Reading, Writing, and Hit Lists

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Nestled among the knobby hills of middle Tennessee, the community of Lafayette is a lot like other American small towns.

It's got a Wal-Mart. Its hulking water tower is the tallest thing around. And the Shrum Farm and Feed Supply stays busy most days.

But it is also one of a growing number of towns where students have threatened violence against teachers and other kids.

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Two eighth-graders were recently charged with harassment after teachers found lists of their potential targets. One note was titled "Death List" and had 73 names.

This town of 2,000 has been unwillingly thrust into the company of communities trying to avoid becoming another Jonesboro, Ark., or Edinboro, Pa., by taking a hard look at why their kids would consider - or even joke about - such awful acts.

The answers they're finding range from the age-old teenage desire for attention to uniquely modern factors, such as parental indifference and influence of the satanic rock group Marilyn Manson.

"At this age, lots of kids are followers," says Terry Marsh, principal of Macon County Junior High, where the lists were found. "Lots of kids are after attention."

The two accused teenagers now await trial on harassment charges and have agreed not to return to school this year.

Meanwhile, edgy educators and police nationwide are on the lookout for threats by students.

* Last month in Lone Oak, Ky., a high school senior was arrested after threatening to kill his baseball coach for not putting him in the starting lineup.

* In Klamath Falls, Ore., two middle-school girls were suspended after classmates overheard them talking about carrying out an ambush like the one in Jonesboro, Ark., where five were killed by students on March 24.

In Narragansett, R.I., a 17-year-old student was charged with disorderly conduct after threatening to kill three female classmates.

Indianapolis, Ind., has become the first city in the nation to put metal detectors in elementary schools.

Ask the teachers and students in Lafayette why so many students are making threats today - and what can be done about it -and they've got some pretty concrete answers.

One thing teachers point to is parents.

"Parents used to say to kids, 'If you get a spanking at school, you're going to get a worse one here at home,' " says one eighth-grade teacher who was on a hit list and prefers that her name not be used. "That's not true any more."

Now it's a mixed bag.

Teachers say when they call parents - something they're doing more often these days - they often find a defensive voice at the other end. Teachers say they hope to warn parents and urge them to be more involved in kids' lives.

Satanic songs

One thing some parents may miss if they're not fully engaged is the influence of the satanic rock group Marilyn Manson.

Alongside more high-profile logos of Nike or Tommy Hilfiger on shoes and T-shirts, Marilyn Manson's symbols - such as the vermillion devil's tail, arrow pointed down, inside a thick red circle - are quietly scrawled on notebooks, or even tattooed on kids' arms.

Some kids, teachers say, don't know that the symbols are connected to a satanic message. But others - including the Lafayette boy accused of writing a "hit list" - may be more involved. "Marilyn Manson has a strong grip on some of the kids," says the eighth-grade teacher. She thinks she was included on the hit list because of her outspoken opposition to Marilyn Manson.

The group's message is one of "self-gratification, self-mutilation," and "pain-and-pleasure type of activities," says Johnny Purvis, a professor at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.

In "Irresponsible Hate Anthem," for example, the rock group vocalizes its advocacy of violence: "Don't bother to resist or I'll beat you," the lyrics state. "It's not your fault that you're always wrong; the weak ones are there to justify the strong."

For teens, following the group is a way to rebel, especially in this buckle-of-the-Bible-belt town. "A lot of youngsters have lost confidence in traditional religion," Dr. Purvis says. "Nontraditional cults seem to be growing fastest in the religiously conservative areas."

Another eighth-grade teacher, who also requests anonymity, tells of asking a student if his mother lets him listen to Marilyn Manson. "As long as I keep the volume down," was the boy's reply.

In the extreme, getting kids away from such influences can require moving them to another town, Purvis says. Care and compassion can help greatly, too. But threats to punish the child if he or she continues, Purvis warns, "go over like a pregnant pole-vaulter."

Craving attention

Another influence on kids, Lafayette residents say, is the media. And many of the recent threats could be copycat incidents - aimed at getting attention. "All of this being in the media plants the seeds," says Mr. Marsh, the principal.

Yet the high-profile shootings may also persuade kids that they need to act to stop violence.

At West Harnett High School near Sanford, N.C., for instance, a student brought a gun to school last month. When some students discovered it, they told school officials and the student was removed.

But teachers in Lafayette say it can be tough to get kids to rat on other students. "At this age, it might be seen as being a tattletale," says Marsh.

Indeed, experts say it is tough to get kids involved. In some schools, confidential hot lines have been set up so students can alert teachers to problems.

"It requires creating an atmosphere of trust," says Pamela Riley of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence in Raleigh, N.C. "That's important, but sometimes hard, to do."

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