Close For Comfort
by Katherine S. Newman, New York Times, April 17, 2004
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— For all their virtues, small towns are hard on misfits. The
social forces that push misfit boys over the edge are still
alive in isolated communities where most school shootings occur.
On Tuesday the nation will mark the fifth anniversary of the
Columbine High School massacre. The memory of that tragedy is
fresh in the minds of parents and students in the tiny community
of Malcolm, Neb., where 17-year-old Josh Magee was stopped in
the high school parking lot last month with 20 homemade bombs
and a bolt-action rifle at the ready.
Deadly violence is usually considered an urban problem. Yet this
brand of murder — attacks on schools by their own students —
almost never happens in cities. Malcolm has a population of 437.
Two other communities where colleagues and I researched school
violence — Westside, Ark., and Heath, Ky. — are also small towns
hours away from urban areas. In these places, schools are small,
church is important and everyone really does know your name. So
why do rampage shootings tend to happen in communities like
For all their virtues, small towns are hard on misfits. In big
cities, oddballs might find like-minded friends, a comic-book
clique or a band to hang out with. But in Heath and Westside,
for example, Friday night football is the center of community
social life, hence alternatives for marginal teenagers are
harder to find.
Social networks overlap in small towns: your next-door neighbor
is your former high school classmate, your child's teacher, a
church group leader and the fourth-grade baseball coach. If a
child gets a bad reputation in one of these arenas, it spreads
like wildfire to the others. As a result, misfits can feel like
there is no exit from their misery.
Heath and Westside are remarkably stable. Teenagers stay close
to home, even after high school graduation. That solidarity is a
source of pride for most residents. For the marginal boy,
however, stability is a life sentence: once a loser, always a
Murderous violence is inconsistent with the view that small
towns have of their virtues, which causes them to lower their
guard. Moreover, because school shooters are as likely to come
from good families as from dysfunctional homes, no one picks up
on the signals they are broadcasting. And small-town teenagers,
who believe that adults are watching over them, tend to work
harder to conceal deviant behavior. For all these reasons, it is
hard to see rampage attacks coming.
Since the Columbine incident, children have begun to recognize
the significance of warnings they hear from attention-seeking
boys. Concerned students are coming forward more often, which is
why we hear more about "near miss" plots than actual shootings.
Yet the social forces that push misfit boys over the edge are
still alive in isolated communities. This means that adults —
teachers, parents, coaches, counselors — need to remember that
disaffected teenagers who get into minor scrapes or complain
about being bullied may be more troubled than they appear.
We need to create alternatives to an adolescent culture that
prizes a boy's prowess at sports over his artistic, academic,
"nerdy" accomplishments so that the oddballs can find a social
niche more easily. As the memory of Columbine fades, we can't
let our resolve to prevent schools shootings disappear along
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