Jewish World Review Sept. 4, 2001 / 15 Elul, 5761

Clarence Page

Clarence Page
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Consumer Reports

Columbine killer's parents get upclose and personal -- FINALLY we are getting a chance to hear from the parents of one of the killers from Columbine High School.

Unfortunately, it comes to us filtered through a famous family life expert. He agreed not to quote the parents directly, since the victims' families are suing the parents.

Nevertheless, a little insight is better than none. Ever since Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 13 people before taking their own lives in a shooting rampage at Columbine High School in 1999, the boys' parents have avoided the media like fugitives.

Now a glimpse of Dylan's parents, Tom and Sue Klebold, comes in a new book, "Parents Under Siege" by Cornell University researchers James Garbarino and Claire Bedard.

While reporters sought the Klebolds, they approached Garbarino, a human development professor and co-director of the Family Life Development Center, on their own, partly because of an unhappy coincidence: The massacre erupted on the same day Garbarino's last book "Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them" arrived in newsrooms across the country.

Floodgates of publicity - from network news to "Oprah" - opened to Garbarino. The Klebolds read his book, found some comfort in it and contacted him, he says. They asked only that, once his analysis was over, he would help them understand what went wrong with Dylan.

If you were expecting to hear about a couple of neglectful or oddly dysfunctional parents, guess again. The Klebolds, in Garbarino's account, were good parents - attentive, involved and loving.

"All the evidence is that they were well within the normal range of what parents try to do," Garbarino told me. "They were interested in him. They were involved in his life."

So, what went wrong? Like many other youths, Dylan had a second life about which the parents apparently did not have a clue.

I find that astonishing in light of the boys' weapons, bomb making and videotaping that have been uncovered. But, then, I'm thinking like a parent. Garbarino invites you to look at the world through the eyes of a child or, even more mysteriously, the eyes of a teen.

When Garbarino surveyed 275 freshmen at Cornell on whether they thought it was possible for a teen to be planning a Columbine-style attack without their parents knowing about it, 99 percent said "yes."

As one freshman said, "Parents only see what they want to see or what their children allow them to see."

Come to think of it, looking back at my high school years, I have to agree with that freshman.

Fortunately, most kids, whether they are out with the outcasts or in with the in crowd, do not act out by shooting up their schools. But that doesn't mean many are not thinking about it.

Plus, today's Internet age allows them to network with each other and further blur the lines between reality and their angry fantasies.

"Now you have Web sites glorifying Dylan and Eric and kids chatting with each other about doing another Columbine," Garbarino said. "On the Web, adolescent rage takes on a cultural life of its own."

So, what's a parent to do? Start early, Garbarino says.

Make your children feel comfortable about sharing their secret world with you. Little deceptions in early childhood (a filched cookie, feeding one's meat loaf to the dog) inevitably grow into big ones during their teen years. Win their confidence early and they'll open up later.

Parents also should help reduce the toxic social environment found in the best of high schools. To social outcasts like Harris and Klebold, the bullying, elitism (especially around popular athletes) and homophobia in high school can feel particularly vicious, mean and nasty.

Don't look for easy answers. The "zero-tolerance" programs that sprung up in a post-Columbine panic created new problems in an atmosphere of panic. Schools that have implemented character education programs report greater success at reducing discipline problems and gaining new levels of trust between students and their faculties.

"We are all imperfect parents," Garbarino says. "We can learn from others how to be less imperfect."

I hope so. We parents need all the help we can get.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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