By Becky Billingsley
October 3, 2015
How woefully wrong I was, in the article I wrote in June 1999 about murderous school violence, especially with guns.
The article, which was the Sunday feature cover story in The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C., is headlined, “Reaching Out for Answers.” It was published three months after the school shooting in Columbine, Colorado, when two students murdered 13 people and wounded 21 others before committing suicide.
Here’s the part where I was wrong. It’s in the second paragraph:
“It’s been more than three years since the first incident in a wave of 12 shootings in American schools, and the magnitude of the violence has escalated.”
I supposed that technically I was correct, making reference to a group of a dozen school shootings. However, when looking back at a timeline of American school shootings, I can’t figure out which one in 1996 I considered “the first incident.” There were six school shootings in 1996, five in 1997, six in 1998 and one in April 1999, four days before the mass shooting on April 20, 1999, in Littleton, Colorado. That’s a total of 19 school shootings in about three years.
But what’s even more shocking is the number of school murders before and after that three-year period.
Superintendent Postlewait remained quiet through most of the two-hour discussion, but at the end she made a statement:
"I would agree with the comments that have been made. It’s that much perplexing and discouraging to not feel a great deal of responsibility to feel that you must safeguard your schools and in our hearts not know all the answers.
The causes are many; the solutions are not that simple. One of the most frustrating aspects of dealing with parents’ concerns is that nearly everyone has concerns about the school and wants to use the recent [shooting] incidents to justify what the schools should have done or could have done.
Our society is too fast-paced and stressful. There’s a sense only of that moment. It’s a tremendously fast-paced life that’s focused on immediate gratification. People are focused inwardly more than outwardly.
We have more questions than answers about why this is happening. I can tell you that as educators, all of us feel that nothing prepared us to deal with the deep angst that some children suffer, that we need help."
I agree with Dr. Postlewait, and it is frightening to contemplate that our world has become even more fast-paced since 1999. The immediate gratification she spoke of has ballooned into immediate encouragement of murderous actions, courtesy of Internet chat rooms.
We need to identify and help those children who are suffering mental angst, for whatever reasons. We need to get those children adequate help for mental health issues that is much more than giving them a prescription for mind-altering medications that often have suicide and rage as side effects.
That help includes much better mental health options than are now currently available. We need more emergency mental health counselors who are available 24/7, we need more mental health therapists who can work with rage-filled and depressed patients on an ongoing basis, and we need more mental health interventions and hospital beds.
And we need to keep guns out of their hands. That answer has only become clearer in the 16 years since I wrote that article.
I have two requests:
Please support gun regulations that will deter people with mental health problems who want to kill other people. Our children and grandchildren’s lives depend on it.
Also, if you have a friend or family member who has mental health issues, please take personal responsibility to ensure they do not have access to guns. Guns are not a healthy outlet for these people. Then take the time to make sure they’re getting the medical help they need, and be an active participant in engaging that person in healthier and safer activities and interests.
Before 1996, there are hundreds of school murders dating back to the 1760s. In 1764, nine school children and their teacher were tomahawked and scalped by Native Americans. By the 1800s, guns became the weapon of choice. A timeline of school shootings shows about 45 from 1850-1900. In the next 50-year period, from 1900-1950, there were about 100 school shootings. From 1950-1990, there were another 100 or so.
And in the 25 years since 1990, there have been more than 200 school shootings.
In 1999, in the wake of the shooting at Columbine High School, it seemed that the public was for the first time considering school gun violence to be an ongoing problem that needed to be addressed. The Sun News called together a panel of 15 educators, students and parents, including the school superintendent at the time, Gerrita Postlewait, and I asked them questions.
One of the questions I asked was, “Do you think there should be stricter gun laws?”
Waccamaw High School teacher Melanie Wright said, “I think there should be more control over the sale of guns. You have to register to drive a car, and it doesn’t hurt our ability to drive.”
Loris Middle School teacher Ada Wright (no relation to Melanie) said, “When I moved down here from New York, I was appalled to see guns on a rack in trucks. That really frightened me. There should be more control.”
Horry County Assistant Superintendent for School Effectiveness Bobby Chandler said, “We have the best country in the world, and the most violent country in the world. I saw a sign the other day that listed the most violent countries in the world by their numbers of shooting deaths [in one year]. Sweden [had approximately] 19 [shooting deaths]. Great Britain was around 22 and the United States was 10,667.”