Reading through the media coverage of the Littleton, Colorado
shootings one can’t help but be impressed by how skillfully the reporting shaped the story
to fit the preconceived anxieties and biases of a broad readership. From both liberal and
conservative vantage points the Columbine High School murders became a Rorschach test of
political and social ills: gun control, violent video games, parental responsibility, goth
culture, the dangers of the internet, racism, heavy metal music, teen angst, white
supremacy, Christian evangelicalism, Hitler, athletics, police culpability, and finally
– but only after these more incendiary and high-profile issues were played out –
the nature and quality of high school culture itself.
Almost two weeks after the shootings did the media manage to maintain
a focused, sustained discussion on the nightmare social organization of most high schools.
The first waves of reporting and commentary promoted the idea that the Trenchcoat Mafia –
the loosely formed and defined group of "outsiders" at Columbine High School of
which Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were ancillary members – was, in essence, a cabal
of dangerous, anti-social, satanistic, violence prone, far-right wing thugs. They were
losers with nothing to lose; social rot that spread across the school and destroyed school
spirit and the body politic.
This image of the teen outsider is a fairly recent invention and, in
the past fifty years its mythos has changed. Look at Hollywood images from the 1950s when
James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause were portrayed as
misunderstood and nearly heroic in their struggles against spirit numbing conformity. Even
Marlon Brando in The Wild One – ready to rebel against anything that mainstream
culture had to offer – was sympathetically portrayed and understood as being damaged
by the culture with which he was at war. Today any outward sign of outsider status or
inclination is seen not heroic, but as a sign of danger and derangement.
One of the more frightening comments reported in the coverage of the
Littleton event was from Columbine High School senior. When asked by the New York Times
about the Trenchcoat Mafia, Kevin Koeniger, a popular athlete, replied "If they’re
different why wouldn’t we look at them as weird?" In subsequent interviews Columbine
High students complained that Harris, Klebold and the Trenchcoat Mafia "showed no
school spirit."In the aftermath of Littleton there were reports that many schools
were beginning to both formally and informally begin "geek profiling" –
watching and tracking outsider students of all sorts to spot "trouble."An
organization called The National School Safety Center issued a checklist of
"dangerous signs" to watch for in kids: it included mood swings, a fondness for
violent TV or video games, cursing, depression, anti-social behavior and attitudes. Sound
familiar. One of the most startling, and oft repeated, statements in much of the coverage
of Littleton is that high school cliques, with all of their hierarchies and inequities are
inevitable. "There is no way to change this" said opined a Times op-ed,
"you can’t make cheerleaders get crushes on homely boys." Indeed, the idea that
this culture is immutable is entrenched in common thought. It is a never-ending, but
trivialized, war: jocks and cheerleaders vs. the nurds, freaks, geeks, and fags. And U.S.
popular culture has a love/hate relationship with this. For all the films, television
shows, and comics that valorize and romanticize the golden boys and girls there are also
backlash films. Perhaps no films captures the sheer, unleashed rage of the spat upon as
the 1976 Carrie – which ends in an apocalyptic firestorm of death that rivals
Harris’s and Klebold’s plans to blow up Columbine High. The 1989 Heathers took a more
sardonic, smug view of this conflict, but after the popular kids are killed the school
still gets blown up. If James Dean and Natalie Wood were misunderstood rebels with a cause
who are finally seen as being morally sympathetic in the school world, Sissie Spacek and
Christian Slater were the new outsiders – both with paranormal abilities – who
embodied the passion and righteous fury of all out and lethal revenge. The sea-change from
Rebel without a Cause to Carrie and Heathers is symptomatic of how dire the situation of
school social structures have become.
But this dichotomy – which alternately represents and sparks the
fantasies of both the popular and the disenfranchised – ultimately hides the harsh
reality of what happens in high schools. After the first week of coverage the more
appalling aspects of life at Columbine High began to emerge. Students began talking about
how "members"of the Trenchcoat Mafia were not only verbally harassed but
physically assaulted by the "preps and the athletes." "Physically
assaulted," in this case means being hit in the school hallways, shoved into lockers,
having food smashed into your face in the cafeteria. Actions that outside of high school
social culture – where they have existed for decades and been tolerated, even
condoned by teachers and administrators in a variety of ways from silence to active
promotion – would result in arrest and a possible jail sentence. This violence
happens, to varying degrees, across the country. The tragic irony of "geek
profiling" as a way to prevent violence among students is that the violence is –
has always been – already there, and it is generally never perpetrated by geeks.
If the Littleton catastrophe has done nothing else it has begun a
more honest, frank public discussion of this violence in U.S. school culture. The Boston
Globe, the New York Times and other major venues have begun printing articles about
violence in middle schools and high schools. Check out Jon Katz’s piece Kids Who Kill on
=99/04/25/1438249] and the responses that
he has received from students detailing the everyday physical and verbal abuses that they
endure – usually at the hands of their more "popular" classmates. One of
major problem of student on student school violence – and that makes life hell for
those students victimized – is that unless the administration steps in to stop it
there is no other alternative but to endure it: you are legally mandated to attend school.
Schools, in this situation, become prisons.
One of the aspects of the Littleton story that keeps surfacing (but
is never fully articulated) is the rumors that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were gay.
Students who were friends of theirs claim that this was not the case, but that – like
many outsiders in high school hallways and gyms – were taunted with the epithets of
"fag," "homo," and "queer." The rumors that Harris and
Klebold were actually homosexuals (not just the recipient of fag = geek name calling) were
at first spread by some Columbine students after the shooting. They have since been
actively promoted by right-wing Christian spokesmen such as Rev. Fred Phelps and Rev.
Jerry Farwell. And while this is simply more cheap, but potent, rhetoric for their ongoing
anti-gay campaigns the charge touches on a connection with one of the least discussed
issues of school violence – that students who are gay, or perceived to be gay are
extraordinarily likely to be targeted by this behavior.
The statistics on gay, lesbian experience in schools is staggering.
According to the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (www.glsen.org) 97 percent of
students in public high schools in Massachusetts reported regularly hearing homophobic
remarks from their peers in a 1993 report of the Massachusetts Governor’s Commission on
Gay and Lesbian Youth. 53 percent of the students reported hearing anti-gay remarks made
by school staff. 46 percent of gay, lesbian and bisexual students reported in a 1997
Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Study they attempted suicide in the past year compared
to 9 percent of their peers; 22 percent skipped school in the past month because they felt
unsafe compared to 4 percent of their peers; 24 percent were in a fight that resulted in
receiving medical attention compared to 3 percent of their peers. Gay students are three
times as likely to have been threatened with a weapon at school than their peers during
the previous 12 months, according to Youth Risk Behavior surveys done in Massachusetts and
Vermont. 28 percent of gay youths drop out of high school altogether, according to a U.S.
Department of Health & Human Services study. The department also found that gay kids
are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youth. And why
not, it’s a way out of prison.
A measure of how pervasive this homophobia is can be seen in the new
teen-film 10 Things I Hate About You where the geeky side-kick to the hero has to deal
with a preppy type and during their conversation the popular student draws with a felt-tip
pen, male genitalis on the "geek’s" face with the penis aimed at his mouth.
While the film presents the preppy student in a negative light, it also has no problem
displaying this homophobic behavior as an uproariously funny joke. When I saw the film in
a crowded Cambridge, MA theater the audience laughed and laughed. All I could think of was
did the men who killed Matthew Shepard beat up fags in high school? Did they call people
fags in the cafeteria? Did anyone ever stop them? Did anyone even notice?