WHERE WERE THE ADULTS?
By Jeff Jacoby
The Boston Globe

April 26, 1999


    Once in the fourth grade I got caught in a lie. It wasn't an especially
egregious lie; it endangered no one's safety or property. I had simply
avoided a school activity by falsely claiming that I had my parents'
permission not to take part. Somehow I was found out.

    Here is how seriously my school took that small lie.

    The assistant principal came to my classroom, interrupting the lesson
that was in progress. He wrote a biblical quotation on the blackboard:
"From words of falsehood keep thyself distant." He asked what the words meant,
and made a point of calling on me. When he finished this impromptu exercise on
the gravity of lying, he summoned me to his office. Only then did I find
out  that my deception had been exposed. He took a book from the office safe,
turned to a clean page, and wrote down my lie. I had to sign the page and
date it; the book went back into the safe.

    I was mortified. And I have never forgotten the lessons I learned that
day: that my lies could disgrace me, that words are not easily erased, and
that the adults in my life noticed when I did something wrong.

    That's the kind of school I attended.

    This is the kind of school Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Colorado
mass-murderers, attended:

    They glorified Nazis, wore swastikas, and shouted "Heil Hitler!" when
they were pleased. And no teacher, principal, or administrator, it seems,
did anything about it.

    They talked endlessly about explosives and guns, and filled a web page
with details on how to make a bomb. "Shrapnel is very important," it said,
"if you want to kill and injure a lot of people." For good measure, they
illustrated the web site with drawings of a gunman firing at a bleeding and
cowering victim. And no teacher, principal, or administrator, it seems, did
anything about it.

    For a class last fall, they made a video showing themselves walking down
the hallways of Columbine High School, weapons in hand, shooting "jocks"
dead. It was literally a rehearsal for a massacre -- but no teacher,
principal, or administrator, it seems, did anything about it.

    The adults of Columbine High School were not alone in ignoring students'
nastiness and brutality.

    When Harris and Klebold were convicted of breaking into a van and trying
to steal its contents, they were sentenced not to prison but to counseling.
When a Columbine parent twice went to the sheriff last year to report that
Harris had threatened his son -- and supplied 15 pages of Harris's
frightful Internet writings to substantiate his accusation -- nobody acted. "You all
better hide in your houses," Harris had written, "because I'm coming for
everyone and I will shoot to kill and I will kill everything."

    Last week Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone allowed as how he has "a
real concern with people who identify with Adolf Hitler as a hero." It is
easy to be concerned now. It would have been more helpful to be concerned
last year, when the evidence of Harris's repugnant character was first laid
before him.

    And where, pray, were the parents of Littleton when kids were showing up
in school tricked out in ghoulish makeup? Or hanging out with an antisocial
"trenchcoat mafia?" Or filling Web pages with bloody fantasies and
idolizing "death rock" bands like KMFDM (sample lyric: "If I had a shotgun, I'd blow
myself to hell")? Parents have always had their hands full with teen-agers.
But in generations past, they managed to make even rebellious or spleeny
adolescents understand that vicious or violent behavior would trigger a
crackdown. Holden Caulfield was alienated, but he never bombed his school.

    The slaughter in Colorado has unloosed the usual gush of therapy-talk.
The solution to student rampages is better mental health services, earlier
detection of depression, more counselors, you name it. One expert told the
New York Times that kindergarten teachers must be trained to screen for
aggressive behavior. A 15-year-old Columbine girl said that Klebold "wasn't
so bad" and she regretted not being able to "give him a hug and tell him
that I care." Bill Clinton, the nation's therapist-in-chief, solemnly intoned
that "we must do more to reach out to our children and teach them to express
their anger and to resolve their conflicts with words, not weapons."

    More of the same, in other words. More handholding. More narcissism.
More nonjudgmentalism. More worship of self-esteem. More refusal to enforce
standards of right and wrong. More of the flight from discipline and
character.

    "Teach them to express their anger?" "Give him a hug?" What the killers
of Littleton needed was not more reassurance. Their problem wasn't a
failure to express themselves. It was a failure to control themselves. No wonder:
Their lives were filled with adults who never set limits, never imposed
rules, never made it clear that certain kinds of behavior would not be
tolerated.

    In parochial schools like the one I attended children are taught that
they may not say and do anything they please. They learn that their deeds
have consequences, and that their demands are less important than their
obligations. They are not indulged when they behave badly. They are not
surrounded by grown-ups who shrug at Hitler salutes or web pages full of
bloodthirsty fantasies. They are instructed from Day 1 in the difference
between right and wrong, and in the values they are expected to uphold.

    Maybe that is why none of these atrocities has happened in a parochial
school -- and why every public school in America has to fear that it may be
next.


(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for the Boston Globe. His e-mail address is
jacoby@globe.com).

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