New York — – When a teacher at Petaluma High School read a recent fiction piece submitted by one of his 10th graders, entitled "My First Shooting Spree," an alarm went off in his head. The paper, about a murderous student, was not a reaction to the Littleton, Colo., massacre: It was written before the shooting took place.
He shared the story Thursday with other faculty members, who routinely discuss the personal details their students write into papers and assignments. They believe the student may have appropriated the piece from the Internet, though the matter is still under investigation.
"He's just fooling around" was the first reaction, according to Richard Walzer, a counselor at the school, which is located north of San Francisco. But with the Columbine High School bloodshed fresh in their minds, the other possibility couldn't be overlooked: "Maybe he's not (joking)," Walzer said.
But a knee-jerk reaction in a situation like this would be inappropriate, he added. A telltale sign of possible violent tendencies must be "linked with other factors" such as attendance and grades.
"What's he or she like — resentful, angry all the time? No sense of humor?" he said. "You can just kind of tell the demeanor of a student. You put all those things together, you say there's something."
But he admits that with Tuesday's tragedy, in which 12 students and a teacher were gunned down, "There's gonna be a heightened awareness here about this stuff."
As there should be, says Hara Estroff Marano, author of Why Doesn't Anybody Like Me? A Guide to Raising Socially Confident Kids. Noticing how students interact with others is key to heading off a potentially explosive situation, she said.
"The social life of kids is a lot more important than we give it credit for," she said. "Being picked on and being rejected is the most psychologically powerful experience that there is."
As has been documented so far in the Columbine case, the teen killers there were subject to intense ridicule by their peers.
"The kids who get picked on," she says, "they lack social skills — that's why they're picked on. These kids are socially incompetent."
Sometimes, she said, as seems to have been the case in Littleton, "the rejection leads to humiliation. The humiliation leads to revenge."
While adamant about not placing the blame fully on the media, she says that whether it's TV or a Hitler manifesto, kids "turn to information that endorses revenge and they get a different message out of that than most kids do."
"The rejected kids look at it and say, 'Aha! This is an instruction manual for what to do with my rage.'" Add to that the availability of guns and bomb ingredients, and you have your problem, she said.
Not My School
Like Columbine High School, Petaluma High is near a major city. It has 1,400 students, 500 fewer than Columbine. But like most schools, it has avoided the tragedy of a school shooting.
Counselor Walzer said it aims to keep it that way by defusing tensions in his school. He hopes to help set up a hotline that students can call to tip off authorities about potentially dangerous students, something Petaluma's sister school, Casa Grande High School, did in response to the massacre.
"What could you possibly do to prevent something like that?" he asks himself. "The prevention is to make sure kids are talking to each other about problems at the school, helping with disputes with different groups. ... There's always going to be fringe elements that would do something like this.
"If these kids were bullied over a period of time, it's definitely something that wouldn't happen here," Walzer said. The school has trained student conflict managers and "a school climate committee that tries to improve the learning environment for every student, even kids on the fringe."
Much of this effort was prompted because the district "got burned" in a lawsuit several years ago when a junior high student was the victim of harassment, he said.
But Marano emphasizes that it's mainly up to parents, not schools, to teach social skills. "Kids do come into life with different social dispositions," she said. "but (as) you can teach every kid how to swim, you can teach every kid how to swim socially."
Parents should make it a point to ask their children, in a "non-blaming" manner, how they are getting along with their classmates, she said. And they should ask their child's teachers the same question.
As Walzer notes, "The lives that kids have at home and at school seem to be very different. Sometime parents don't know what their kids are like at school."
And what will become of the student who turned in the shoot-'em-up story?
"There will be some intervention, obviously," Walzer said.