School shooting: familiar echoes, new concerns

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

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Many of the problems go back to the US government's legacy of mistreatment, and the resulting disconnect from native land and culture. But drawing conclusions from such data can be tricky, say some American Indian leaders, who acknowledge things like suicide and substance abuse are problems, but worry that an extreme - and isolated - incident like this shooting could reinforce negative stereotypes at a time when reservations are making gains.

"They're doing a lot very well in Red Lake," says David Beaulieu, president of the National Indian Education Association. "When I visited [Red Lake] recently, I really sensed a strong network of support."

While multiple shootings always garner national attention, experts say events like this are anomalies. Russell Skiba, director of the Initiative on Equity and Opportunity at the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University, stresses that despite public perceptions, schools are still safe places: Violence is far more likely to occur outside school walls than within. And, he says, there is growing access to resources to help schools stay safe, a shift from the mid-'90s when little data was available.

Now prevention and safety guidelines abound. In the wake of Columbine, the country scrambled to put preventive measures in place, from metal detectors to zero-tolerance policies for everything from carrying weapons to, in some schools, swearing. Some of those programs seem to be working. A federal report released in November 2004 showed that violent crime in schools dropped by 50 percent from 1992 to 2002.

But Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm that trains schools on emergency and safety preparedness, disputes that study because he says the numbers are based not on actual reported crimes, but on national surveys.

What's more, he says, violent crime in schools has been going up. His group tracked 49 violent deaths in schools in the 2003-2004 school year, up from 16 the year before. So far this year the number is 28. "The bottom line is, the federal study grossly underestimates the problem, public perception overestimates the problem."

According to the website indianz.com and based on numbers from the federal report released in November, 22.1 percent of native American students reported they had been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property - the highest rate of victimization for any student group. Data also shows that threats and violence grew more steadily in the native American community than in any other - rising nine percentage points from 1999 to 2003.

Nationally, Mr. Trump attributes the recent upswing in fatal school violence to three factors: complacency, cuts in school-safety budgets, and increased focus on accountability and testing. "The progress that was made in the days and weeks after Columbine has actually stalled," he says. "School violence has been alive and well in far too many communities."

But Skiba says the nation has to be careful about rushing to adopt more stringent policies - some of which he says go too far. According to research he helped gather last spring, 40 states now enforce a one-year mandatory expulsion for possession of a firearm, and 16 states also do so when students carry deadly weapons other than firearms to school. But some schools have zero-tolerance policies in place for minor infractions like swearing or insubordination. Twenty-three states have such policies in place for fighting, and 19 do for disruptions in class.

"There is no data that [proves] that simply taking a hard-line stance and removing ever-greater numbers of students for ever-increasing minor infractions has any impact on school safety," he says.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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