The following is a commentary that I wrote concerning the Columbine school shooting, April 20, 1999. It was written for NPR’s “Morning Edition,” although it was never aired. I wrote this in 2003. Since then, gun violence has exploded as grizzly mass shootings proliferate and the grim parade of school shootings continues; Sandy Hook Elementary School, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and so many others have broken our national heart. Yet numbingly obvious, desperately needed gun reform begins with utterances following the too-familiar, national repetitive loop of despair and anguish, which hits the same rock-solid stonewall built by the NRA, one political donation brick upon the next. So, here’s that snapshot in time, an almost quaint commentary before mass school shootings became a regular part of our national life and shame.
NPR Commentary Draft
Proposed for April 20, 2003
Today is the fourth anniversary of the tragedy at Columbine High School. One might wonder what new perspective could possibly be brought to that heartbreaking story? The media saturation following that terrible carnage did miss one critical vantage point – one that should be explored.
In April 1999, I was preparing a keynote address on social inclusion for the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. I had just finished writing a school musical that addresses the healing of how students who are devalued are treated. Students with disabilities and all devalued differences often endure exclusion, ridicule, and violence at the hands of their peers. At the end of the week of the shootings, on Saturday, NPR’s All Things Considered, a report reviewed how students who were considered weak were singled out as the shooters’ targets. It seems that the killers shot “up” at those who had bullied them and “down” at those over whom they felt power. The reporter stated that one student was African American, one a newly proclaimed Christian, and one a student with a disability. I froze. In the countless stories on Columbine, I had heard nothing else about a victim with a disability. That is a significant omission, and during my keynote, I pondered its absence elsewhere in the reporting. Following the speech, Colorado’s director of special education told me that my facts were in error. Not one but TWO students with disabilities had been shot.
Why is that important? It is the razor’s edge of the rapier of exclusion, ridicule, and violence known by children with devalued differences nationwide. I should know, because of our different disabilities, my brother and I both grew up enduring that brutality, and I have worked in schools across the country. Kids imitate what they see. And today, our national moral bar has been lowered, so that ridicule of people with disabilities is commonplace, even by mainstream comedians. If we are going to change school culture, we need to confront ridicule, build inclusive social communities for all kids, and work against the verbal, psychological, emotional, and physical violence that is the daily experience of devalued students everywhere. Here’s a solution. Structured school clubs called Project Support are currently organized in hundreds of schools, creating social inclusion and unraveling the strangling spiral of intolerance that can lead to ghastly tragedies like the one we remember today. Our children need the daily learning experience of all-embracing, healing inclusion.