Marilyn Manson: "I wouldn't say a single word to them. I would listen to what they had to say, and that's what no one did."
The above is an exchange with Marilyn Manson, from the movie Bowling for Columbine, directed by Michael Moore. On this day, ten years ago, two students shot and killed twelve classmates and one teacher, and injured 24 others, before taking their own lives, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.
One and a half years after that incident, an assistant coach of the freshman football team of a high school in Fairfax County (VA), accosted my son Paul in the locker room by grabbing and restraining him, and then breaking wind in his face. This followed several attempts at bullying of this young man of smaller stature by his "manly" teammates. Paul soon left the team. Several months later, following an emotional breakdown, and after a poorly executed -- and in the end, harmless -- threat to take his own life on school property, Paul was expelled. The school effectively found the means to disavow any responsibility for the action of one of its staff, through the actions of one of its students.
What do both incidents have in common? Bullies.
Ah, you don't believe me, do you? You'd rather blame video games and heavy metal music and violence on television. You'd rather believe the empty suit on NBC News, who claimed that bullying was not a factor, because these kids were plotting this for a year. Next they'll be telling you that bullies get bored with picking on the same guys after only a few weeks.
Instead, consider the discussion in the aftermath:
The state wrestling champ was regularly permitted to park his $100,000 Hummer all day in a 15-minute space. A football player was allowed to tease a girl about her breasts in class without fear of retribution by his teacher, also the boy's coach. The sports trophies were showcased in the front hall -- the artwork, down a back corridor.
Columbine High School is a culture where initiation rituals meant upperclass wrestlers twisted the nipples of freshman wrestlers until they turned purple and tennis players sent hard volleys to younger teammates' backsides. Sports pages in the yearbook were in color, a national debating team and other clubs in black and white. The homecoming king was a football player on probation for burglary...
(The Washington Post, "Dissecting Columbine's Cult of the Athlete," Lorraine Adams and Dale Russakoff, 06/12/1999.)
Bullying at Columbine High was rampant, witnesses testified Monday, and victims' parents were shocked that the principal has said there were no danger signs leading to the shooting.
"All I could say for my friend Frank (DeAngelis) was, he must have been worried about his job," said Dawn Anna, the mother of slain student Lauren Townsend and a girls volleyball coach at Columbine. "There are too many people worried about their jobs, and not enough worried about taking care of innocent children."
Anna and about a dozen others made their comments Monday before the Governor's Columbine Review Commission. The families of other Columbine victims and members of the public also spoke.
It was the first time the board has taken public comments...
(Rocky Mountain News, "Witnesses tell of Columbine bullying," Jeff Kass, 10/03/2000)
(You really must read the articles before you dismiss them.)
We have heard more about bullies these days in the news media. The current round of complaints is fueled by weaker children accused of being "gay." GLBT advocates are using this to call attention to the plight of their younger counterparts, but the truth is you don't have to be of a different sexual orientation to be bullied. All you have to be -- is different.
We also continue to hear of how ineffective -- no, make that thoroughly incompetent -- school administrators are at addressing the issue. To give another example, I was recently consulted about another incident, where a young girl of middle school age was taunted by a boy in her class, who took a stick and sneaked up behind her, lifting up her knee-length skirt. Naturally, the girl was humiliated. So far, the school has found it necessary to blame the girl.
You have not heard of this story yet. Before the end of the year, you will. (Did I mention this was a Catholic school?)
And so many stories like this one will persist, because schools do not deal with the problem at its source. They erect a pedestal for the popular and more talented kids -- the head cheerleader, the all-star football player -- the ones who bring fame and glory to their institution. Some time later, these giants of astute learning are dumbfounded when such kids torment others not so distinguished. You take an age group where it is easy to assume you are invincible and immune from consequences for your actions -- having had so little experience with facing consequences without the safety net that is mummy and daddy -- and then reinforce that naivete for your own trivial reasons, or for no reason at all. What the hell do you expect to happen?
How do we solve it? We listen to our kids. We get a f@#$ing clue when it comes to anything and everything in their lives! Even when they don't want it. As a divorced parent, estranged from my own son, I would still take time off work to introduce myself to his teachers, and get weekly phone calls and e-mails on his progress, or lack thereof. Vigilance as a father does not end in such circumstances; it only gives cause to be more creative. The finest school system in the world can only do so much, to compensate for oblivious parents.
What was the result?
Paul was eventually transferred to another school within the county system, one that placed more value on its students than its public relations. By his senior year, after a desire to make amends with his father, I taught him philosophy in monthly sessions, in addition to what he learned in school. He is now an honor student at the Art Institute of Washington, in addition to supporting himself as a bartender. He has been sober for seven years. And on his Facebook page, among his favorite books is listed the Summa Theologicae.
His tormentors on the football team, effectively shielded by the power of the state and its public school system, walked away from their actions without consequence. I have since learned the identity of both the football coach, as well as the young studs who taunted Paul. And with the coach being such an enormous pantywaist for attacking little boys in a locker room, I could have settled this whole thing easily enough with a good old-fashioned country @$$-whoopin.'
Wherever he is (ahem!), perhaps he would beg to differ.