Vermonters for Better Education
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As the dust settles on the Littleton, Colorado, monstrosity, the social scientists have taken over to mull the facts and try to explain how such an awful thing could happen in order to prevent its happening again. They will produce conjectures, hypotheses, theses, theories, and profiles enough seemingly to exhaust both the subject and us all. Yet, in all of their output they will neither discover nor account for two factors that, given the diabolic machinations of Klebold's and Harris's minds, virtually precipitated the tragedy. The reason that the social scientists will miss them is that they are so axiomatically ingrained in our culture that they are never questioned or discussed.
The first factor is that the capacity for avoidance and denial in the parents of students who do bad things is almost infinite. In the twenty-seven years that I have run schools, I have innumerable times had to deal with parents who deny, and frequently angrily so, that their children could possibly have done what they demonstrably and incontrovertibly have done. One parent claimed that the eighteen adults who observed her son's aberrant behavior must have been mistaken; her son told her he didn't do it, and her son never lied to her (the most common justification for avoidance and denial). Another parent watched her son load the car with his grandfather's guns and go to school, but did nothing to stop him or warn anybody because, "I thought they were just paintball guns." Once, when I reported to a couple that their son was repeatedly writing stories that graphically described how he was going to kill his father and other adults, not only did they find nothing wrong with that, but seriously suggested that he ought to get an A+ for creativity. And too many others to count.
The second factor is that a categorical imperative for teenagers is that you never, never, never rat out another teenager to anybody in authority - not your parents, not school authorities, not the police - nobody, even if staying silent will cost you dearly. The teen code of omerta makes the mafia look like girl scouts. A few years ago, somebody was stealing and reselling graphing calculators. Half the school knew who it was, but students wouldn't come forward and tell what they knew, even some of the people whose calculators had been stolen. Ditto someone burgling the locker room. Ditto instances of unconscionable bullying. And most frightening, ditto crazy, violent talk from disturbed students.
That Klebold and Harris were assisted by other students was certain even before the FBI confirmed it; the yearlong plans and the logistics alone demand it. Given the two factors of parental denial and student silence, here are some other scary certainties. Klebold's and Harris's parents and at least some of the parents of the others involved knew that their kids were into terrible stuff, but chose to discount its frightening seriousness because facing it and dealing with it would have required them to accept unpalatable truths about themselves and their kids. How else could they overlook guns and bomb-making operations in bedrooms and open-doored garages for over a year? Or a daughter buying guns for her friends? In addition to the parents, a significant number of other students in the school knew what was going on, but did not tell anyone in authority because of the teen code of omerta - pay any price, but don't rat out another teenager.
And scariest of all, these conditions - crazy kids, avoidance/denial syndrome parents, and code-of-silence teenagers exist in every school in America. What happened in Littleton, Colorado, could happen anywhere.
Bernier L. Mayo
April 29, 1999