14 July 2010

Really, Really, Really, Innocent Victims of Columbine

This is a tale of media and public stupidity and how they can combine to destroy lives.

Cast your mind back to 20 April 1999: the Columbine High School shootings. We sat riveted to the TV as it unfolded, watching the massacre live. All the news agencies were there. Over the next 24 hours - and months ahead of the investigation - the media was offering evidence of the shooters’ motivations: violent video games, Hitler’s birthday, satanic music, being outcasts, black trench coats. Well before police had established what had happened, news agencies were giving us the why.

Remember what you did the day after? Remember how we all talked about the murders, the bombs, how teenagers could be so well armed, how they learned to make explosives, how much information was on the Internet and in the library? Remember how judgemental you were? If you were an adult, you blamed teens for being nuts. If you were a teen, you blamed adults for not understanding. If you had been popular in school, you blamed the outcasts for being weird and psychopathic. If you had been an outcast, you blamed the popular kids for being bullies. Whatever it was, we all had an opinion on who was responsible. And we were all talking about it.

Zoom in to a small town high school. In this case, one in rural Newfoundland, but any one will do. During morning recess, an average teen approaches an acquaintance. Normal asks Trenchcoat what he thinks about Columbine. The two chat away. The subject of bomb-making guides on the Internet is raised. The 15-year-old, black-clad, cyberpunk tells jock-boy it’s very easy to find, that he’s read some, and that the recipes are more dangerous to bomber than victim.

Nearby, a girl, rooting in her locker, overhears the words ‘bombs’ and ‘Internet’. She looks at the boy in black and runs to the principal’s office. She reports the incident and promptly departs for home.

Boy in Black is summoned to the office. Inside, the principal and guidance counsellor confront him. Do they ask about the conversation? No. Do they state the complaint and ask for an explanation? No. They demand to know why he wants to take chemistry the following year. He glibly answers that he is interested in fireworks and wants to work in theatre. Then he is asked to explain his attire. He answers that he likes his outfit. They ask about his Internet time. Plenty. Video games? Lots. Music? Variety from classical to heavy metal. The Boy in Black answers honestly, suspecting nothing, thinking this meeting is about his course selections for the following year. Imagine his shock when Principal and Guidance share a knowing look and then tell him he is to leave the building immediately and never come back.

Boy in Black refuses, demands to know what is happening. He is finally told that he was overheard making threats to blow up the school. He is, therefore, expelled immediately and is to leave school property forthwith. The janitor is searching his locker and bag (left in the outer office) and, if safe to do so, the contents will be turned over to the Boy at the exit. Boy tries to protest and is told the police would be called. Distraught Boy is escorted out by Principal and Guidance, handed his bag, and the door securely locked behind him. Boy walks home and calls his parents to tell them the confusing tale.

Fast forward a few hours. It is early evening in early spring, darkness falling during supper. Boy and parents are watching TV, wondering what to do about school. Sirens approach. Flashing red, white, and blue lights race around the walls. They all jump up to see which neighbour is in trouble, only to discover they are the ones with a driveway full of police cruisers. Hand on guns, two RCMP officers pound on the door, requesting entrance.

The girl who fled told her parents what she heard, described Boy, said he scared her. Her parents filed a police complaint, adding ‘information’ that Boy had guns and bombs and had threatened the school. One officer explained this as he questioned Boy and Mother at kitchen table. The other officer was searching the house. First, Boy’s unkempt bedroom and his pile of computer scrap. Then the officer inspected Father’s guns. As a hunter, he had several, all racked, firing pins and ammunition locked in a safe in the parent’s bedroom.

The police found nothing. After questioning, they concluded this was a case of over-reaction and that they would tell the girl's parents everything is fine.

The following morning, before the school board office was open, Mother went to the mall. There, she heard all the news: that her son was a criminal, a bomber, a psychopath; that he had guns, bombs, knives; that he threatened to blow up the school, the mall, the town; that he had been arrested, locked in a psyche ward, was on the run and a danger to everyone. Mother tried to say otherwise, but talking back to the town rumour mill is impossible.

Lawyers were called: nothing could be done about rumours or reputation. After all, the police had only been doing their job. The principal make have handled things badly, but he was still doing his job. Boy would just have to deal with it.

School board was called. Parents were told the expulsion stood. Parents called their government representative, who called the school board and told them that Boy has a right to an education. Three days later, a meeting was called and terms were announced. Boy would get a 2 week ‘leave’ to let things settle down and he could return to class after that. Provided, that it, he would be so kind as to visit a psychiatrist and provide a certificate saying that he was not a threat to anyone. After all, it’s only appropriate that the school should demand certificates of sanity whenever they want. Therefore, no certificate, no class.

All because of a conversation which everyone was having that day. Oh, and a black trenchcoat.

Eventually, Boy enrolled in a different school, did home schooling, then GED. He went on to do computer programming. Unable to find work in his field, he was hired at a call centre. He failed his security check. Even though there had been no arrest, no charges, no convictions, somewhere there was a record that he had been questioned by police.

Boy became Man and dreamed of serving his country. He applied at CSIS and failed his security check. He was told to get his record cleared. He couldn’t; there was no record, seemingly. He applied to the RCMP, passed the physical test, the medical, but failed his psych test because his medical record said he had seen a shrink about threatening his school. He tried to enlist in the Forces and failed both the psych and the security checks.

Five more years working in call centres, having to periodically explain to HR what had happened, that he couldn’t pass a security check because he had been questioned, but that he couldn’t get his record cleared because he didn’t have a record. At the end of five years, his centre closed and he was let go. For months he looked for work, had interviews, but no offers.

Meanwhile, the world had changed. The Internet had gone from a mysterious playing field for geeks to an essential tool for society, including prospective employers. One day, Man types his name into the most popular search engine. What does he find? The very first entry - indeed, the only entry - about him was a news story from 1999: Bomb Threats Lead to Expulsion. Which possibly explains Man’s inability to get a job.

All of the above is absolutely true. Don’t look for the article; the news agency in question was kind enough to remove it. No, it wasn’t me. But it did happen to someone I know.

In the weeks and months following Columbine, then Taber, we all discussed what happened. What could possibly drive a teen to take up arms? I don’t think we found an answer. But I did hear of a number of incidents like this one: teens suspended or expelled or otherwise humiliated because they wore overcoats, used the Internet, listened to the wrong sort of music. The media had created a profile and supposedly intelligent educators and psychologists seized an opportunity. Whether they intended to get rid of the ones they thought were trouble or actually believed these people really were threats, only they can say. What I can say is that these actions were exactly the sort of thing to push any unstable person over the edge to violence.

Sometimes, I think about Boy and wonder how much longer he is going to have to pay for the accusations of a scared girl. Then I think about the others, those that share his experience, and wonder if they are having the same problems now. Or did they simply drop out, give up, and flee? Or, are they off somewhere learning how to make bombs, how to shoot to kill, and planning revenge?

I try not to think about that last one too much.

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