions for action.

Take Sean Graves, 16, in a wheelchair, left with little strength in his legs from gunshot wounds. ``I learned to crawl,'' he said. ``I can crawl around the house a little bit now and go down stairs.

``I could cry,'' he said. ``I feel embarrassed to be stared at . . . Then it occurs to me that this is what happened to Dylan and Eric (the two teens who went on the rampage at Columbine, shooting Sean and others, and then taking their own lives) . . . the staring, the teasing and bullying that Dylan and Eric got.''

Like them, Sean said, he gets angry sometimes. ``When I'm trying to walk, at times I get really angry because my right ankle will hurt and I get ticked off at all that's happened.

``But I use that anger positively. I tell myself, I'll show them! Every time I try to walk I'm one step closer to being completely back on my feet.''

Graves now is able to admit that he cries, gets angry and deals with it. Others from Columbine, like John Bujaci, 16, aren't there yet. He was trapped in an elevator with several other students while Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold fired deadly fusillades in the corridor outside.

Bujaci said he knows his friend Sean was angry about his wounds. But, Bujaci said: ``I don't really talk to him about it. It can be hard for guys to talk about that kind of stuff (feelings) together. You've got a lot to live up to; you've always got to prove yourself.'' Ah, the Boys' Code.

If the shootings at Columbine and at Santee's Santana High, just outside San Diego, teach us anything it is this: We must listen to kids and take them seriously.

Not just when, as in each rampage, the shooters had told others they had mayhem in mind. (That kind of warning must be reported. Let the authorities decide if it's serious). But also in less dramatic circumstances, when kids are reaching for help.

Pollack has some helpful recommendations:

**If you're a parent, peer or significant other, try to recognize when a boy is in pain and listen to him: ``He needs us to come toward him, embrace and affirm him and assuage his hurt feelings before they push him toward the edge.''

**Be on the lookout for signs of sadness and depression (withdrawal, angry outbursts, discussion of death, abuse of alcohol or drugs). And encourage the youngster to talk about his feelings. If he's reluctant, quietly come back at him again.

**Resist over-reaction and stereotyping. Testing programs in some schools that ``purport to predict violence'' have, instead, promoted paranoia and fear of false accusations, Pollack wrote.

It's hard work. It may never be finished. The problems are that ingrained. But helping our children find what Pollack calls ``safe spaces (and) genuine security'' is worthy work. Let's get at it.