Another Littleton waiting to explode?

Death threats and an uncaring school system convince one mother to move.

Published April 30, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The devastating drama that unfolded in Littleton, Colo., last week was a little like dij` vu for me and my 16-year-old daughter. Less than three weeks ago, we moved from Longmont, an affluent Denver suburb just 40 minutes away from Littleton, to Spokane, Wash., in part because I felt the school system wasn't interested in helping troubled kids. Although Columbine's horrifying violence never erupted at my daughter's school, the same disaffected teens roamed the halls, invisible and in crisis.

When my daughter's black trench coat clad ex-boyfriend threatened to rape and kill her, the authorities at her sprawling high school didn't try to help us or "Trevor" (not his real name), her ex, despite my requests. My daughter and I didn't believe he'd actually ever carry out his threats, but we were concerned he might hurt himself.

Trevor was a handsome brooding boy in serious emotional turmoil, but he wasn't a bad kid. He wore studded collars, skull rings, piercings and black clothing with pride, and struggled with depression and thoughts of suicide. As is common with teens, he often confided in me, his girlfriend's mother, rather than his own parents. "They wouldn't understand," he said. "I'm not sure I understand myself." The limited interaction I'd had with his mother led me to believe she was genuinely concerned, but I soon found out she had troubles of her own.

Days after my daughter broke up with him, Trevor's stepfather barricaded himself inside the family home, holding Trevor's mother hostage at gunpoint. I can only imagine what his home life must have been like before that moment. I offered Trevor moral support that night as he paced the police blockade. I was the only adult who did. During that ordeal, he struggled with two understandable reactions. First, terror at the thought his mother might be dead. Then, anger: How could she align herself with such an unstable companion to begin with?

A few weeks later, it was Trevor who seemed to take a similar, unstable turn. He occasionally acted restless and almost predatory when he was with my daughter, circling her like an animal, even as they talked just outside my home. "I want you to hate me," he told her. "I want you to hate me so I can hate you. I don't want to care." When he threatened to rape her during a late-night telephone conversation -- so she'd hate him -- and when that rape threat then escalated to murder, I knew it was time to see that he got some help. I also knew his natural father had promised Trevor an antique Colt .45 for his 18th birthday. It was his legacy, a family tradition. In very little time, Trevor would have the means to let his fantasies evolve into reality.

Imagine the hurricane of emotions Trevor must have felt as he gave voice to these violent thoughts, as he expressed his most angry fantasies. Imagine the same kind of dark reflections swirling in the minds of Columbine's outcast seniors, Harris and Klebold, and perhaps thousands of other troubled kids. They are on the fringe, disenfranchised and tortured by feelings of uncertainty, inadequacy and total lack of control over their lives. If they struggled alone, inadvertently neglected by parents who had more obligations than they had time, these kids would be in serious jeopardy.

Now consider the quiet panic that crossed my mind when I recognized the very real possibility that my daughter was in danger. She had become the focus of all of Trevor's immediate rage and she was scared. We made the decision to call the high school counselors the next morning. I believed they would address the issue immediately and make sure he received the help and support he needed to deal with his pain. To my dismay, they did not. When I summarized the late-night telephone exchange -- emphasizing that I knew this kid very well and cared about him, that he was more prone to suicide than outward violence -- they opted to call the police, not the boy's therapist or parents. They handed out warnings and threats, rather than counseling. When his mother finally was notified by the school, she didn't seem to acknowledge any problem at all.

I realized that my daughter's high school was more concerned with image than helping real kids survive real problems. A sterling record of academic excellence, athletic prowess and the production of squeaky clean, cookie-cutter graduates seemed foremost in the administrative agenda. Kids who didn't fit that mold were simply edged out.

Tolerance in a town like Longmont, a town voraciously proud of its conservative leanings, was incredibly hard to find, even for adults. Locals repeatedly ripped Clinton campaign posters from my fence during the election years. My car was regularly egged for sporting bumper stickers celebrating dinosaurs or Darwin or personal choice. My newspaper editorials supporting hospice care for AIDS victims or countering the school district's abstinence-only approach to high school sex education were answered with scathing hate mail draped in condemnation and "prayer." I endured it -- even occasionally relished the challenge. But for young people struggling with personal uncertainty, the intolerance could be overwhelming.

Soon after this episode, my daughter experienced her own emotional problems. The stress of her relationship with Trevor combined with my divorce from her father sent her grades into a downward spiral. She refused to go to class. Instead, she sat home with me, watching me write, or sleeping. She wasn't wandering the streets seeking mayhem. She was struggling with teen depression. And I was struggling to help her find her way through it. When I finally met with her school administrators, they could offer no real plans or possible solutions.

"Kerry is a good girl," I told the vice-principal in charge of attendance.

"What, on Tuesdays and Thursdays?" he replied in a caustic tone, as my daughter stood by my side.

We decided a move was her best chance at reinvention. We headed for the Pacific Northwest. Our first meeting with the Spokane School District offered a hopeful contrast. Kerry's grades were discouraging, they agreed, but they were confident Spokane's alternative high school program would help her find her way back. Within days, she was one of 15 sophomores under the compassionate care of a hand-picked, specially trained teacher. She was suddenly happy, eager to go to class, eager to make new friends, eager to succeed in an atmosphere that celebrated her distinctive light, rather than trying to extinguish it. If all goes well, she should re-enter a traditional high school in the fall of 1999 as a full-credit junior with a second chance to excel. I have my doubts whether this could have happened in Longmont.

While other people wonder how such violence could have happened in Littleton, it doesn't surprise me all that much. My experience in nearby Longmont, where the community is very similar to that in Littleton, has given me a little insight. Perhaps Littleton educators, therapists and parents who were in a position to notice and help two severely troubled teenagers weren't willing to take action. Perhaps they didn't want to listen to the pain cloaked in black rebellion. It was easier to stamp the two as "losers" and move on to more "promising" youth.

Tragically, more than a dozen of Columbine's promising stars may have paid for this possible oversight with their lives. If opportunity and encouragement had been offered with a more even hand, even to the outcasts, would things have been different in Littleton? Who knows. Bad things happen, even in the active pursuit of good. But a friend once told me that when it comes to teenagers in trouble, it's better to err and care on the side of safety than to hesitate and watch disaster reign. Now, more than ever, I agree.

By Kelly Milner Halls

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