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Published: 3/3/2012

COMMENTARY

There doesn't have to be another school shooting

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST

It happened again and I'm livid. My first reaction to the latest school shooting, in a quiet, snow-belt suburb east of Cleveland, was anger.

Not again. The breathless reports from the scene described the panic, anxiety, and raw emotion. Throngs of anguished parents huddled near school buildings, worry etched into their faces.

Not again. The urgent 911 dispatch for help declared "students down," as in gunned down. The crush of reporters outside a hospital waited for updates on the conditions of shooting victims.

Not again. The heart-wrenching family statement expressed sorrow at the senseless loss.

Not again.

I'm furious it happened to another school, another community. I'm fearful it will happen again.

The next school to be rocked by a gun-wielding killer could be anywhere. No place, urban, suburban, or rural, is immune from violence bent on extracting a toll.

Picturesque Chardon may have thought it was immune. The Geauga County seat is a quaint step back in time, with its New England-style town square, history, and grand old homes.

It's a community where everyone knows everyone. Metal detectors and reinforced locks are for big cities, not small, quiet communities.

The students who left Chardon High School after the alleged gunman opened fire in the cafeteria looked numb. They mumbled about the morning being surreal. One told a Cleveland TV station: "We're not that kind of place where it [a school shooting] happens, so it's really shocking."

Students and parents in the Denver suburb of Littleton, Colo., experienced similar disbelief when two teenagers went on a killing rampage at Columbine High School. It couldn't happen there, either, or at bucolic Virginia Tech, or in Amish country in Pennsylvania.

But the growing list of deadly incidents on school campuses nationwide, in which young people turned on other students or staff, argues otherwise.

We've seen this before. The ending is predictable: Traumatized students cling to each other at memorials for slain classmates.

There are grief counseling and enhanced security measures in schools that already practice lockdowns in the event of an outside risk, such as an armed intruder.

I've been in schools when safety drills are conducted. Classrooms door are locked. Students silently find assigned spots.

They crouch low along walls and behind cabinets, so no part of them is visible to a killer on the hunt. School administrators accompany police officers in a room-by-room inspection to critique compliance.

The stark routine doesn't faze students anymore -- a sad commentary. Kids accept the precautionary exercise against outside threats as they do a fire drill.

The same day that my kids rehearsed a lockdown in their school, they came home with tales of incessant bullying on the bus. Evidently, a pair of beefy toughs picked on a youngster of slight build.

He was easy prey. They teased him, pulled his hat down over his face, and called him "fag," a universal taunt that erupts out of kindergarten and endures through high school and beyond.

Such torment occurs every day in every grade in every school district in every state in the union. These days, the mocking is magnified by the limitless audience of cyberspace. Berating the loner, the geek, the girl who wants desperately to belong inflicts unbearable pain.

Last month, Gov. John Kasich signed the Jessica Logan Act into law. The anti-bullying measure is named after a Cincinnati-area high school student who committed suicide after she was bullied in school in 2008.

The new law adds a definition of cyber-bullying to school policies and to anti-bullying training required for teachers. It adds school buses as places where bullying can be disciplined. But it doesn't do enough to resolve a huge problem that pushes tortured souls over the edge.

Schools need to develop curricula that teach the importance of respect, civility, and compassion. Without a systemic approach to confronting bullying aggressively-- the earlier the better -- what happened in Chardon will happen again.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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