Denver massacre: US schools haunted by bloodshed

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The Independent Online
IN ANOTHER month, parents and teachers across America might have had cause to relax. It would have been a full year since the last fatal shooting in an American school, when on 21 May 1998, a 15-year-old boy burst into a high school in Springfield, Oregon, and firedinto a class, killing two students.

Today, the fear will be back. A gruesome cycle of school shootings seems to have taken hold in the United States and the pause of the past 11 months seems to have been just that. Since October 1997, there had been seven serious shootings that together had taken 14 lives - before yesterday.

It is a phenomenon that defies all other trends in America's crime statistics. In cities as far apart as New York and Los Angeles, violent crime has been tumbling in recent years.But where the ground zero of American violence was once the urban ghettos and gangland streets, now it is the playground and the classroom. And the attacks have happened always in places most of the rest of America had never heard of - Paducah, Kentucky and Pearl, Mississippi and, most famously, Jonesboro in a lonely corner of Arkansas.

As with these attacks, residents of the Denver suburb of Littleton will be asking today the same, unanswerable question: why us, why our school? These things happen in our modern society, but not here, not in our backyard.

And once more Americans, from President Bill Clinton to school principals and parents, will face the same conundrum: how to protect schoolchildren from this new and baffling scourge without at the same time overly compromising their sense of innocence and security. Schools should be places of learning and nurture, not fortresses against attack. And if measures must be taken, what exactly should they be?

In a speech last summer, President Clinton tried to draw some links between the attacks. They were, he said, the result of violent trends in popular culture, lax parental supervision of their children and their over-easy access to guns. "Those three things can be a combustible combination," the President asserted.

There has been another strand common to most of the shootings: the perpetrators were fellow students who had more or less disturbed backgrounds. They were misfits or had been bullied by their peers. The first attack was at Pearl, Mississippi, where a 16-year-old boy in October 1997 stormed into his high school and shot nine students, two fatally. Just hours before, he killed his mother at his home.

"It seems to have no end," said Roy Ballentine, the principal of the Pearl school, late last year.

"It gives me the same sickening feeling each time this has happened since. The details are so similar."

The best explanation for the rampage of two teenagers in Jonesboro, who set off a fire alarm to force the students to pour out of the school before spraying bullets into them from behind some shrubs, was that they had been unlucky in adolescent romance.

The Jonesboro boys, who were convicted as children and thus will be set free when they turn 18, in three years' time, had easy access to weapons. Their guns were taken from the home of a relative. On weekends, the two were known to amuse themselves by shooting birds.

And yet the appeals for tougher gun laws have, as usual, met the fierce opposition of a gun lobby furiously opposed to any new restrictions on their right to own weapons.

An attempt by the Arkansas state senate early this year to pass legislation making it a crime for adults not to keep their guns under lock and key ended in defeat. Violence in schools is a "child issue, not a gun issue", Charlton Heston, the actor and the head of the National Rifle Association, bluntly asserted last year.

Last month, the Governor of Arkansas signed a new law that will allow children who shoot students in schools to be tried as adults - and thus face the prospect of life imprisonment or worse.

The Jonesboro school meanwhile has taken more modest steps: the fire alarm bells have been disabled, the shrubs on campus trimmed back and a fence has been erected around its buildings.