Notes on a tragedy

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  April 25, 2007

Cruz cites the aborted school shooting in Marshfield two years ago, which was prevented when other students alerted the resource officer — a police officer dedicated to the school — of the plans. But in many small towns, where parents feel immune to violence, school-resource officers are seen as a luxury, Cruz says.

Cities also dedicate numerous programs to “at-risk youth,” who are a given among any urban, working-poor population. In the suburbs, which prize normalcy and assimilation, such proactive outreach is often considered unnecessary.

Bullies
Although it had been years since he had been bullied in school, Cho appears to have made much of that experience in the CD-ROM he sent to NBC News the day of the killings.

That’s a common denominator in school shootings. A 2002 report by the Secret Service, which studied school shootings after Columbine, found that 71 percent of attackers in those incidents “felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others prior to the incident.” In several cases, the bullying and harassment was “long-standing and severe.”

For many years, victimization was treated as a fact of adolescence, like skinned knees for toddlers. “Bullying is a word we use with children so that we don’t have to take it seriously,” says Elizabeth Englander, director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center (MARC) at Bridgewater State College.

That’s been changing. Anti-bullying programs, such as those run by MARC for educators, have been proven effective and are widely implemented. “What you really want ultimately is for children to be sensitized to the issue — to not bully because it’s not right to do that to people,” Englander says. “It’s not hard for them to identify with that.”

But implementation remains spotty among the country’s thousands of schools, and plenty of children — bullies and bullied alike — still fall through the cracks.

Making matters even more difficult, experts say that in recent years the nature of bullying has changed faster than they can respond. Our highly sexualized youth culture is contributing to more sexually based harassment, some say. More notably, the increasingly digital nature of adolescent and teen communication allows anyone to tease, humiliate, stalk, harass, and degrade others, at any time, with previously unimaginable speed, reach, anonymity, and permanence.

“The playing field keeps changing,” says Englander. “When it moves online, it affects a different group of students.”

The federal government, which has no problem mandating standards for nutrition and testing at the country’s schools, among other things, has done almost nothing on this and other school-safety issues. After this past year’s series of school shootings, the administration finally put together a conference on school safety in October. Nothing came of it. Appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press this past Sunday, Education and Homeland Security Secretaries Margaret Spellings and Michael Leavitt said that they now plan to embark on a “listening tour,” as if October’s conference, and indeed a host of work undertaken since 1999, had never happened.

Mental health
The more we learn about Cho, the more obvious the signs of mental illness appear in hindsight. “Not only did somebody know there was something wrong with this kid, everybody knew there was something wrong with this kid,” says Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley.

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