April 23, 1999

A 23 Year Old At High School Shooting — "They Were Just Never Good Enough"

EDITOR'S NOTE: Only about five years away from the cruelties of high school life herself, a young woman assisting the Red Cross at the scene of the shooting in Littleton, Colorado, finds herself overwhelmed by the violence, but not mystified. For Lyn Duff, the shooters are creatures of a society that ignores its children and focuses on a particular kind of success.

By Lyn Duff

DENVER, CO — I was at home working on a term paper for my Western Civilization class when the pager beeped.

As a Red Cross Disaster Action Team worker, I was on call for any emergencies in Jefferson County this week. I threw on a sweatshirt and my Red Cross vest and within an hour was one of the many standing outside of Columbine High School.

Parents came up to me, frantic. Their children's names were not on the lists posted of kids who'd gotten out safely. They wanted to know where their children were. I didn't know what to say to them.

Nearby, a sobbing girl crumpled against her friends, her sweatshirt and jeans splattered with someone else's blood. A boy lay in the grass, curled in a fetal position, shaking, his fists kneading his eyes. A woman leaned over the police car next to me and vomited. A father angrily confronted a police officer demanding to know why this had happened.

As I spent most of my teenage years on the streets and in foster care, I am no stranger to violence. But I just collapsed. It was awful. I wanted to pray but didn't know what to ask of God.

I made a round of the grounds around the school, handing out bottles of water to SWAT team members and then came back to the Red Cross van and turned on the radio, trying to get some news. It was tuned to a talk station, which, only two hours after the shootings began, was broadcasting a monologue saying young people have no respect for human life and advocating gun control.

At 23, I'm not much older than these students are, and I am as disturbed as anyone about the violence and the hatred that came out of these two boys. But I can't help but ask, where did that violence come from?

The media portrays these acts as "senseless" killings. The local daily ran an article saying, in effect, "there is no way you can tell who will turn out to be a killer." But I think you can — not just by looking for the "warning signs" of withdrawal, black clothes, unintelligible music, and rebellious behavior, but looking for the mix of ingredients that lead young people to shoot up their schools.

"Perpetrators" don't come out of nowhere, they are created. Created by a society that loves violence, ignores its children. A society that focuses only on a particular definition of success, that sterilizes experiences, that no longer shows love towards its young people, that offers no hope for the future.

Asked why she thought they did it, one student just looked at me and sighed, "I think they were just tired of being picked on. They were just never good enough."

That's the message a lot of young people get — fundamentally they just aren't good enough. I got that message, too. As a high school student, I forever felt like I would never have the respect and admiration given popular students. I felt I was just a leftover.

At Columbine High School, the "leftovers" bonded together, formed the Trenchcoat Mafia. They wanted to belong. The killings were not just revenge for years of teasing — it was the losers versus the winners and they wanted to be winners.

The response to Columbine will be metal detectors, or more police at schools, or gun control, or limits on internet freedom — anything that "protects" kids by demonizing them and putting more distance between them and the adults in their lives. As long as you "protect" students you don't have to get to know them.

The only thing that will stop school shootings is a change in the way that adults interact with kids. Until the lines of communication and respect are open, acts of violence will continue — acts that are not random but a desperate attempt to make a mark in the world.

Duff is a founding editor of YO! (Youth Outlook), a newspaper by and about young people published by Pacific News Service. She currently lives in Denver, Colorado.

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