Posted: Mar 13, 2001 12:00 AM
Each new episode resembles, in some way, the previous one. A suburban school, a disturbed kid or sometimes two, gunshots and a stricken community. This time it's the San Diego suburbs. The list is getting quite long. It appears that this shooter, smiling with evil delight as he squeezed the trigger, was unhappy, excluded and teased by other children. (Incidentally, how many parents these days warn their own children about victimizing other kids? How many ask, "Did you gang up on Billy?" Or do they simply take satisfaction in knowing that theirs is not the unpopular kid?) The boy's parents were divorced, and he was living with his father 3,000 miles from his mom, whom he missed. And this is painfully familiar: He had talked of bringing a gun to school. Classmates were sure he was joking. "He would just never do anything like that," one 15-year-old acquaintance of the murderer told Fox News. But in our time, some key mechanism of social inhibition has gone missing, and even kids who seem normal and balanced are capable of the worst depravity. President George W. Bush seems to understand what we are dealing with. After expressing sympathy for the wounded and the families of the dead, Bush offered that if Americans taught their children the difference between right and wrong, these tragedies can be avoided. And it is a tribute to the special grace of the man that he didn't sound at all like a scold as he said it. After each new outbreak of suburban butchery, we have been cautioned against overreacting. Schools, we were instructed, are statistically the safest places on earth for kids. Sorry, but that doesn't reassure me. Yes, the chances of being shot by your classmate are still lower than being struck by lightning, but the rate of increase in shootings in deeply disturbing. For years, there was simply no such thing as meeting death by gunfire in the hallways of a school. Now, we seem to have a new episode somewhere in America once a month. The results are not always fatal, but the trend is ominous. The Los Angeles Times chronicled the number of shootings at schools nationwide over the past five years. The two dead teen-agers in Santee, Calif., are the latest. In January, an Oxnard, Calif., high-school student took a classmate hostage and was shot by police. In May 2000, a seventh-grader in Florida gunned down a teacher at a middle school. In February, a first-grader shot and killed a classmate. In December, an Oklahoma 13-year-old fired into a crowd at a middle school, wounding five. In May, a 15-year-old brought a gun to school and wounded six classmates. In April 1999 in Littleton, Colo., two teens killed 12 and wounded 23. They then committed suicide. In May 1998, an Oregon 15-year-old opened fire in the high-school cafeteria, killing two and injuring 20. His parents were found dead at home. In May 1998, an 18-year-old killed a classmate in a Fayetteville, Tenn., high-school parking lot. In April 1998 in Pennsylvania, a 14-year-old shot and killed his science teacher and wounded two students at a school dance. In March 1998, in Jonesboro, Ark., two boys, ages 11 and 13, came to school in army fatigues. They pulled the fire alarm and then took positions on a hill overlooking the parking lot and begin shooting into the crowd. Four students and one teacher (who threw herself in front of a student) were killed, and 10 more were injured. A boy killed three students in West Paducah, Ky., in December 1997. Five more were wounded -- one paralyzed. In October 1997, in Pearl, Miss., a 16-year-old shot nine students, two fatally. His mother was found dead at home. In 1995, a student killed a teacher and fellow student at Richland High School in Lynnville, Tenn. I have offered this list without names because the lust for celebrity -- however brief and however brutally purchased -- is a not-insignificant motive for many of these adolescents. Even the televised funerals for victims can appeal to the twisted minds of some borderline kids. That practice should end. Santana High did everything modern schools do to reduce the chance of violence. They had counselors, conflict resolution, anger management and the rest. We are finding that without basic morality these are useless.