On the fateful day of April 20, 1999, cited by CNN as precipitating one of the “bloodiest episodes in U.S. history,” two students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, murdered 12 fellow students and one teacher before taking their own lives.
Since the beginning of the fall semester, there have been four incidences of fatal school shootings, three of which occurred in the last week.
On Monday, a man killed himself after shooting five girls at an Amish school house in Pennsylvania; in Wisconsin, a principal was shot by a 15-year-old student last Friday; last Wednesday, six females were taken hostage by a man who sexually assaulted them before shooting one girl and himself in Colorado; and in Montreal, on September 13, a gunman shot and killed one woman while injuring at least 20 others before being shot by police.
Following the Columbine incident, as well as the most recent school shootings, a tidal wave of blame and scrutiny has been placed on everything from gun control and Marilyn Manson to child-rearing practices and video games.
The Bush administration has taken note of the growing threat of school-related violence and plans to hold a conference, bringing together law enforcement and education experts, for the purpose of discussing what kind of federal action can be taken to prevent violence in the classroom.
President Bush said that he felt “saddened and deeply concerned” about the most recent string of violent episodes in the nation’s schools.
Many have come to think of this tragic trend as a uniquely American problem, including documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, whose “Bowling for Columbine” (2002) contrasted America’s cultural persuasion to violence with that of other nations that he deemed as being relatively peaceful.
The intent was to show how, for a myriad causes and effects, the U.S. was much more prone to violence, thus leading to school shootings.
Canada was one such nation that Moore juxtaposed with the American social inclinations towards violence. Moore was seen walking into the unlocked homes of residents of Windsor, a Canadian city sharing a border with Detroit.
His point was poignant, if a Canadian city, only a few miles from the firearm-crime-ridden city of Detroit can exist with little fear of violence, it must be a result of a uniquely American bloodlust that ceases to exist north of the 49th parallel.
Louise Ghandhi, professor of cultural geography at GCC and native of Montreal, disagrees with Moore’s sentiment that violence, including firearm related violence, is exclusive or any more likely to occur in America than in any other nation.
Ghandhi believes that violence cannot be justly correlated to culture or country. “If you think you are safe, think again,” said Ghandhi, “that’s the mistake the Canadians made.”
Referencing the 1989 tragedy in Montreal, where Marc Lepine shot and killed 14 women at the University of Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique engineering school, Ghandhi makes obvious where Moore fell short-the notion that violence, in particular school violence, is a global concern and not unique to the U.S.
In fact, before the Columbine shootings in 1999, Canada alone had witnessed over 21 deaths in over seven related school shootings.
Shootings in Canadian cities lend to the idea that cities in the U.S. traditionally thought to be peaceful are as prone to school violence as any city thought to be a hotbed of violent crime.
The attack in the quiet Amish community of Paradise, Penn., where a 27 year-old man attempted to sexually assault five girls before killing them, is perhaps the most chilling verification of this; Aaron Meyer, a resident of a nearby village of Paradise told CNN, “many of these townships there have no police at all, because there’s no crime.”
Surely Michael Moore would have been as equally able to walk into unlocked homes in Paradise as he did in Windsor.
Moore attributed lenient U.S. gun control laws as a primary, almost exclusive, cause of school shootings. Many have attributed video games and other sorts of supposed violent media as inspiring the killing sprees.
Disregarding the popular notion among critics that school shootings stem from relaxed gun control laws or from the impact of violence in media, Dr. Wendy Fonarow, professor of cultural anthropology at GCC has her own theories as to why school shootings are becoming ever more present.
“To think that you have the right to go and kill other people, that’s a certain type of narcissism,” said Fonarow, “you really have to think that you are owed to be treated in a really nice way.”
Fonarow;s opinion is that American education systems have developed a strong sense of what she refers to as, “child centered interaction,” where criticism, directed from a teacher to a student, is lacking.
According to Fonarow, with educational institutions shying away from offering criticism to students the result is the formation of a highly narcissistic generation of children a foreboding hypothesis.
“What that produces, in adolescence, is either depression or anger,” said Fonarow, “if you’re the center of attention not because of any accomplishments or any inherent qualities just because you’re young, one day that stops because you are older and you want to look for why.”
When individuals enter adulthood and are no longer treated with the same unconditional approval they received as children and teenagers, they understand this in two possible ways. “It’s either my fault, and then you feel depressed,” continued Fonarow, “or it’s everyone else’s fault, and you’re really angry about it.”
Both Fonarow and Ghandhi claim to have had experiences with students suffering from mental anguish.
Ghandhi’s student, with positive encouragement from Ghandhi, sought professional help.
In Fonarow’s case, a student was developing onset signs of what she perceived to be schizophrenia. ” I just saw very abhorrent behavior that I saw as being potentially dangerous and other students felt it as well.” said Fonarow.
The anthropology professor claims to have spoken with authorities who were unable to legally take any action. “There was nothing the institution could do for me,” said Fonarow, “we don’t have any way to stop someone [from carrying out violent acts] … all I could do is urge them.”
Fonarow claims that this signifies another folly of American culture. “We are a very litigious society,” said Fonarow, “our ideas of individual rights are always placed over the rights of the group as a whole.”
Perhaps the urging was sufficient as the Mace Fonarow bought was not required. In fact, many students suffering from emotional stress may only require a simple push in the right direction.
For a GCC student, that push would be directed to the Health Center where an on-site therapist is available and able to aid troubled students, a note of this fact is made on every syllabus that Ghandhi hands out to students.
In fact, following in the fashion of her surname, Ghandhi belongs to the Ahimsa Center in the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences at California State Polytechnic University. The Ahimsa organization is dedicated to non-violence and the teachings of non-violent principles in family, personal, communal and national and international areas.
A main goal of the Ahisma Center is to bring a message of non-violence into mainstream education. The Center has designed courses for teachers of varying curricular levels, ranging from K-12 and even at the college and university level, to facilitate the teachings of Ahisma non-violence.
GCC students are privy to a nicely balanced campus geared towards understanding and forgiveness, yet firm, preventative measures.
When minor confrontations, such as fistfights or escalated arguments, occur, and are deemed isolated and mildly threatening, the GCC police are able to offer the involved individuals a less severe, and likely more therapeutic punishment than would city police.
Where city police would detain individuals and, depending on the situation, let them go or incarcerate them, involved students are taken to receive on-campus counseling.
This type of conflict resolution has had a tremendous efficacy in limiting violence from escalation and dispersing long, on-going rivalries on campus according to Chief Wagg.
GCC Police Chief, Steve Wagg considers GCC to be a relatively safe environment. “We’re lucky we reside in a bedroom community- it’s nice and quiet,” said Wagg.
Although Wagg might feel the campus is not at high risk, he is not willing to take chances.
As GCC officers possess the same authority as a municipal department and must comply with the same regulations. California State law mandates GCC officers to train with firearms four times a year, the GCC department trains monthly.
Not only that, but twice a year GCC officers engage in what Wagg refers to as “active shooter training.” This type of training is specifically oriented to the typical school-shooting scenario.
This type of preparedness on behalf of the GCC police department shows that despite the safe history of the city and campus, discretion is an invaluable asset.
“We have the advantage of having police officers right here so we can get to the scene of any type of violent act,” said Wagg, “probably within a minute and take appropriate action.”