High School Hell
Reading through the media coverage of the Littleton, Colorado shootings one can't help but be impressed by how skillfully the reporting shaped the story to fit the preconceived anxieties and biases of a broad readership. From both liberal and conservative vantage points the Columbine High School murders became a Rorschach test of political and social ills: gun control, violent video games, parental responsibility, goth culture, the dangers of the internet, racism, heavy metal music, teen angst, white supremacy, Christian evangelicalism, Hitler, athletics, police culpability, and finally but only after these more incendiary and high-profile issues were played out the nature and quality of high school culture itself.
Almost two weeks after the shootings did the media manage to maintain a focused, sustained discussion on the nightmare social organization of most high schools. The first waves of reporting and commentary promoted the idea that the Trenchcoat Mafia -- the loosely formed and defined group of "outsiders" at Columbine High School of which Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were ancillary members was, in essence, a cabal of dangerous, anti-social, satanistic, violence prone, far-right wing thugs. They were losers with nothing to lose; social rot that spread across the school and destroyed school spirit and the body politic.
This image of the teen outsider is a fairly recent invention and, in the past fifty years its mythos has changed. Look at Hollywood images from the 1950s when James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause were portrayed as misunderstood and nearly heroic in their struggles against spirit numbing conformity. Even Marlon Brando in The Wild One ready to rebel against anything that mainstream culture had to offer was sympathetically portrayed and understood as being damaged by the culture with which he was at war. Today any outward sign of outsider status or inclination is seen not heroic, but as a sign of danger and derangement.
One of the more frightening comments reported in the coverage of the Littleton event was from Columbine High School senior. When asked by the New York Times about the Trenchcoat Mafia, Kevin Koeniger, a popular athlete, replied "If they're different why wouldn't we look at them as weird?" In subsequent interviews Columbine High students complained that Harris, Klebold and the Trenchcoat Mafia "showed no school spirit."In the aftermath of Littleton there were reports that many schools were beginning to both formally and informally begin "geek profiling" watching and tracking outsider students of all sorts to spot "trouble."An organization called The National School Safety Center issued a checklist of "dangerous signs" to watch for in kids: it included mood swings, a fondness for violent TV or video games, cursing, depression, anti-social behavior and attitudes. Sound familiar. One of the most startling, and oft repeated, statements in much of the coverage of Littleton is that high school cliques, with all of their hierarchies and inequities are inevitable. "There is no way to change this" said opined a Times op-ed, "you can't make cheerleaders get crushes on homely boys." Indeed, the idea that this culture is immutable is entrenched in common thought. It is a never-ending, but trivialized, war: jocks and cheerleaders vs. the nurds, freaks, geeks, and fags. And U.S. popular culture has a love/hate relationship with this. For all the films, television shows, and comics that valorize and romanticize the golden boys and girls there are also backlash films. Perhaps no films captures the sheer, unleashed rage of the spat upon as the 1976 Carrie which ends in an apocalyptic firestorm of death that rivals Harris's and Klebold's plans to blow up Columbine High. The 1989 Heathers took a more sardonic, smug view of this conflict, but after the popular kids are killed the school still gets blown up. If James Dean and Natalie Wood were misunderstood rebels with a cause who are finally seen as being morally sympathetic in the school world, Sissie Spacek and Christian Slater were the new outsiders both with paranormal abilities who embodied the passion and righteous fury of all out and lethal revenge. The sea-change from Rebel without a Cause to Carrie and Heathers is symptomatic of how dire the situation of school social structures have become.
But this dichotomy which alternately represents and sparks the fantasies of both the popular and the disenfranchised ultimately hides the harsh reality of what happens in high schools. After the first week of coverage the more appalling aspects of life at Columbine High began to emerge. Students began talking about how "members"of the Trenchcoat Mafia were not only verbally harassed but physically assaulted by the "preps and the athletes." "Physically assaulted," in this case means being hit in the school hallways, shoved into lockers, having food smashed into your face in the cafeteria. Actions that outside of high school social culture where they have existed for decades and been tolerated, even condoned by teachers and administrators in a variety of ways from silence to active promotion would result in arrest and a possible jail sentence. This violence happens, to varying degrees, across the country. The tragic irony of "geek profiling" as a way to prevent violence among students is that the violence is has always been already there, and it is generally never perpetrated by geeks.
If the Littleton catastrophe has done nothing else it has begun a
more honest, frank public discussion of this violence in U.S. school culture. The Boston
Globe, the New York Times and other major venues have begun printing articles about
violence in middle schools and high schools. Check out Jon Katz's piece Kids Who Kill on
=99/04/25/1438249] and the responses that he has received from students detailing the everyday physical and verbal abuses that they endure usually at the hands of their more "popular" classmates. One of major problem of student on student school violence and that makes life hell for those students victimized is that unless the administration steps in to stop it there is no other alternative but to endure it: you are legally mandated to attend school. Schools, in this situation, become prisons.
One of the aspects of the Littleton story that keeps surfacing (but is never fully articulated) is the rumors that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were gay. Students who were friends of theirs claim that this was not the case, but that like many outsiders in high school hallways and gyms were taunted with the epithets of "fag," "homo," and "queer." The rumors that Harris and Klebold were actually homosexuals (not just the recipient of fag = geek name calling) were at first spread by some Columbine students after the shooting. They have since been actively promoted by right-wing Christian spokesmen such as Rev. Fred Phelps and Rev. Jerry Farwell. And while this is simply more cheap, but potent, rhetoric for their ongoing anti-gay campaigns the charge touches on a connection with one of the least discussed issues of school violence that students who are gay, or perceived to be gay are extraordinarily likely to be targeted by this behavior.
The statistics on gay, lesbian experience in schools is staggering. According to the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (www.glsen.org) 97 percent of students in public high schools in Massachusetts reported regularly hearing homophobic remarks from their peers in a 1993 report of the Massachusetts Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth. 53 percent of the students reported hearing anti-gay remarks made by school staff. 46 percent of gay, lesbian and bisexual students reported in a 1997 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Study they attempted suicide in the past year compared to 9 percent of their peers; 22 percent skipped school in the past month because they felt unsafe compared to 4 percent of their peers; 24 percent were in a fight that resulted in receiving medical attention compared to 3 percent of their peers. Gay students are three times as likely to have been threatened with a weapon at school than their peers during the previous 12 months, according to Youth Risk Behavior surveys done in Massachusetts and Vermont. 28 percent of gay youths drop out of high school altogether, according to a U.S. Department of Health & Human Services study. The department also found that gay kids are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youth. And why not, it's a way out of prison.
A measure of how pervasive this homophobia is can be seen in the new teen-film 10 Things I Hate About You where the geeky side-kick to the hero has to deal with a preppy type and during their conversation the popular student draws with a felt-tip pen, male genitalis on the "geek's" face with the penis aimed at his mouth. While the film presents the preppy student in a negative light, it also has no problem displaying this homophobic behavior as an uproariously funny joke. When I saw the film in a crowded Cambridge, MA theater the audience laughed and laughed. All I could think of was did the men who killed Matthew Shepard beat up fags in high school? Did they call people fags in the cafeteria? Did anyone ever stop them? Did anyone even notice?