The judge in Kentucky who recently dismissed the civil cases brought by the parents of three girls killed in a 1997 school shooting was unequivocal. Only the boy who pulled the trigger, he said, was liable for the crime - not the other children who were in some way aware of the obsessions and "big" plans of the then 14-year-old killer.
Still, the testimony of those friends and schoolmates was disturbing. They talked of the boy's fantasies about killing people, about the guns they saw in his possession, about going to school that morning to see what kind of "prank" he would pull.
No one reported anything. No one saw more than the goofiness of a young teenager. Some didn't want to get their friend into trouble. Of course, their silence only helped him, and now his whole community is left to ponder their role.
Many schools now are relying on various psychological-profiling methods, including computer software developed for this purpose, to assess whether students with a few "warning signs" may be threats. The FBI and Secret Service have studied school shooters and offered their research.
All this is well-intended, and doubtless of practical value. But two concerns stand out: (1) that deep worries about school violence should not lead to overreaction, labeling as a potential killer every youngster given to macho boasting, and (2) that every effort has to be made to break youthful codes of silence (at home as well as at school) that allow problems to go unaddressed.
The kind of information that came out in the Kentucky case must cause us to do more than shake our heads. It's a call to alertness, courage, and action.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society