Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Columbine shootings on April 20, 1999.
Not even a year later, a teacher across the hall from me intercepted a note. In the note, one student told another he wanted to napalm three teachers on 4/20 and watch them burn. I was one of the teachers named. Now I’m not naive. Kids have always talked smack about teachers–especially when grades are in play or they feel some injustice has been done to them. But this note was passed only ten months after Columbine. Teachers and students everywhere felt–quite literally–in the cross hairs.
In response to Columbine, Michigan legislators amended school code to include what was informally called a snap suspension. The new legislation stated that teachers could impose a one-day student suspension if they felt threatened. And so the three of us teachers named in the note met with the assistant principal after school, gave him a photocopy of the note, and asked that the one-day snap suspension be carried out. It was all we wanted, really: to send a message that language such as this was no longer acceptable. Because while the student’s sentiment was scary enough, we were living in a new era: one where violent rhetoric–even what might once have been considered a normal teenage rant–could not longer be tolerated in school.
What followed was a mess of grand proportions. After meeting with the parents and students, the principal decided a written apology was sufficient. (These were good kids, after all; it was all in the heat of the moment.) We teachers refused the apology. Administration maintained it was not a “real” threat. Union lawyers became involved. The gossip mill in our small community turned fast and furiously. Public comments at a school board meeting were largely in favor of the teachers, as were the letters to the editor in the local paper. Lawyers proposed we seek a personal protection order. The superintendent sent the teachers home until things settled. A judge dismissed the petition.
The teachers involved felt unsupported by administration; the administration felt attacked.
The district did adopt a procedure requiring that if and when similar situations occurred students be given a risk-assessment by an outside agency. And the risk assessment has been used in the last twenty years. Several years after my own incident, a student posted inappropriately about a teacher on social media, and later still there was an incident of student stalking. Other than that, what good came of my experience?
Since Columbine there have been at least ten school shootings. Several hundred staff and students have been injured or killed. (I’d suggest not looking at school shooting memes on the internet because it is clear that the attitude towards school violence is irreverent and dismissive, at best.) Set aside the fact that my own incident didn’t involve the horror of gun violence, it was dreadful nonetheless.
We three teachers went on to have successful careers. One of us is still a teacher in the prime of her career. Another is an education professor at an Ivy League university. I am retired. But I find myself thinking about those students quite often. They are now in their mid-thirties, with families, I’m sure, and probably children of their own. I assume they felt as swept up by the moment as we teachers did; I’m guessing they also felt victimized by the situation.
But how could those students–now adults–not regret writing those words? I used to think if they were truly sorry, they would some day offer an explanation–if not an apology–to make amends. But after twenty years I doubt that will happen.
Now I wonder if they think about that cold winter day in January at all.