Back to school

A new term has begun quietly at Thurston Senior High. But last May a pupil ran amok, killing and wounding dozens. Can there ever be a normal school day again?
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The Independent Culture
Kip Kinkel is a product of the American Dream gone horribly wrong. He had everything that a comfortable middle-class life could promise a 15-year-old boy: fine, loving parents, a beautiful home in the highly liveable environment of central Oregon and a good school where he was deemed to be a high academic achiever.

None of which explains why, on the eve of the Memorial Day weekend last May, he shot his parents dead at home and then blasted his way through his school cafeteria, killing two fellow students and injuring 27 others. More than three months after the tragedy, the Thurston Senior High School in Springfield is still coming to terms with the reasons behind the shootings and wrestling with the anxious question of how to stop anything remotely similar from happening again. Despite some impressively dedicated efforts over the summer by teachers, parents and community workers to heal the physical and psychological wounds, there haven't been too many helpful answers so far.

"This didn't just come out of the blue, it came from somewhere well to the west of there," insists Fred Willis, president of the Springfield Education Association, and a former maths teacher at Thurston. "There was no way to pick this kid out. You could have had the best security in the world and four high walls around the building, and it would still have happened."

A record five schools in America-- in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Mississippi and Arkansas, as well as Oregon - suffered shooting incidents in the last academic year. Not all the communities involved were particularly salubrious, nor did the authorities always follow prudent guidelines on security and discipline, or emergency issues such as handling the media. In Springfield, however, everything appears to have been played by the book and the authorities have received only praise for their conduct. "I don't think we'll ever know why this happened," says the school's principal, Larry Bentz. "The incident has generated much sorrow and a great deal of anger, which we're all trying to work through. Perhaps the lesson is the innate lack of control we all have. It's a very hard lesson we spend most of our lives trying to avoid."

On 20 May, the day before the shooting, Thurston received a tip-off from a parent that a gun had disappeared from his house and might have been stolen by a student. Within 20 minutes of the phone call the gun was found in Kip Kinkel's possession and the full story extracted: that he had bought the weapon on campus from another student, Korey Ewert, who in turn had filched it from a friend's house. Both boys were promptly escorted off the premises in police handcuffs, and suspended from school pending expulsion.

Because of his excellent family background, the police could see no reason to detain Kinkel. He displayed no signs of the seething anger that must have been building up inside him, and they sent him home. (He shot his mother in the chest after helping her in with the shopping, then shot his father in the back of the head while he was on the telephone to the National Guard to enquire about places at their nearest juvenile boot camp.) The next morning Kip was picked up by the school security cameras as he accompanied his classmates in from the sports field. But since the news of his suspension was confidential, in accordance with state education rules, nobody manning the video monitors was in a position to know that he shouldn't have been there.

Once the shooting was over, the damage was contained as much as possible. A group of students overpowered Kinkel while he tried to change his ammunition clip, the emergency services were alerted immediately, and the injured children were treated so fast that all, apart from the two who were killed outright, are expected to make a full recovery.

Counselling sessions were immediately organised, involving teachers, parents and psychologists, and contact between members of the school community was maintained over the long summer break. There was even a dance in July, attended by 300 of the school's 1,500 students. By the time the new school year began last week, everyone was ready and classes resumed in an uncannily normal atmosphere. There was no need to get students used to using the cafeteria again, since a number of special meetings had already been held there for that purpose. A policeman came on to the staff to bolster security, but this was a measure that had been prepared before the shooting, to put Thurston in line with Springfield High School just a few miles down the road.

The only special event was a small prayer meeting held by a young Christian group on the front lawn. Blue ribbons were also strewn on hedges and on fenceposts as a sign of solidarity with the affected families. The only other thing that was different was the presence of the national media outside the front gate. Larry Bentz hired two private security guards to keep them away from the school fence and broadly succeeded in his aim of restraining over-intrusive reporters.

"While the community watched, waited and worried about us, we carried on a normal school day," says Theya Harvey, a 16-year-old student. "Television news crews sat outside waiting for a glimpse of a distraught student, while we sat in class taking notes. They went to great lengths to find a story. We went to lunch."

So was Kip Kinkel just a freak case that everyone can now safely put behind them? Larry Bentz prides himself on the fact that there has been no call among parents for higher security or changes in school procedures. Indeed, he believes that the decision to install metal detectors, by some schools in Portland, Oregon's largest city, and elsewhere, is both excessive and wrong.

"We don't want to turn our schools into prisons," he says. "In fact, the statistics show that over the past few years violence in American schools has gone down. Fewer gang activities, fewer drugs. Schools are remarkably safe. I believe the issue is not violence in schools, but violence in society. The people we catch at school with drugs or weapons are the dumb ones. The ones we need to worry about are the ones who carry on these activities outside the school premises."

Behind such essentially reassuring messages lies a more murky reality, however. The school may not have been directly responsible for Kip Kinkel's killing spree, but the community and his family certainly were. Scratch Springfield's surface a little, and what you find is a city that either refused or was unable to heed clear warning signs and allowed itself to be taken by surprise by a not altogether surprising set of circumstances.

The conviction that Kip was a good, if troubled, kid from a good all- American family blinded everyone - including his own parents - to his overt destructive tendencies and the sheer lunacy of giving him access to powerful semi-automatic assault weapons.

A difficult, brooding child from an early age, he successfully talked his father into buying him a succession of rifles and pistols - common household toys in hunting-crazy Springfield, even though most are far more lethal than the minimum required to shoot up a few ducks. His father's rationale, according to friends, was that satisfying his request might help the two of them bond better and lift Kip out of his morbid depression.

In January 1997 Kip was arrested for kicking a large rock off an overpass and cracking a car windscreen below - an offence that in other circumstances might have landed him behind bars but in Springfield resulted in little more than a caution. His mother reacted to the incident by making Kip learn the Lord's Prayer and do household chores to earn his pocket money, but did not think to rid the house of firearms.

Kip surfed the family computer and taught himself how to make quite sophisticated bombs - something he boasted about both in a speech in class and in online messages on the Internet. His obsession disconcerted a handful of other parents enough to have him banned from their houses. In one case, he got his own back by squirting the letters K-I-L-L in whipped cream on the offending family's driveway.

His parents were both education specialists (his father had recently retired as a Spanish teacher from Thurston High) but they found themselves utterly unable to control their son - a fact that is not talked about much in Springfield, out of respect for their deaths. For a while they took him to a psychologist in Eugene, the liberal university town a few miles to the west.

The psychologist's only suggestion was to put Kip on Prozac. The sessions ended after a few months.

How could all this have gone unnoticed? According to Larry Bentz, there was nothing unusual about an adolescent talking about weapons and violence in class, so that in itself was not a cause for particular alarm. At one point Kip stopped submitting homework, but he started again immediately after the school had written to his parents. "This was a boy who responded to criticism. We could not tell he was on the verge of such a big crisis," Bentz adds.

There was nothing unusual, either, about Kip's access to firearms in a community like Springfield. While a few hard questions have been asked recently about where the system went wrong - whether the police should have been obliged to detain the boy indefinitely after he was caught at school, for example - the key issue of restricting access to firearms has gone entirely by the board.

The Thurston shootings have spawned a local anti-violence movement called the Ribbon of Promise campaign, which has gone out of its way not to talk about gun control. "It's too political," says the campaign's spokeswoman, Jodi Henry. "We don't want to upset the NRA." For the same reason, Ribbon of Promise is also failing to address the other key issue - the shrinking infrastructure of social services, and school counselling in particular.

Education spending is diminishing in most US states, often in favour of prison-building. In Oregon, funding has been hardest hit by a ceiling on property taxes that was introduced by popular vote seven years ago. Measure 5, like the very similar Proposition 13 that was introduced in California in the late Seventies, has choked school budgets and lowered standards so fast that a school like Thurston now has 35-40 students to a class, and only three counsellors on campus instead of five a few years ago.

All of which makes it much harder to detect, and treat, a potential Kip Kinkel. "We have no funds for preventive measures, whether you're talking about counselling or school security, and outside the school there are no resources for social services," Bentz says. "The Kinkels looked for appropriate help for their boy, but could not find it."

If that deficiency is felt in the relatively progressive climes of central Oregon, then it is little short of gaping in the backward southern communities where most of the other shootings took place.

"We are going to see more shootings in American schools this year, for sure," says one Springfield educator who does not want to be named.

"Nobody's talking about it, but everybody feels it in their bones."