Sunday, November 7, 2010

Columbine: a Parents' Guide

On April 20, 1999, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold staged their attack on their high school, Columbine, my son turned 7 months old.  Like the rest of the nation, I was transfixed by television, trying to find out every detail.  Of course, I thought about the killers' parents.  I wondered what they did wrong, or what they failed to do.  What could I learn from them?  Could it be as simple as giving my son organic milk, or not letting him watch Saturday Night Live?  I wanted concrete lessons, and if the lessons had been there I would have followed them.  It was especially important to me, because at seven months old, my son already owned a gun.

I come from a hunting family, and so does my husband.  My dad, father-in-law and husband all hunt deer, pheasants, turkey, you name it.  My father-in-law could not let my son's first Christmas pass without buying him a Daisy Red Ryder BB Gun.  And in light of Columbine, that worried me.  I assumed, like so many others did, that Harris and Klebold must have had easy access to guns.  It turns out that they did, but that they bought them through a friend at a gun show, rather than "borrowing" their dads'.  I wanted Columbine by Dave Cullen to come out the week after the tragedy.  Instead, it was worth a ten year wait.

While I was waiting, I heard about Jodi Picoult's book, Nineteen Minutes, and I even picked it as one of my choices for the eclectic book group to read.  If I couldn't have the answers on how to avoid raising a school shooter from an authoritative source, why not look to fiction?  Nineteen Minutes was a scary book, as it centered on the nineteen minutes of a boy's killing spree inside his high school, and how those nineteen minutes impacted the lives of all involved.  Nineteen Minutes obviously took inspiration from the tragedy at Columbine, but instead of giving me good advice, it perpetuated the myths.  The killer will be a loner, a loser, a victim of bullying.  The parents will be distracted; the mom will probably work.  The killer will be obsessed with video games, and some incident will trigger the killing.  In Columbine, Dave Cullen debunks all of these stereotypes, and that makes the truth scarier for a parent than fiction.

The real killers in Columbine did get into trouble from time to time, and yes, some signs were missed.  But for the most part, it seems that there was very little that their parents could have done differently.  The killers came from stable two parent homes.  Klebold went to prom and his mom waited up for him to talk about how the night went.  Both kids were highly intelligent, and had after school jobs.  They had friends - lots of friends.  Their parents did not own guns.  Harris seemed to be an Eddie Haskell character, who could smooth talk his way out of any situation.  His dad doubted his stories from time to time, but rarely had concrete proof that his son had lied.

What parenting lessons could I take from this?  Very few.  It seemed to me like there were two areas where if communication had been better, maybe the tragedy could have been prevented.  The first is communication between the Klebold and the Harris parents.  I can't recall any mention of the Klebolds speaking with the Harrises about the boys.  Could that have helped?  Maybe.  The other area is more troubling, and I think that it continues to be a problem.  Klebold and Harris both got arrested and faced felony charges, but their school was not told about it.  Then they both turned in papers talking about murderous crime sprees which concerned their teachers.  The police had one reason to be concerned, and the school had another, but they never shared their concerns with each other.  I know that kids are innocent until proven guilty, but why shouldn't the police be working with the school counselor?  This is a weak link.  But after reading Columbine I have to conclude that if Harris had not caused this tragedy, he probably would have caused others.

Columbine is a very well researched book.  Cullen did a great job in sticking to the facts without offering  solutions.  Cullen was one of the reporters covering the story, and I would have liked to have heard more about his experiences reporting the tragedy.  I do think it was professional of him not to try to inject himself into the story, so maybe just giving the reader a glimpse of his role as a member of the media in the end notes, like Cullen does, is enough.

Now my son is 12, and he has his hunter's safety certificate.  We don't have guns in our house and we do drink organic milk.  He's allowed to watch Saturday Night Live, but rarely does.  We play basketball and read together.  He's a great kid, and I'm lucky to have him. 

Next Up:  Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman

Still Listening to:  The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

1 comment:

  1. this seems as an interesting book


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