School shootings – is there anything scarier?
Shootings at school campuses on both sides of the country in the past 10 days could not have turned out more differently. And collectively, they could not have generated a bigger chill in the minds and hearts of parents of school-age children everywhere.
Close to home, in Gresham, a 15-year-old boy on April 10 fired two rifle shots through windows at Springwater Trail High School, injuring 10 students with flying glass and metal and irreversibly scarring his own life.
On Monday, a gunman at Virginia Tech University carried out the deadliest shooting rampage in U.S. history, killing at least 32 students and faculty members before killing himself with his own gun. Another 15 were injured.
Motive for the Springwater Trail shooting was revealed quickly. Court records portray Chad Escobedo as so unhappy at home and school that he apparently opened fire on a teacher who called his parents to report problems at school.
While students and faculty literally dodged the bullet at Springwater Trail, such was not the case in Blacksburg, Va., where the carnage was overwhelming. There a lone gunman - a student - killed two people in a dormitory, then crossed campus and opened fire two hours later in an engineering building, where another 29 were killed before he turned a gun on himself. Cho Seung-Hui, 23, a South Korean in his senior year as an English major who lived on campus, was considered the only shooter. He was armed with two pistols and multiple clips of ammunition.
Law enforcement officials said the massacre was the bloodiest in U.S. history, surpassing the 24 people killed in Killeen, Texas, in 1991. In that attack, George Hennard drove his pickup into a restaurant and shot 23 people to death before killing himself.
The Springwater Trail incident called to mind the tragedy at Springfield's Thurston High School in May 1998 when another 15-year-old Oregon boy - Kip Kinkel -went on a rampage, first killing his parents, then two fellow students and injuring 25 others.
And while Gresham's outcome was vastly different from the shooting in Springfield, the two cases have some surface similarities -including a boy angry with his parents and the availability of firearms. Another strange similarity: Larry Bentz, the current Springwater Trail principal, was the principal of Thurston when Kinkel opened fire.
The Oregon shootings contrast darkly with the events at Virginia Tech.
Monday's incident is the deadliest school shooting since the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., where two students killed 13 people before turning their guns on themselves. That incident occurred eight years ago this week.
Despite the events of this week, we would like to believe that such tragedies are waning because school officials throughout the nation have become more adept at detecting signs of a youth bent on destruction.
And indeed, the education system has changed in response to previous shooting sprees. Many high school administrators and teachers today have undergone special training around the school-shooting issue. They are more aware of the potential for such violence, and they are better at identifying the warning signals. All that work may have reduced the number of shootings, but there are other factors at play as well.
Publicity is one such influence. Highly impressionable young people are prone to copycat behavior. With that possibility in mind, all area school districts should be on alert for the next few months.
According to research done by the U.S. Secret Service, most school attackers make plans and they tell others - a friend, classmate or sibling - about those plans. Another common thread is easy access to guns. In nearly two-thirds of such incidents, the shooter obtains his gun at home or from a relative. Bullying also can be a factor that pushes some young people to retaliate with gunfire.
Educators already know about these patterns in school attacks. But they could use the help of parents, students and others in preventing the type of terror that erupted at Springwater and VTU.
Young people must be encouraged to step forward with troubling information. They must be reminded that their safety is the most important thing - not some code of silence that exists between them and their classmates.
And parents also must be attentive to behavioral changes. Depression is one common symptom of a young person on the edge.
Perhaps the single most significant step that adults can take to reduce the odds of another school shooting is to lock guns away in a place that's inaccessible to young people.
The Lake Oswego Police Department conducts regular training sessions to teach officers how to respond in the case of a shooting or armed gunman in a local school. The department follows a procedure it created after the fatal shootings at Columbine. First responders do not wait for backup teams. They immediately go in to take out the threat before more people are injured or killed.
Each school in the Lake Oswego School District also has a lockdown procedure it practices throughout the year. Administrators met with members of the police department in February to review and revise school-shooting protocol.
'Schools should be places of safety, sanctuary and learning,' President Bush said Monday. 'When that sanctuary is violated, the impact is felt in every American classroom in every American community.'
The impact was serious during both of the recent shooting incidents. It goes without saying that this was especially the case in Blacksburg. Stakeholders -students, educators, parents and police - must do what they can to try to prevent more shootings in the future.
A tall order?
But what are the alternatives?