Robyn's Perch

Friday, April 20, 2007


I've been watching the news and listening to all the commentary about the shootings in Jonesboro, Arkansas. As a resident of Arkansas for the past 14 years, how could I not? As a parent of a child that attended school in Arkansas, how could I not? As a teacher who often teaches potential teachers, how could I not?

As much as I hate the idea of using the deaths of children as a platform for politics, I have to say my piece. Someone has to tell the truth. The truth is not being heard, in my opinion.

First of all, I am tragically shocked that the major issue discussed immediately after this profound act of violence in one of our schools is punishment. What kind of a society is this? Shouldn't our first concern be seeing that it doesn't happen again? Instead there are people trying to figure out how these two boys can be tried as adults so that they can be given the death penalty or at least locked away for the rest of their lives. This is insane. These are children we are talking about. A society so fixated on punishment is sincerely warped.

The politicians and the media and religious types have been busy trying to affix blame. They point their fingers everywhere but where it belongs. They apparently don't know how to point at themselves.

Knowing that the National Rifle Association is very prevalent in this state, everyone has been extremely careful not to insinuate that there was anything wrong with these boys having access to guns from their earliest years. But you know, if there hadn't been guns and ammunition so readily available, this couldn't have happened. I am sickened by reporting that talks about what an expert shot one of the boys was. Maybe if he hadn't have been such a good shot, some of those children or that teacher might still be alive.

The governor of Arkansas blames society. Understanding this conservative Christian preacher's political position, I'm sure that his intention is to blame what he perceives to be a permissive, ungodly society. Given his druthers, he'd have our students praying in the schools, as if this wouldn't have happened if students were allowed to pray. But this misses the mark. These boys were "good Christian boys" by all accounts. I imagine that they have done a lot of praying. Reports are that they are sure doing a lot of praying now. You can't blame "Godlessness" for this act. It was the product of a godly upbringing.

Yes, there is too much violence on television. We all know that. There's especially too much violence in video games targeted at young boys. But the society that I have been immersed in since I moved here in 1984 worships violence on the football field. Is rooting for the good guy to kill the bad guy on television any different from rooting for the best player on the other team to get injured so that your team will have a better chance to win? Success at this close relative to blood sports is so highly worshipped that two players for one high school team were publicly slapped on the wrist for having sex a girl much their junior...and all most people seemed to worry about was whether or not they would be allowed to
play in the state tournament.

It is apparently the fact that one of these boys in Jonesboro was dumped by a girl at the school. Isn't it morally wrong that we live in a society that diminishes the value of a woman or a girl to the point a male can deem her life to be worthless if she doesn't want him anymore? Less than two days after the schoolyard killings, a man went on a killing spree in another part of this state, killing his ex-girlfriend and a visiting woman friend and three children, all because he was rejected. This heterosexual violence has got to stop.

Women have intrinsic value. Placing limits on that value does harm to our society. That, to me, is a no-brainer. Unfortunately, it's a minority opinion in this part of the South, where conservative Christianity with its ideal of male supremacy predominates. What are the Promise Keepers doing to end male-on-female violence? Maybe brains are scarce around here.

Blame has been directed at the families of these boys, implying that the parents or grandparents must have done something wrong in raising the boys that caused them to act as they did. You don't know how much that scares me, for I would hazard to guess that these boys were raised no differently than most boys in rural Arkansas. I sincerely hope that parents around the state are doing some soul-searching, but I'll bet not. It's too hard to put the faces of their own family members on this incident.

I have been particularly upset by the conflicting reports that on the one hand these were good boys with no history of problems, that there were no warning signs, and on the other hand that the boys were bullies. This is all too familiar. As a parent of a daughter who is both gay and large, I know the way bullies are handled in our schools, not just in Arkansas, but across the nation. The reaction of school officials to reports of abuse, both verbal and physical, based on real or perceived difference in sexual orientation or abuse because of size or abuse directed at students with disabilities or abuse because of economic status or abuse based on a myriad of other factors all too often is "boys will be boys"...except perhaps when the reaction is "girls will be girls."

We do our children no favors by telling them that they are supposed to withstand torture in our schools in order to become worthwhile adults. Allowing abuse of any child in our schools, for any reason, reinforces the hate-filled culture we find ourselves living in. But it is allowed. Too many adults at too many schools, if not actively promoting hatred directed at certain groups, are turning their backs on the results of that hatred.

No, this has not been without warning. There has been lots of warning, from organizations such as Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, from women's groups and minority groups of all stripes. What is true is that those warnings have been ignored.

In another corner of Arkansas, in another college town, a high school student named Willie Wagner was abused so often and beaten so badly, just because he is gay, that he eventually had to drop out of school. Officials at the high school did nothing.

At a school near the one Willie used to attend, a girl was assaulted because her parents are lesbians. Officials at that school blamed the parents. From their statements, they apparently believe the child deserves the abuse because her parents are different. Things would be much better if her parents just stopped being lesbians. Isn't that absurd?

In the capitol city of Little Rock, another gay high school student was forced to change schools because the school he was attending failed to protect him from harassment. Isn't that dereliction of duty?

Gay and lesbian children have been thrown out of their so-called Christian families all around this state. This is child abuse, isn't it?

Too many self-proclaimed "Christian" people believe that tolerance for diversity is a sin. The major denomination in this state believes that it must target any group that practices either tolerance toward, acceptance of, or support for diversity in our community with either the fact of or the threat of economic boycott. Other denominations also wish to limit the rights of women and homosexuals, of people holding different spiritual beliefs and immigrants to this country who have different cultural practices. The most direct place one can view the results of this policy is in our schools.

Doesn't this position encourage hatred? Is it really surprising that where hatred is nourished, violence is a result? Isn't it time for us to act?

We live in a country that professes that every child has the right to an education. Speaking as a teacher for the last 22 years, let me assure you that if a child doesn't feel safe, then that child is not getting the education s/he deserves. If we as a society allow the harassment of ANY child because someone thinks it is deserved, then we have failed. No child deserves to be picked on, for any reason, and we must begin to teach that in the schools. We need to teach it from day one. School must be a place to bring people together, not tear them apart. School officials have the responsibility to take an active part in that process. They must end the attitude that blames the victim, for the sake of the victim, to be sure, but also for the sake of the perpetrator, as well as for the sake of society. Society doesn't need more bullies.

As I said up front, I find it distasteful to use the deaths of children as a political forum. But the truth must be told.

--Robyn Elaine Serven
--March 27, 1998

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