Making sense of the shooting at Santana High

Readers respond to Salon's coverage of the latest high school tragedy.

Published March 7, 2001 9:00AM (EST)

Worthless lives by Meredith Maran.

Meredith Maran has it exactly right. Our schools have become worse than factories -- they are jails; look at the architecture. My wife and I are lucky to be able to send our kids to our parish school. There are 17 kids in our eldest son's second grade class. Not only does his teacher know him, so do all the other teachers in the school. When we drop him off in the morning, the principal greets him by name.

If we sent him to the nearest and best public elementary school, he would be in a class with almost twice that number of other children -- and his class would be just one of three second-grade classes, all the same size. Tell me the teachers, let alone the principal, can keep track of all the 8-year-olds in that building. How in the world can they then keep track of five other grades the same size?

Instead of wasting the budget surplus to give tax breaks to the rich so that they can send their already overprivileged children to their luxurious and small private schools, we should be building more and smaller and better-staffed neighborhood public schools.

-- David Reilly

As a proud alumna of both Santana High School and Harvard University, I take issue with the article's casual dismissal of the learning environment there. Based on the writer's experience at other "large suburban" high schools, the writer characterizes Santana as a "factory," compares its teachers to "prison guards," and concludes that Santana's teachers and counselors do not care about their students merely because there are many of them.

It is false. It is wrong. And I am personally offended and outraged to read such unjust charges leveled against the compassionate and professional faculty and staff of Santana High School. It should not have to be said that this shooting was not their fault -- and the article's implication that those fine people are somehow to blame, that if they had cared more, or earned more, this tragedy could have been avoided, is nothing short of monstrous.

-- Laura M. Hagan
Santana High School Class of 1984
Harvard University Class of 1988

Watching the talking heads discuss tragedies like this one fills me only with disgust. They point to those who knew in advance (of an unhappy student with a desperate, final plan) as an indication that this is a problem that can be "solved" if we tried harder. They treat what is wrong with American high schools as a medical condition that early identification could cure, somehow forgetting that further alienating our children with paranoia and suspicion will cause nothing but more grief.

For once I was glad to see an article where the author is unafraid to take a long hard look at the schools themselves as a root cause. These aren't "messed-up individuals" but products of an overburdened system constantly assaulted by the media and government. But the article doesn't go far enough.

What drives these picked on, outcast, and in many cases despised, kids to the edge are their peers. The same way as it was a generation ago, except the stakes have gotten far greater. Instead of pointing the finger at those already singled out, instead we need to look at why the culture of exclusion exists and what causes it. That culture has scarred kids on both sides but only comes to light when tragedies like this occur.

-- Ted Yang

Thank you for posting this thought-provoking article on the latest school-shooting tragedy. This complex problem will never be resolved until we (parents, schools, media, kids) stop pointing fingers at each other and stop the denial and begin pointing a finger at ourselves.

I have witnessed my own 11-year-old son come home from his first-rate suburban school in tears from the daily teasing of classmates. I have stood by as he, and a small group of other boys, "play games" and "learn strategies" to toughen up against being called names like "Booger Boy" by both male and female classmates. While he has been labeled "overly sensitive" (by both myself and his teachers), we have excused his peers under the old adage "kids can be cruel." For months now, his father and I have extolled the advice: "Just ignore them. Don't let it bother you."

After this latest shooting and Ms. Maran's article, I refuse to be a co-conspirator any longer.

This kind of harassment would not stand in my workplace. If it did, I am sure I would come home in tears. I am sure I could not "ignore it," and yet this has been my best advice for my own son?

His is a good school with well-meaning and caring teachers, better-than-average class sizes and programs in place to help. Therefore I shudder to think what happens daily to kids in places that are bigger, poorer and overburdened with teachers who are less dedicated.

I am taking my responsibility in this issue. You can be assured I will be in touch with his teachers and the school to demand they undertake theirs.

-- Vicki Lankarge

Meredith Maran writes: "He was the kind of kid whose father owned guns and didn't keep his son from getting to them. The kind of kid who was picked on, often, at his large, suburban school. The kind of kid who spent a weekend telling his closest friends -- and their parents -- that he was going to go to school on Monday and shoot as many of his classmates as he could."

As much as I like Salon, every word of this is wrong. But it's the stuff that's easy to say. It's much easier to report that this time was just like all the others, that the warning signs were there. It's easy to continue to report what has already been reported.

The gun was kept in a locked cabinet. The shooter wasn't a scapegoat. Being a kidder, he fully convinced his friends he was joking when he told his friends he was going to take a gun to school. Hell, it's not even a large school!

I live in San Diego and watched live, unedited reports for eight hours after the shooting. The reports that the shooter was teased and picked on came from a very few kids who weren't close to the shooter. One of the more articulate kids who has been shown on many newscasts and quoted in many articles said that she didn't even know the shooter's name.

Those who actually knew him said he was a nice guy, carefree, joking, fun to be around and polite.

There is no "typical" kid who would do this and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

-- Shannon Daley

I can't decide if this is a paid promotional by the American Teachers Federation or just an NEA public service message about the value of hand-holding guidance counselors. I kept waiting for the hook: If only Charles Andrew Williams had gotten a hug from a teacher, this never would have happened.

School shootings -- tragic and senseless as they are --are aberrations and statistical anomalies. The complexities of the issues that drive kids to shoot classmates cannot be adequately addressed by demanding a teachers' utopia that doesn't exist or suggesting that getting in touch with kids' feelings is a panacea for school violence.

-- Eric Schwartz

Meredith Maran's theory that poor public educational standards are conducive to school shootings is dangerously misinformed. If Maran had done her research, she would have found at least one relatively recent incident refuting her statement that these sort of attacks "simply do not happen at private schools." In 1993, a 17-year-old student named Wayne Lo opened fire on the student body of a tiny, private "early college" for high school-age students, Simon's Rock -- an exclusive, expensive and challenging place, where most classes contain 10 or fewer students.

I know this not only because I covered the story for the Boston Globe, but because I am an alumnus of Simon's Rock. The story was well publicized, and prompted the passing of the Brady Bill in Massachusetts, as well as the publication of a memoir written by one of the shooting victim's fathers, "Gone Boy."

What this incident proves to me -- as did a subsequent murder-suicide incident at Harvard, also well-publicized -- is what parents all over this country should already know: Violence can happen anywhere. And the seeds are sown long before a student reaches a high-school classroom, no matter how well or poorly that classroom is staffed. Recognizing and curbing violence should not be the priority, or even the responsibility, of school staff. It should be the priority and responsibility of parents.

-- Sarah Gold

One thing is quite lucid about Maran's argument: Ambivalence sucks!

Problem is, Maran doesn't seem to care who it is that doesn't care. Could she be just another helicopter hovering overhead, waiting for kids to shoot each other? In all fairness, Maran wrote a good book on the subject, making it hard to believe that she too would play the "mediagenic" game. So why doesn't she point fingers? Why does she say "schools are ambivalent" and then absolve the schools because they are underfunded?

Schools do house ambivalence, insofar as surviving high school necessitates a tough-skinned perseverance to simply get out. But the far more pernicious form of apathy that according to Maran allows kids to go awry is something else, really: Learned and practiced hate.

Kids who plan to kill are not apathetic nor are they victims of ambivalent systems. They are instead practitioners of violence who have a nexus of catalysts present in their everyday lives. They have guns. They have hateful role models. And they have drive. They are motivated overachievers. That's why other kids build shrines to the likes of Columbine killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris.

Maran needs not only to address underfunded schools but also overfunded pseudo-news journalists who do us all a disservice by cashing in on teary-eyed mom shots and interviews with shocked and horrified teens. And before you, Salon, utter a "hear-hear" as a virtual print medium, I still remember your slobbery publication of Columbine's video footage. I had to kick my students off the computers for a couple days while I blocked your site.

-- Chandler Lewis

Still, no new laws by Jake Tapper

In the case of every single school shooting, gun laws already on the books were broken. What makes Mr. Tapper think that a new law will be a silver bullet, if enforcement of gun laws in general is falling short? Why write a new law? So the next wave of angry teens can break those on the way to mass murder?

-- Matthew Ivaliotes

David Horowitz explained things the best: "The fact is that there are 20,000 gun laws already on the books, 17 of which were violated by the Columbine killers. What would one more law accomplish that the other 20,000 could not?" Numerous laws have been passed in the previous five years by many states and by the federal government over the nature of gun imports and sales. To try to create a fear mentality that no laws have been passed since 1996 is at best a daytime talk show idea.

Most important, why can't parents take responsibility for the lack of time they spend with their kids? Why can't administrators and teachers admit they knew this harassment went on? One would have thought Columbine was enough to teach people to watch and listen to their nation's children. Evidently, this is not the case.

-- Patrick Schoonveld

Since I am one of those NRA "gun nuts," I am obviously stupid. So I need to have a few things explained to me.

About those new laws you want: How would they have stopped the latest school shooting? Please, no vague references to "common sense," no teary-eyed "it's for the children." Just a factual explanation.

Let's take the "gun-show loophole." I find it interesting that the people pushing this law are people who have never bought a gun at a gun show. Just so you know, you do have to go through a background check at a gun show. Of course, you don't if you're not buying from a licensed dealer, but that applies anywhere, not just gun shows. In my experience, the private sellers at gun shows are selling old bolt-action rifles and duck guns, not trunkloads of evil "assault weapons."

I doubt that you care if your new laws actually work or not. That's not the point, is it?

-- Jim Williams

Been there, done that by Chris Colin.

As a New York City high school graduate of one of their schools of "hard knocks," I'd like to respond to this article and the sentiment that there should be "shock" on the faces of kids after a shooting. The fact that there wasn't, I hope, will awaken the media to its own horror at the expense of young lives.

At the high school I attended, students were stabbed, raped, did drugs in the hallway and yes, some were even killed. Where was NBC and Tom Brokaw when black and Latino students were hurt and dying?

By the time Columbine had a shooting, many of us were annoyed by the media blitz and said something like, "Well, it's about time. Maybe they'll care about what's going on in our schools now."

I think the questions about shock should go right back to the people who seek to blame everyone for their children's problems but themselves: parents. The real questions are: Are our parents shocked when they see injustice? Are they shocked when they hear about a black boy, regardless of the parents' own ethnicity, killed on a Harlem street corner? Are they shocked when they hear Eminem blasting from their children's bedrooms? Are they shocked when they glide through areas of extreme poverty and homelessness? Are they shocked enough to DO something? If parents don't place value on their lives and for the world around them, one cannot expect that their children will.

-- Rae Grant

I watched the coverage with my 15-year-old son who is off on March break. Well, he watched a little, but was not that interested.

We're Canadians. "Americans are crazy, " was how he assessed it. "Two things caused this; only two," he said, "availability of guns and the media. They should only cover these events a bit," he said.

Then he went on to say Bush was, well, whatever. "The kid knew right from wrong, that's why he did it. He wasn't a coward, he was nuts."

I had to agree, like the kids you talked about, like the kids I saw interviewed, my kid knows the score. (None accused the kid of being a coward not knowing right from wrong.)

But I am so glad you wrote this, because if anything stood out, it was the way the kids talked so calmly about it, and the two or three kids who ran for cameras instead of cover after they heard shots and saw a wounded person kneeling in the hallway.

Yesterday, appalled by this, I did ask my son what he thinks he would do in such a case. "Would you run for a camera?" (We live in a similar neighborhood; there are troubled teens here, the difference being few -- if any -- kids' families have guns.) He said he'd run -- fast. "Besides, who has a camera in a school?" he asked. (We have no money for multimedia courses.)

American kids, I guess.

It's funny, on CNN yesterday, they interviewed this author and expert who claimed modern American middle-class kids are disconnected, yet all I saw were moms talking to their kids on cellphones.

Odd culture.

-- Dorothy Nixon

By Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------