Thursday, April 9, 1998
On March 24, Americans recoiled in horror at the televised carnage that came to us from Woodside Middle School in Jonesboro, Ark., where a jilted 13-year-old and his 11-year-old friend gunned down four fellow students and a pregnant teacher.
We adults wondered what would push two children to arm themselves to the teeth, trigger the school''s fire alarm, and sit calmly 100 yards away, picking off their classmates one by one. What evil lurked in their hearts? How did they have access to assault weapons and ammunition? And, most of all, how would our own children react to this terror and sorrow, brought to them live on prime time TV?
Administrators and teachers in Monterey County middle schools, who teach students the same age as those killed and wounded in Jonesboro, took different positions on how, or even whether, to deal with the shootings in their own classrooms.
Some principals made schoolwide announcements the morning after the shootings, to reassure their students. Teachers in many area schools held classroom discussions about the murders, with some organizing their students to send letters, poems and drawings of love and sympathy to their peers in Jonesboro.
The three middle schools in Salinas Union School District did individual memorial projects, which they presented to Mayor Alan Styles at the March 31 meeting of the PeaceBuilders, a city-wide anti-violence youth program. The mayor''s office forwarded these items to Jonesboro.
Harden Middle School principal Stella Moreno says the 600 seventh- and eighth-graders in her school wrote "letters of condolence and support to the students in Jonesboro as an extension of our caring and our desire to wish them peace, to offer them a way to help heal themselves." El Sausal Middle School students presented Styles with a book of poems they had written, and kids at Washington Middle School handed in a large PeaceBuilders banner they had all signed.
Other school districts weren''t sure how to handle the issue, wondering how deeply their kids were affected, and what would be the best way to offer help without overreacting.
Dr. Gwendolyn Laster, principal of King Middle School in Seaside, says she had three "Grief Busters" on call the morning after the shooting in anticipation of an outpouring of student grief. "I thought there would be some fallout, but there really wasn''t," she says.
At PG Middle School, administrators were still deciding by the end of last week whether to take any action at all. Principal Sherry Boyle says the issue was brought up at a PTA meeting March 31. "We talked about the pros and cons of involving them at this age," she relates. "We are working on something, but we''re not sure what yet. We''ll be working with parents to decide what approach we want to take."
Colton Middle School, however, took an immediate, proactive stand, when Principal Bess Halley made a schoolwide announcement over the public address system the morning after the Jonesboro shootings.
"I told them we were concerned, and that their safety was very important to us," she says. "I said, our hearts ache, and that''s why it''s so important to talk with each other about our feelings."
Barry Covington''s eighth-grade language arts class at Colton spent all last week reading articles about the shooting, and discussing how it affected them. But talking isn''t enough, Covington told his class--talk has to lead to action, and to change.
"If we discuss these shootings, and write about it in our journals tonight, will anything change in the world?" he asked his students.
"Maybe," one girl offered, hesitating.
"Maybe is enough," Covington responded. "Maybe talking in every class will change the mind of one kid so he won''t go out and do what they did in Jonesboro."
By their third day of discussion, Covington''s students had thought long and hard about the moral implications involved. They refused to accept the pat, stereotypical hypotheses offered by Time and Newsweek, the quick blame put on "Southern white gun culture," the quotes from neighbors dismissing the two boys as "bad kids."
"Maybe they were unloved at home," one girl suggested. "Maybe if their parents paid more attention to them, then when that girl broke up with him, he wouldn''t have felt so rejected, and he wouldn''t have become violent."
"Maybe he wanted other people to feel as bad as he did," another girl offered.
Guns alone aren''t the problem, these kids agreed. Five of Covington''s 30 students said they have access to guns, and close to 10 said they know how to shoot one. "But guns don''t make you evil," one boy said.
"Yeah, law enforcement [officers] use guns to save lives," his friend added. "It depends how you grow up. If you''re from a violent family, you could turn out violent, too."
Some Colton students decided to go beyond letter-writing, and put a personal face on their sympathy message. Rena DiGirolamo''s eighth-grade leadership class videotaped their reactions and condolences, and sent the tape to the grieving students in Jonesboro.
The video is short, and shot with an inexperienced, slightly jerky arm holding the camera. But that matters less than the heartfelt emotions expressed so candidly by the two dozen eighth-graders who stood before that camera in groups of four or five, said their names out loud, and told the kids in Jonesboro that they were not alone.
"We heard the news about what happened at your school, and we were really shocked and devastated."
"We couldn''t understand how someone so young could have done this to people he was friends with."
"It was their idea," says DiGirolamo. "Instead of sending letters, they wanted to show their faces to the kids in Jonesboro, to tell them how they felt."
"Our hearts go out to you."
"Although we haven''t been through what you have, we understand, and we hope it never happens to you again."
"There are two things to remember in life--be strong, and be there for each other."