Schools have important role in preventing another Littleton

Sunday, May 9, 1999

Even before the last funeral in Littleton, the finger-pointing was already fast and furious.

Who's to blame? Nominees include weak gun laws, bad parents, the entertainment industry, the Internet, a permissive society — to name just a few.

Fair enough. A robust debate about the nature of our society is a healthy part of the democratic process.

But what isn't fair is when this terrible event is used to make a scapegoat of public education. Just listen to the angry rhetoric these days about the “godless, atheistic, corrupt” public schools found in direct mail, on talk radio and even from some pulpits.

Of course public schools can be improved-especially in the area of religious liberty and core moral values. As regular readers of this space well know, I argue repeatedly for more character education, strong protection for religious rights and fuller academic treatment of religion and ethics in the curriculum.

But our public schools are hardly “godless” or “immoral.” They're filled with thousands of students, teachers and administrators with deep religious and moral convictions.

Immoral? Consider some of the heroes of the Columbine massacre: Daniel Rohrbough, who was shot holding the door for fleeing students, or Dave Sanders, the teacher who gave his life to save the lives of his students.

Godless? Cassie Bernall, who was killed in the Columbine High School library on that fateful day, carried a Bible to school (yes, Bibles are allowed in public schools) and attended the Bible Club. Cassie's last words were a profession of her faith in God.

Many public schools are now doing more than ever to protect religious expression by students. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of religious clubs in high schools, and students are freely sharing their faith, bringing their scriptures to school and otherwise exercising their First Amendment rights.

Again, schools can and should do better. But it's wrongheaded and simplistic to attack public schools as the source of the problem. Remember that when schools open their doors open each morning-welcoming students from every conceivable background and home environment-all of society's challenges and problems flow inside.

In some neighborhoods, kids must walk through streets filled with drugs and violence to even reach their school. But once inside — in the vast majority of places — they'll find scores of dedicated teachers and administrators working in difficult conditions against great odds to create safe havens where every child can learn and grow.

How do I know this is true? Because I spend much of my time working with those teachers and administrators in every region of the country. People who are quick to blame schools for the problems of young people must not spend much time there.

Schools may not be the root cause of the problem, but they are an important part of the solution. Through character education, community service, conflict resolution and in many other ways, schools must work with parents to counter the messages of violence and immorality prevalent in our culture.

And through teaching more about religion and ethics in the curriculum, schools can help students understand how humankind has made sense of life's deepest questions and purposes through the ages.

Who's to blame for Littleton? Pointing fingers at one another doesn't help. There's no simple answer or quick fix.

It's time to move beyond the rhetoric and to resist the temptation to make scapegoats of whichever institutions we most love to hate. Let's acknowledge that the root causes of the moral crisis among young people are complex and deep.

And let's agree that all sectors of American life — media, parents, religious communities, business, government, labor, as well as schools — must now work together for a more compassionate and responsible society.