Silencing youth will not stop the violence

Two days after the shooting rampage at Columbine High Schoolin Littleton, Colo., the Student Press Law Center started hearingthe stories we knew would come.

A student in Pennsylvania called to say that his school had lookedat his Web site, which included links to various “Gothic”sites on the Internet, and demanded that he take it down.

An Ohio school suspended a student journalist for 10 days andthreatened to expel him for having written a horoscope in thestudent newspaper suggesting that Scorpio’s who were uptight withthe college application process blow up their houses or assassinatethe president to relieve stress. The satirical column was writtensix weeks before the Colorado attack. Police also filed criminalcharges against the student.

An adviser from California called to report that his principalhad demanded that the yearbook staff remove a section from theyearbook that showed students playing paintball.

An Idaho student journalist reported that his newspaper advisersuggested that they write a story explaining their feelings aboutthe shooting. When the student wrote that while he deplored theviolence he nevertheless felt some empathy for the shooters, whomhe believed were picked on and made to feel like outcasts by “popular”students, his article was censored and he was sent home from school.

It is an understandable human response to tragedy to demand action.Doing something – anything – seems to help restore a feeling ofcontrol over a world inexplicably gone awry. Failure to act, onthe other hand, implies resignation and weakness, an acceptanceof our vulnerability.

Unfortunately, the “quick fixes” that follow tragediessuch as Columbine are usually no more helpful than giving morphineto someone with a broken leg. The patient may feel better butthe leg remains broken. Worse, while the pain is masked, infectioncan set in.

The reality is that a genuine cure to such tragedies – if a cureis even possible – cannot be achieved by a quick fix. It may makesome feel safer to enact tough dress codes, to crack down on teenaccess to the Internet or to gather up all the students with “weirdideas” and a fascination with computer games, but it won’tsolve the bigger problem.

Neither will it help to prevent students from communicating openlyand honestly about the sometimes frightening, sometimes confusingand sometimes ugly world in which they live.

We don’t cure problems by muzzling the messenger that brings theproblem to our attention. We must first listen. Even when themessage hurts to hear. And if we are trying to solve the problemsfaced by young people, who better to listen to and to help usunderstand those problems than young people themselves?

To be sure, there are bad kids. But most – by far – are not. Unfortunately,too many Americans don’t take the time to figure out the difference.Kids scare them. And they want the quick fix.

For example, last spring, nine students from Killian High School,in Miami, Fla,, produced an underground newspaper that containedracist themes and talk of violence. (See story, page 9). The “adult”response was not only to jail the students involved, but alsoto propose sweeping changes to the free expression policy thatgoverned the school district’s official student media. No matterthat the hundreds of students working on those publications hadno connection to the nine Killian students or that Miami’s studentpublications consistently took top honors at the various nationalstudent journalism conventions. It was, in effect, a “quickfix” to a problem that never existed.

On the night of the Columbine shootings, President Clinton addressedthe country: “[W]e must do more to reach out to our childrenand teach them to express their anger and to resolve their conflictswith words, not weapons.”

That’s good advice and we hope that he means it. Unfortunately,just two weeks later, Vice President Gore convened a nationalmeeting on school violence that spent much of its time targetingyoung people’s access to the Internet.

You can’t have it both ways.

We may never know why tragedies like Columbine High School happen.What we do know, though, is that we won’t hear the messages wedesperately need to hear from our young people if we don’t letthem speak.