The recurring nightmare

But of course, we've seen it all before -- in Paducah, Ky.; Jonesboro, Ark.; Springfield, Ore.; Littleton, Colo.; and now, Santee, Calif., and Williamsport, Pa.: the stunned teen-age girls, sobbing their muffled horror into cupped, shaking hands; the stricken boys, shoulders heaving and heads bowed amid the carnage and the chaos; the terrified parents, running wildly toward the school building, shouting their children's names into the dumbstruck crowd; the haphazardly parked patrol cars, top lights twirling in crazy, neon-blue circles; and the ubiquitous cameras, sucking up every last visual detail of yet another American horror story.

And if we watch long enough, we soon meet the friends of the victims and the friends of the friends of the culprit. Within hours we see the perpetrator being led away by uniformed officials in dark glasses. Often it's an ordinary-looking child, walking obliviously into a hellish future of jail cells, courtrooms and psychologists' offices. How could someone so small and unprepossessing be the creator of such gargantuan evil?

Within days, we see the growing memorials of notes and flowers left outside the school-yard fence by the guilt-ridden and the grateful. Angry parents point their fingers, as "experts" second-guess anguished school administrators and clueless politicians. Prayers are offered up in the churches, while in the lawyers' offices briefs are prepared. From the Oval Office come pronouncements of shock and sympathy. On the home front, counselors are dispatched to deal with the tears and the trauma. Another school shooting, and we've seen it all before.

Soon enough, though, the candles will burn to the ground, and the story will fade. The horror will recede -- except in the homes of the victims' families -- as the rest of us try to numb our sensibilities at the multiplex's newest wide-screen offering of mayhem. Across the nation, school boards will tinker with changes in security, and a few more degreed professionals will be hired to try and spot troubled students before they can turn their towns into grotesque Doppelgangers of the American dream.

What are the causes and what are the cures? Too many violent-themed movies and video games? Let's ask Hollywood to tone it down a bit. Too-easy access to guns and ammunition? Let's pass a few more laws, blame a few more parents and prosecute a few more troubled children as adults. Not enough supervision on campus? How about more metal detectors, security cameras and locker searches. Will any of these nostrums prevent the next time? Probably not.

Maybe it's time to admit we are drastically shortchanging our progeny by stuffing them into overcrowded schools staffed by overworked, underpaid teachers who are expected to act as educators, psychiatrists and surrogate parents. Maybe it's time to realize that quality education has little to do with standardized testing and everything to do with parental involvement, community support and vastly increased budgets. Maybe it's time to finally put our money where our mouth is, and build the kind of small, caring schools that only the wealthy can now afford.

And maybe it's time to realize the children we have already lost, both the shooters and their victims, are truly the canaries in the mine of our noxious, materialistic culture; one that teaches our kids to be contemptuous of those who don't wear the same clothes or listen to the same CDs. If we really don't wish our children to become the victims of another unhappy, distressed teen, we need to teach them, at an early age, that teasing and tormenting others because of differences is a totally unacceptable way of dealing with fellow human beings.

In the end, the only real answers lie in our notions about how we should care for one another. Hillary had it right. It does take a village to raise a healthy child. (A lesson painfully learned by the father of Santee shooter Charles "Andy" Williams' friend, who heard about the impending disaster but did nothing to stop it.) We say we love our kids, but we don't seem to love our neighbors' kids in the same way. And if we can't show all our children that we care for them equally, how can we expect them to know they should care for each other equally?

Our children only reflect the values we teach. Our schools aren't failing our kids -- our entire country is. Our convictions of what is important in American life are skewed and need to be re-examined. Until that happens, Santana High School will not be the last chapter in a sad and desperate story. What we've seen before, we will see again.

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