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School shooting: familiar echoes, new concerns

A killing spree by an isolated student highlights plight of native American teens.

By Amanda Paulson, Sara B. Miller,Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Stacy A. TeicherStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / March 23, 2005



CHICAGO

Geographically and culturally, it's a long, long way from Littleton, Colo., to Redlake, Minn. One is an isolated town of about 1,500 on a Ojibwa reservation, the other an affluent Denver suburb.

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Yet Monday's school shooting, in which 16-year-old Jeff Weise allegedly killed nine people and wounded at least 14 others before killing himself, is the worst since the tragedy at Littleton's Columbine High School six years ago and, in some ways, has a grim similarity.

Reports Tuesday were circulating of the shooter's social isolation, ties to Nazi beliefs, even of a black trenchcoat.

But the incident also underlines the specific challenges facing many people - and particularly adolescents - on Indian reservations. Such youth have far higher rates than do others of committing suicide, substance abuse, dropping out of school, living in poverty, and staying with foster parents or grandparents.

"There are certain ways in which traumatic events in the life of a child are very intense for children on reservations," says Esther Wattenberg, a professor at the University of Minnesota's Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare, who has been studying native American adolescents on the nearby Leech Lake Reservation, which has seen a surge of violence by young people in recent years. "We were astonished at the number recovering from some kind of family trauma.... The accessibility to both substance-abuse treatment and mental-health treatment is very difficult in rural areas."

Indian leaders, however, were quick to distance the incident from specific native American issues, and to say it shocks them as much Columbine and other school shootings shocked the local communities. "The scary thing about this is it could happen anywhere," says Tuleah Palmer, director of the Boys and Girls Club in Leech Lake. "Red Lake was an extraordinarily secure school."

The shooting began Monday afternoon when Jeff allegedly shot and killed his grandfather, a tribal police officer, and his grandfather's wife. He then went to the Red Lake High School, where witnesses say he shot his way past the school's metal detectors, killing a guard, and then entered a classroom. He killed a teacher and five students, and wounded at least 13 more, before reportedly exchanging fire with police and then killing himself.

No motive was immediately clear, but Jeff reportedly espoused some Nazi beliefs, and posted last year on a website, Nazi.org, under the name Todesengel, or "Angel of Death." There he expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler, and claimed that he had been blamed for a threat to shoot up his school a year ago.

Before Monday, he was living with his grandfather and was in the school's "homebound" program for a violation of school policy. Relatives have told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that Jeff's father committed suicide four years ago, and that his mother lives in a Minneapolis nursing home, having suffered brain injuries in a car accident.

Because of its setting, the shooting is almost certain to call attention to some problems specific to Indian Reservations. While incidents from Columbine to Jonesboro, Ark., demonstrate that school shootings can happen anywhere, sociologists have been concerned for years about violence among some native American teenagers, and their high rates of suicide and substance abuse.

According to a Harvard University study, 1 in 6 American Indian youths has attempted suicide, and they are 60 percent more likely to report fights at school in the past year. The incidence of fetal-alcohol syndrome, which can contribute to mental-health problems and impaired judgment later on, is high on many reservations. A state-by-state study of graduation rates by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research found that 46 percent of American Indian students graduated high school, compared with 86 percent of white students.

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