Ed-Tech Policy

Online Discussions Provide Comfort for Some Students, Teachers

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 05, 1999 4 min read
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Some people trying to make sense of the killings at Columbine High School have focused their anger on the Internet, describing it as a breeding ground for the kind of hate reflected on the Web pages created by one of the teenage gunmen.

But almost immediately after the April 20 attack, the same medium began carrying a very different message, this one intended to help students and teachers recover from the shock of the incident.

A World Wide Web site set up by the Jefferson County, Colo., schools, the district that includes Columbine High, is one of several being used by schools, education organizations, publishing companies, and individuals to help people express their thoughts about the shootings.

Hundreds of messages from people offering condolences and prayers are posted in a discussion group on the district’s site, and it appears that people close to the tragedy are taking them to heart.

“I want to offer my thanks to everyone that has passed along their prayers and hopes,” writes Joe Cushing of Littleton, Colo., who lives four miles from Columbine High School and teaches in the Jefferson County system.

Lamenting the “state of powerlessness” that many teachers feel in trying to prevent acts of violence, Mr. Cushing adds, “I am not even the slightest bit surprised that this has happened.”

“God bless, and keep the faith,” responded Julie A. Andrews, who teaches health at Gilford Middle-High School in Gilford, N.H. “Those kids need you, and it’s always worth the risk, honest.”

John Adsit, who is managing the Jefferson County schools’ site, has compiled artwork from the sympathy messages and posted it as a separate memorial on the site that would blend images, poetry, and music.

The condolences, while designed to comfort those close to the situation, seem to provide a measure of relief for the senders as well.

“It made me feel better than not doing anything,” said Melissa Gutierrez, a freshman at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va., who contributed an image of a columbine flower to the Jefferson County Web site. Ms. Gutierrez graduated last year from David S. D’Evelyn Junior/Senior High School in Jefferson County.

Help for Teachers

ED’s Oasis, a project administered by the California Instructional Technology Clearinghouse to support teachers in using the Internet, is also passing along condolences on its Web site. Last week, more than 500 messages had been posted, including one from a student from Mid-Peninsula High School in Palo Alto, Calif., who had experienced a school shooting.

“It seems that every time you have a moment with friends to grieve there is someone behind a [camera] lens in your face,” writes the student, identified only as Anna-Nichole. “Don’t let it get to you.”

The National Council of Teachers of English has set up a Web forum designed to help teachers deal with the Columbine shootings.

“Do I trust my gut feeling and share with my kids what I feel inspired to?” writes Vincent Puzick, as he ponders whether to initiate a discussion with his students in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Another teacher responded: “Do it!! If more adults were open and trusting with our young people, they might begin to trust us in return ... and we might find that we are able to defuse some of these situations before they happen.”

A site run by Scholastic Inc., the publisher of Scholastic magazine, includes selected reflections on the shootings from children.

“It makes me so upset to think about young kids killing other kids for no reason at all,” writes Victoria M. from Tennessee.

‘Double-Edged Sword’

Some people who used the Internet to convey hope and encouragement to the Columbine community said they didn’t doubt that the global electronic network had played a negative role in the lives of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two Columbine seniors who killed 12 students, one teacher, and themselves.

According to news reports, both killers were Internet-savvy, and a Web site created by Mr. Harris at his home contained detailed plans for constructing bombs and was sprinkled with images of fire, skulls, devils, and weapons.

Web of Support

Several sites on the World Wide Web are designed to help people come to grips with the killings at Columbine High School. The sites include:

Jefferson County schools’ Columbine crisis site

Messages to Columbine High School from ED’s Oasis

National Council for Teachers of English site

Scholastic Inc. Special Report: Tragedy in Colorado

Columbine High School Tragedy site

“It’s a piece of the puzzle. They learned to build those bombs from somewhere,” Ms. Andrews, the health teacher from New Hampshire, said in a telephone interview. Describing the Internet as a “double-edged sword,” she said she believes it has made it easier for youths to obtain information that can be destructive, whether bomb-making instructions or simply negative views on authority and school.

Terrie L. Gray, who created the ED’s Oasis site for condolences, said that while she views the Internet as neutral, she imagines it helped the Columbine gunmen “feel more powerful, just in the way I feel we’ve been more effective [with the Internet] than ever before in reaching out to people.”

Karen K. Baumann, a 5th grade teacher at Batavia Middle School in Batavia, Ohio, who used the Scholastic site to discuss the Columbine tragedy with her students, said she believed installing a filtering system was one way to ensure children use the Web appropriately--at least at school.

“We have a very extensive firewall, so [inappropriate] topics are closed out,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 05, 1999 edition of Education Week as Online Discussions Provide Comfort for Some Students, Teachers


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