The Enigma of the School Shooter, Book Battles, and the Decline of the Red Pen

By Rich Shea — October 15, 2004 4 min read
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Even though something similar has happened before, it’s still a shock to hear that a 16-year-old allegedly planned to kill eight students and teachers at his high school in Marshfield, Massachusetts. Toby Kerns was arrested in mid-September after police found an exploded bomb in the woods near his home and investigated claims that he’d blueprinted a Columbine-style massacre. Kerns’ father, while admitting that his son is troubled and has been treated for depression, said that a group of boys was in on the plan and that Toby was framed by a former friend over a girlfriend dispute. But police have found no evidence to support his claims.

And it appears that, while Toby shares some traits with kids who, like him, have been charged with attempted murder, he’s an otherwise likable teen who’s formed close attachments with friends and his older brother, who has Down syndrome. Matt Doherty, special agent in charge at the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center, which studies shooting cases, says of trying to read the less-than-specific signs: “If you’re looking for a profile of a school shooter, it’s a white male between the ages of 11 and 21 who has trouble sometimes with authority. Does that sound like someone you know?”

Lynne Cheney, wife of the VP, wielded her authority recently. According to unnamed sources, she had 300,000 copies of a U.S. education department booklet destroyed because it mentioned the National Standards for History, which she has long opposed. “Helping Your Child Learn History” was aimed at parents of preK through 5th graders and included brief references to the standards, which were developed in the mid-1990s with federal support. But Cheney—who chaired the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1986 to 1993 and is something of a historian herself—never felt the standards were positive enough about America’s achievements. We are all, of course, entitled to our opinions, but most of us don’t literally trash materials paid for with tax money. Cheney’s office, where she holds no official title, denies she made the request, and the ed department first said it got rid of the books because of typos, then sent out new versions—minus mentions of the standards. The department then changed its tune, saying the booklet was “not the accurate reflection of policy that was approved originally.”

Tampering with reading material is also a hot topic in southern Maryland, where the Charles County board of education recently compiled a list of goals for improving its school system. The list includes removing “pornography” from kids’ reading lists, distributing Bibles at schools, focusing solely on abstinence in sex ed classes, and covering creationism in science. The ensuing uproar, led by folks reminding the board of the Constitution and the separation of church and state, has prompted board members to respond that these goals are just ideas, not yet voted upon. But one high school biology teacher, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, says of creationism, “If they bring this in to a science curriculum and want to talk about evidence, I’ll rip it to shreds.”

That ripping you hear in France is the sound of 8,000 vending machines being removed from schools. This past summer, the government voted to ban all soda and candy machines at educational institutions, citing as one reason the doubled number of overweight or obese kids in the past 10 years. French legislators want parents to help their kids drop the American-style eat-on-the-run attitude and get back to the long, sumptuous family meals that eliminate the need for snacking and engender socializing. Other European countries are taking similar stands: Germany banned soda and candy from kiosks near schools, and England hands out fruit to its primary schoolers.

Many U.S. teachers are no longer handing out assignments graded with red pen. An increasingly popular theory suggests that purple ink is much less stressful because it’s associated with spirituality, royalty, and elegance. As New Age as this sounds, it’s had an impact on retailing; Paper Mate, responding to focus groups, has stepped up purple-pen production by 10 percent, and Staples is manufacturing packages consisting of purple pens only. Some educators aren’t happy, seeing this trend as the latest in self-esteem-sensitivity overload. And one visual arts professor says that after the novelty wears off, purple will be the color associated with failure.

But isn’t the color supply virtually limitless? After purple is exhausted, we can move on to fuchsia, ochre, mauve, etc.—then, a generation or two from now, safely return to red.

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