Keeping kids safe after Columbine -- at what cost?

Under a zero-tolerance policy to prevent school violence, a 6-year-old is kicked out for carrying camping gear

Published October 12, 2009 4:01PM (EDT)

After 10 years of refusing to speak publicly about the Columbine High School massacre, in which her son Dylan and his partner, Eric Harris, killed 13 people and themselves, Susan Klebold has written an essay about it for the forthcoming issue of O, The Oprah Magazine. "I'd had no inkling of the battle Dylan was waging in his mind," Klebold writes, explaining that she could only begin to understand her son's final actions when she recognized the extent of his own death wish. "Once I saw his journals, it was clear to me that Dylan entered the school with the intention of dying there. And so in order to understand what he might have been thinking, I started to learn all I could about suicide."

The opinions of FBI psychologists and psychiatrists who reviewed the evidence suggest that she was right to focus her search for answers on Dylan's self-destructiveness. As "Columbine" author (and former Salon writer) Dave Cullen wrote in Slate on the massacre's fifth anniversary, experts have concluded that Harris was a psychopath -- his "pattern of grandiosity, glibness, contempt, lack of empathy, and superiority read like the bullet points" on a diagnostic test -- but Dylan Klebold was "a more familiar type. He was hotheaded, but depressive and suicidal. He blamed himself for his problems." Which means that although the psychiatrists believe Harris was bound to become a violent criminal, "Klebold, they agree, would never have pulled off Columbine without Harris." If Dylan hadn't befriended a psychopath who focused his rage outward rather than inward, he "might have gotten caught for some petty crime, gotten help in the process, and conceivably could have gone on to live a normal life."

In the 10 years since the massacre, schools and parents have put a great deal of effort into trying to understand what happened and how such violence can be prevented. Recognizing mental illness like Dylan Klebold's and understanding the risk it can pose to others as well as the child himself is certainly one part of the strategy. Stopping the Eric Harrises of the world, however, the ones who simply have no conscience, involves other measures. That's where zero-tolerance policies about weapons in schools and threats of violence come in, and at first glance, they appear quite sensible. We hear the stories about teenagers being expelled and prosecuted for bringing guns to homeroom or writing essays describing their own massacre plots, and in light of what we know about school shooters' behavior prior to their crimes, those reactions don't sound so extreme.

But what about a 6-year-old boy who brings a Cub Scout-approved camping utensil, including a fork, spoon and small knife, to school to eat his lunch? Delaware first-grader Zachary Christie is currently being home-schooled by his mother and facing 45 days in reform school for that transgression of his school district's code of conduct. Says the New York Times, "[S]chool officials had no choice. They had to suspend him because, 'regardless of possessor's intent,' knives are banned." In 2007, the same school district "expelled a seventh-grade girl who had used a utility knife to cut windows out of a paper house for a class project." State law was changed last year to allow schools more discretion in expulsions, after a third-grade girl was expelled for a year because she brought a knife to class to cut her birthday cake. ("The teacher called the principal -- but not before using the knife to cut and serve the cake.") But because the law didn't address suspensions, it left no wiggle room with regard to Zachary's punishment. Or Kyle Herbert's -- the 13-year-old was ordered to reform school after a classmate "dropped a pocket knife in his lap," and is now, like Zachary, being home-schooled by his mother. One wonders what parents are supposed to do if they can't stay home with kids kicked out under the zero-tolerance policy.

Such policies exist for understandable and even admirable reasons: "Education experts say that zero-tolerance policies initially allowed authorities more leeway in punishing students, but were applied in a discriminatory fashion. Many studies indicate that African-Americans were several times more likely to be suspended or expelled than other students for the same offenses." Removing the authorities' discretion undoubtedly seemed an easier way to level the playing field than rooting out racism. Unfortunately, that means little kids get thrown out of school for carrying camping gear or being prepared to share birthday cake. And according to at least one expert, it's not worth it. Ronnie Casella, an associate professor of education at Central Connecticut State University, told The Times, "there is no evidence that zero-tolerance policies make schools safer."

What does, then? "[O]ther programs like peer mediation, student support groups and adult mentorships," according to education experts who spoke with the Times. In the decade since Columbine, "the rate of school-related homicides and nonfatal violence has fallen," alongside an overall decrease in crime. Despite several subsequent school shootings that made national news (and several others that didn't), the evidence suggests that some progress has been made. Susan Klebold's essay in O might be one more step toward understanding what went wrong and how to help kids like her son before they become dangerous. But I can't see how suspending innocent children, forcing their parents to choose between sending them to reform school and staying home with them, is making anyone safer. Giving authorities both greater discretion to enforce school policies and some anti-racism training, on the other hand, might just be an improvement. 

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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