Tragedies that occur far away from our personal center of interest naturally have less impact than if they happen in our own community, or to people we know. The murder of school children in a previously unknown small town in Connecticut shocked and saddened us, but we would have reacted more intensely if 20 children had been murdered at a South Sound elementary school.
The arrest of a 14-year-old Tumwater boy on felony harassment charges for allegedly threatening to shoot students at Black Hills High School should remind us that no community is immune from such a tragedy.
According to police reports, the boy said he was joking about his threats to shoot people. But they found he had access to three guns and ammunition, including an “assault-style weapon,” a pistol-gripped shotgun and a 9 mm pistol.
Some family members think the Tumwater police have blown the incident out of proportion. “He wouldn’t hurt a fly,” said his grandmother, although, the family acknowledges the boy has been depressed and has been in counseling.
We think the police acted wisely and might have actually interrupted a deteriorating process that could well have led to tragedy. Prosecutors have evidence that the boy was fascinated with the 1999 Columbine High School shootings and that he had done Internet research on other school shootings.
The family’s love for their boy and natural urge to protect him is understandable. Yet, after almost every shooting, people wonder how they could have missed the signs that trouble was brewing. It’s true for young and adult shooters, whether in schools, malls or military bases.
Those who tipped the police to this potential threat did the right thing. Police also acted appropriately. Their combined actions might have saved lives.
There are lessons to be learned from this incident. It’s important for law enforcement officers to spend time in schools and build trusting relationships with students, so they feel safe in reporting suspicious or troubling information.
And it’s critical that students listen to each other for warning signs. A comprehensive study after the murders in Newtown, Conn. suggested that attackers usually tell friends about their plans ahead of time.
The study revealed that no one psychological profile fits every case, but that shooters are most often males, tell people what they are going to do, have access to guns and have mental health issues, such as depression. All of those elements were present in the Black Hills situation.
Because someone spoke up, this story might be headed toward a happy outcome.
Instead of a tragedy that might have ended innocent lives, a troubled young man now has the opportunity to get help. With professional guidance, his life can be better, and potential victims can live.