Sympathy for the devil

Could Littleton happen in Galesburg?

by Norm Winick

Could the tragedy at Littleton, Colo. happen in Galesburg? Despite whatever precautions authorities might recommend, the clear consensus of a group of students here is yes. And the root cause is other students, not the parents, or the music, or the clothing, or the school authorities.

The students I talked to attend the alternative school downtown. They have had their share of brushes with other students and authorities and if it weren't for the alternative school, most would have dropped out. What makes them experts on the subject is the similarities in their lives compared to those of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. None of the students here are identified by name but the quotes are direct from statements they offered in an informal discussion this week.

The Galesburg Alternative School program is designed for junior and senior high age students who aren't fitting in because of grades, behavior or attendance. Twenty-three students are now in the program. They all claim to have experienced in the mainstream schools the same kind of pressure and harassment from the cliques of other students which tormented the Colorado killers. The kids here also say that they probably would have dropped out if they were still assigned to a regular school. Instead, this special program offers individualized attention and instruction for kids who recognize themselves as misfits in the school system. They say Klebold and Harris were, too.

''I've got to give them credit-- that they had the balls to take over and do what they believed.'' That statement from a Galesburg student underlies the empathy felt on the part of the kids who aren't in the mainstream cliques. ''By the fifth grade, everyone can tell who's weird in their class. After that, the weird kids are picked on by everyone else.''

And the class structure here is identical to that in Littleton. ''At the top are the jocks. They can get away with anything. They do drugs and drink and skip class and don't ever get in trouble. If one of us is five minutes late, we're in deep shit; if a jock misses a few days, nobody does anything. There are teachers who let them get away with anything and there are others who don't. They know who's who.'' Even within the jocks, there are subclasses. ''Football players are at the top; then the basketball players. Most of the other athletes are somewhere in the middle. The swimmers and soccer players are at the bottom.''

The next clique is the ''preps.'' These are defined as the kids who are basically categorized as ''snobs.'' ''To them, everything is bad except what they do. They don't act like they're in school.''

The next rung on the ladder belongs to the gangstas and the gangsta wannabees. ''They're the hard-asses. They're black and white. In all the categories, there are blacks and whites. The clique thing is not racial at all.''

Travelling downward, there are other groups including the ''heads.'' ''They're into heavy metal music, stoned all the time. They wear lipstick and make-up.'' Also near the bottom are the ''skaters,'' skateboarders and surf-types.

''Every group has people in it who are assholes. They think they're better than you. All it takes is one person to get pissed off at another person and you could have real trouble.''

This clique hierarchy is not new. ''It's been going on since the beginning of time. Every day there's going to be someone not getting along with someone else.''

''The jocks and the preps constantly make fun of the outsider kids. They call us names; they throw things at us-- all day, all the time. If you're different, you just don't fit in.''

And any one of the many kids who don't fit into a clique could be pushed over the edge and turn into a killer. Many of the kids in the alternative school had thought about it ''but none of us ever had the balls to do anything about it. We would talk about getting even but we'd always pussy out.''

Getting the weapons isn't a problem. ''If you give me the cash, I could get you a gun in 10 minutes. If you want a semi-automatic, a Tec-9 or an Uzi, it might take a few days to get one here but I could get one. You can get a gun for $50-100. A semi-automatic might cost $350.'' Drugs are just as easy. ''If you have the cash, you can get the stash. Some dealers will even sell on credit in this town.''

The kids claim it's not music or video games or TV pushing them over the edge; it's the behavior of the other kids. ''Music is just music. People sing what's on their mind. Nobody does anything because of lyrics they hear. Whoever believes that is stupid. People need to know the difference between TV and real life; it's the same with music. It means something to the author. Most are just words that sound good. Don't blame rap or heavy metal.''

The consensus of the students here is that the Littleton tragedy could happen anywhere at any time. No one person's responsible: ''It's the close-minded dumb-asses pushing people to the edge. Anyone could go off anywhere, any time.''

There is some positive in this. The students see a way out-- a rather simple way out. ''People have to stop picking on each other. They've just got to quit picking on people they don't like or understand. Don't pick on people for what they look like or say. You can think crap in your head but keep it to yourself. People need to keep their mouth shut. They need to be open-minded and keep their shit to themselves.''

Uploaded to The Zephyr website April 29, 1999

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