Monday, April 20, 2009

Bullies for Columbine

Michael Moore: "If you were to talk directly to kids at Columbine, and the people in that community, what would you say to them if they were here right now?"

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?

Answer: Columbine.

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.


Dymphna said...

Actually the bullying theory turned out to be crap. If you look at the diaries of the two little monsters they were living fairly pleasant lives at school. They didn't kill anyone becaues they were more talented than them or because they were Christians.Some people simply choose evil, it's that complex and that simple.

David L Alexander said...

I anticipated this response. I saw this response on the news. I replied to this response in my piece. Nothing that you have written would refute it. Diaries can be self-deceiving, especially against the testimony of others, which is also in my piece. I stand behind it.

Anonymous said...

Dave, your post is quite accurate. In my own school years (I'm now 62), I underwent bullying because of my surname, which was "different" from the Irish-English ones of my classmates. I was also overweight, and absolutely loved school and most of my teachers. IOW, I was a nerd before the word was common -- and you've described what happens to nerds. There was nothing physical, just verbal, but it hurt, regardless. I often heard "Fatty, fatty, 2x4, couldn't get in the bathroom door, so she did it on the floor". By far the worst bullying, however, came from my Grade XI teacher. She (a Sister of Mercy) became convinced without any discussion whatever (based on finding a photo of my favourite actor in a textbook) that I was neglecting my schoolwork, and for the last 6 months of high school she never let a day go by without saying something derogatory in front of the entire class about something I'd submitted or left undone. She even critiqued a musical perfomance I gave -- and she wasn't a musician! My parents, good Catholics both, sided completely with her. By the grace of God and my own hard work, I graduated with honours that year. More than 40 yrs. on, I still have painful memories of that time in my life. Just about everything I've done since has been an attempt toprove to myself that I'm not the kind of person Sister Teresita said I was. Let no one underestimate the harmful influence of verbal and physical abuse -- its effects are lasting. It is totally evil.

David L Alexander said...

Anon: I'm not sure why, but well into the 1960s, humiliation was seen by Catholic school teachers as a form of character development. I never understood it then, and I have never heard a decent explanation of it since. "Those were the times we lived in," someone might say, which I would take to mean that sick, pathological behavior by adults, at the expense of children, was seen as normal.

Dave said...

Dave: why didn't you have a very personal discussion with the coach, or sue the school district? Were someone to do that to my kid, a certain scene from How Green Was My Valley would be re-enacted, or some variation thereof...

David L Alexander said...


Since you've asked...

It's easy to believe that someone with "joint custody" would be in a position to inquire. Divorced fathers in Virginia have no trouble at all understanding my situation. By that time, the boy's mother had succeeded in shutting me out of much of the oversight in Paul's life, reinforced by Paul's own animosity towards me. And in Virginia, the family courts are very sympathetic to the mother. (I watched that woman commit perjury with a lawyer's assistance, and without consequence.) Had I made inquiries, she probably would have intervened.

The above was with only a limited knowledge of what happened. I knew he was being bullied by teammates, but I only learned of the assault by his coach a year after he graduated, and then only by reading of it on his blog. I immediately had Paul speak to an attorney, by which time my son had just turned 20. An affidavit was prepared, but as the attorney would not take it on contingency, and did not think we could prove much of a case, the matter was dropped. The statute of limitations ran out when Paul turned 21.

As to how I would deal with the coach, and in case you missed it, my solution would have been identical to yours. On those occasions when I was able, representatives of the public school system were more than aware of the extent of my wrath.

Dave said...

Dave: Thanks for the clarification. Also, if you and Sal ever come up to the Land of Cheese, let me know.

David L Alexander said...

Wisconsin, right? I love cheese.

Dave said...

Yup. And apologies for being rather remiss in touching base. It's been a crazy five years or so...

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

certain scene from How Green Was My Valley would be re-enacted, or some variation thereof...
Dai Bando!

And Dave, I'm going to have to agree with the original commenter. From what I've seen and heard out here (I've driven past the original school), I'm not buying into the bullying theory.

At the same time, the only people who really know are both dead.

4/24/2009 03:39:00 AM

David L Alexander said...

"From what I've seen and heard out here (I've driven past the original school), I'm not buying into the bullying theory."Well, you posted it six times (originally, the comments are in my inbox), so I assume you really mean it. I don't know how much you could discern from just driving by the place, but the news articles I featured were written by guys interviewing people who actually walked into the building, even on a regular basis. So you're gonna have to forgive me if I go with their version. Not to mention what goes on at damn near every high school in the country, including the one my son attended his freshman year.

Anonymous said...

Very thought-provoking post.

Currently I am working on my thesis and the topic is specfic type of bullying in US schools. I've probably read every book/article (including Cullen's which people are quoting here), written about Columbine in the past 10 years; plus the Columbine Review Commission, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Dept's Final Report on Columbine, Eric Harris' web pages, Dylan Klebold's journal and a vast amount of scholarly articles on the topic.

My conclusions? Dave Cullen's hypothesis is partly correct (Harris was a sociopath who was filled with rage) as is Brooks Brown's theory (Harris & Klebold were bullied at Columbine and a "toxic" environment ran through the school).

It is a fact that Columbine had bullies, people testified to that fact at the CO's Govenor's Review Commission. Yes, bullying occurred at Columbine!

To all the doubters, if you read the TIME article, 12/20/99, you will see quotes from Columbine students talking about homophobic epithets that were used in reference to Harris & Klebold and their friends. That is a prime example of bullying, as defined by any school district.

On the other hand, per Harris and Klebold's writings, they also were bullies themselves and they posted racial, homophobic and religious hate on their web pages and in their journals. So the Columbine killers are not free from blame at all.

As a former high school teacher, I can tell you that bullying has happened at every high school I have ever worked at. Each administration had a different response to it. Some were very bad (school in a rural town in FL who babied the jocks and bullying was brushed aside) and others that had the correct response: zero tolerance (suburban school outside a big city).

But the one good thing that I have found that did come out of Columbine and some of the other school shootings is a renewed effort by school officials to make sure bullying doesn't happen in "their" school. Yes, sometimes a particular school isn't on that game plan and that is when parents must speak up - and LOUDLY!

So glad your son is doing well now. As a former teacher it breaks my heart to hear stories of children who have attempted suicide because of bullying.

Fowl Ideas said...

Football is not a game.

It never was a game.