It is now more than two months since Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire on their fellow students at Columbine High School. The funerals are over, the pontificating abut "how could this happen" has subsided and while there are still ongoing public investigations and panels into whether Hollywood violence transfers from screen to classroom, the press coverage has essentially died down reducing the "Littleton massacre" to tragedy of the week status. The one question that has remained in the forefront of public discourse–in a persistent, although not particularly lively way–is how terribly devastating and destructive so much of high school culture can be.
But perhaps the most shocking aspect of the Littleton reporting was not seen by most U.S. news readers or mass media consumers because it was not printed or reported. Soon after the shootings The Rocky Mountain News, a Denver daily printed the suicide note that Eric Harris left at his home explaining his actions. It was picked up by very few news outlets (one of the NPR news shows read parts of it) and probably got its widest circulation when gay advice columnist Dan Savage in The Stranger, a progressive, reprinted it free Seattle weekly and was then syndicated nationally. It read: "By now, it’s over. If you are reading this, my mission is complete…. Your children who have ridiculed me, who have chosen not to accept me, who have treated me like I am not worth their time are dead. THEY ARE FUCKING DEAD…. Surely you will try to blame it on the clothes I wear, the music I listen to, or the way I choose to present myself, but no. Do not hide behind my choices. You need to face the fact that this comes as a result of YOUR CHOICES. Parents and teachers, you fucked up. You have taught these kids to not accept what is different. YOU ARE IN THE WRONG. I have taken their lives and my own–but it was your doing. Teachers, parents, LET THIS MASSACRE BE ON YOUR SHOULDERS UNTIL THE DAY YOU DIE."
The note is pained and enraged and almost a parody of teen anger and self-involved angst. Its over-the-top apocalyptic tone, almost comic book in its rhetoric, both undercuts and makes all too real its message of terrible desperation and crazy despair. But if this note "explains" to some degree Harris and Klebold’s actions why didn’t it attract more media attention. The answer is, of course, because it did explain their motivation. And (at least in the wake of the killings) no one wanted to hear it. It wasn’t the popular message, the cry of lamentation of "how could this happen?" Unanswered questions are often more comforting than the ones that are answered obviously. Some questions are almost never asked. After it was announced that Eric Harris was not accepted into the Marines because he was taking an antidepressant, the press focused on his medication, not whether his desire to join the military had any connection to his violent behavior in school. Hardly anyone mentioned, in the endless wake of outraged articles and editorials about how violent video games were damaging and destroying youth, that many of these games, particularly Doom and Quake are used by the Marines for training purposes. .
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, gothic 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.
It is instructive to look at how so much of the original Littleton story began to change in the weeks after the killings. 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, Satanist, 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.
As more in depth reporting happens it looks as though some of the first reporting was wrong or missed the complexity of the situation. The original charges that Harris and Klebold–and others associated as Trenchcoat Mafia members–wore swastikas or other Nazi symbols were disputed by many Columbine students in later interviews. Similarly, non-white friends of Harris and Klebold contested the idea that they were racist or white supremacist (despite an overtly racist comment Harris made during the shootings). Reading through the follow-up news reports one is struck by small details that tell an enormous amount about the culture of Columbine High such as more than 60 percent of the students identified as evangelical Christians, wore crosses on chains around their necks and bracelets with the letters "WWJD" ("What Would Jesus Do"). In a telling group interview in the New York Times (April 30, 1999) several students discussed race at Columbine and it was shocking to see one of the school’s popular jocks (who was white) mention that 200 students out of a total population of 2,000 were African-American. He was corrected by two non-white students who said the number was closer to 20, or even 6.
But despite the disinformation and outright untruths that surfaced during the news reporting the one message that has come across is that students identified as "outsiders" have it hard in high school. This image of the teen outsider is a fairly recent invention and, in the past 50 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 as a sign of danger and derangement. When asked by the New York Times about the Trenchcoat Mafia, Kevin Koeniger, a popular athlete at Columbine High, 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 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," 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 nerds, freaks, geeks, and fags. 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 film captures the 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.
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 meant being hit in the school hallways, shoved into lockers, having food smashed into their faces in the cafeteria–actions that outside of high school social culture would result in arrest and a possible jail sentence. This violence happens, to varying degrees, at schools 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.
The Littleton catastrophe 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 Slopdot.com [http://slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=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 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.
The staid New York Times is now running "Week in Review" pieces with titles like "Ugly Rites of Passage: Rethinking America’s Schools of Hard Knocks." This public discussion is being prompted by a May 24 Supreme Court ruling "Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education"–holding school districts liable for damages under Federal law for failing to stop a student from subjecting another to severe and pervasive sexual harassment. The Court was bitterly divided with O’Connor, Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Souter in the majority and Thomas, Rehnquist, Kennedy, and Scalia dissenting. O’Connor, who authored the opinion described it as a "statutory weapon against behavior so severe that it impairs a victim’s ability to learn."
The dissenters quickly labeled the decision an overreaction and overkill and it is instructive to look at Kennedy’s immediate response to the majority opinion: "The real world of classroom discipline is a rough-and-tumble place where students practice newly learned vulgarities, erupt with anger, tease and embarrass each other, share offensive notes, flirt, push and shove in halls, grab and offend." This is the "schools never change" theory conflated with the more traditional "boys will be boys" adage. But notice that Kennedy doesn’t mention "boys"–in his fantasy "rough-an-tumble" world. It is "students" who tease, push, erupt in anger and shove. Well, chances are it is not the young women who are "shoving" the boys, and not the gay kids and the geeks who are "teasing" and "pushing" the jocks. By removing the notion of social and physical power from the discussion Kennedy paints a portrait closer to Andy Hardy’s High School Romance than the reality of high school violence–incipient, actual, and provoked. In his dissent Kennedy noted that the majority decision would "teach little Johnny a perverse lesson in Federalism." O’Connor quickly retorted that it simply "assures that Little Mary may attend class."
But "Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education" is no panacea and the majority opinion made clear that this was not to be used lightly; schools have to be proven to have done absolutely nothing to prevent "severe and persistent" sexual harassment. This means that if a harasser is sent to the principle’s office or reprimanded even once the school may not be liable. The decision is also unclear on the parameters of sexual harassment and most probably would not cover anti-gay harassment (same-sex or not) unless it took the specific form of sexual harassment. This means that a boy who is constantly called "faggot" would have no recourse under the law, but he might if he were taunted with "I’m gonna fuck you faggot." Of course, either of these scenarios–neither unusual in many schools–are completely unacceptable and, if "severe" enough might even be covered on existing battery laws, but for the most part they are ignored by school authorities and teachers.
One of the aspects of the Littleton story that keeps surfacing (but is never fully articulated) is the rumor 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 homosexuals (not just the recipient of fag- geek name calling) were first spread by some Columbine students after the shooting. They have since been actively promoted by right-wing Christian spokespeople such as Reverend Fred Phelps and Reverend Jerry Farwell. While this is more cheap rhetoric for their ongoing anti-gay campaigns, the charge touches on a connection with one of the least discussed issues of school violence-which students who are gay, or perceived to be gay, are likely to be targeted by this behavior.
A new Gallop poll, released in May, asserted that high school students who are aware of "violence-prone" groups in their schools believe these groups present a particular threat to gay students. Fifty-eight percent affirmed that "violence-prone" groups could be dangerous to gay students, with 50 percent reporting to have heard these groups espouse "hatred of gays." Fifty-one percent of the students also stated that "violence-prone" groups could be dangerous to black, Latino, or other minority students. While the poll was measuring the threat, not the actual reality, of violence, it doesn’t take much to see that pervasive racism and homophobia in school settings would and does lead to violence. Kevin Jennings, the executive director of Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) notes "The anti-gay attitudes expressed in this study are not surprising – certainly not to us and probably not to the students who were polled. We can no longer afford to be surprised, or to lose these lessons on the very people responsible for keeping our students safe. There’s simply no such thing as being a little safe. Either every student is safe or there’s no meaningful safety at all."
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 hero’s geeky side-kick has to deal with a preppy type and during their conversation the popular student draws with a felt-tip pen male genitals 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, Massachusetts 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?