Evil can lurk in even the smallest, most remote communities

Night had already cloaked the valley by the time I arrived, and snow had started falling, gently as it does in the mountains in springtime. Under the twin covers of darkness and snowfall, I didn't realize until the next morning just how beautiful and idyllic Littleton, Col., was.

Ever since April 20, 1999, though, the name Littleton brings to mind a different picture entirely. It has become synonymous with the deadliest school shooting ever in the U.S., the town where two Columbine High School students opened fire and killed 12 classmates and one teacher before turning their guns on themselves.

Yesterday, Nickel Mines, Pa., joined the grievous geography of towns that bear the mark of this most terrible and haunting of crimes. To see the footage of the Amish townspeople, in their straw hats and suspenders, clustered near their devastated one-room schoolhouse is to see another town wrestle with the question: How could this happen here?

A map of school shootings would wind through towns such as Moses Lake, Wash., Pearl, Miss., Red Lake, Minn., and, just last week, Bailey, Colo., and Cazenovia, Wis. They are not the Bronxes and South Central L.A.s and, yes, Baltimores that come to mind when you think of crime and violence.

Even now, six years after Columbine and multiple school shootings later, it still is shocking when a spasm of classroom violence ruptures a small town. I remember in Littleton, where I spent about a week covering the Columbine shootings, how dazed everyone seemed to be that Something Like That Could Happen Somewhere Like This. And it wasn't just the residents - it was also the media, many from the big cities more often associated with crime, wondering aloud how this pretty suburban town, nestled against a majestic mountain range, could harbor such evil.

The answer, of course, is that evil can erupt anywhere - even, as we learned yesterday, in Amish country.

The difference may be that, in a small town, a school looms as a particularly attractive target for someone seeking to truly hurt an entire community, says Katherine S. Newman, a sociologist at Princeton who has researched school shootings.

"If you're looking for the one place in a small town where everyone comes together, it is the schools," says Newman, author of the book, Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings.

Newman found in the school shootings she researched that the killer was usually a marginalized boy, a misfit desperate to reverse his image as a loser. While there are misfits in every school, in every small town and big city, those in the latter tend to have other options for lashing out.

"In big cities, schools are not that important," she says. "There are other places to go - like the streets. But it turns out that in small towns, it may be the only option for people looking for a target where they'll really hurt the whole community."

The shootings yesterday in Pennsylvania and last week in Bailey, Col., break the usual pattern - the killers were outsiders, and adults rather than students. But Newman says that the only way to prevent school shootings of any kind is for members of a community to be on guard for warning signs or threats - and often, people are reluctant in smaller towns to report suspicions.

"When adults see something, they're less likely to come forward because if you make a mistake, if you finger someone incorrectly, you can rupture a relationship with someone who is going to be your neighbor for 30 years, or whose father was your baseball captain," she said.

I never thought I'd hear of a more horrifying school shooting than Columbine. I remember vividly the details of the rampage, as told to me by one student who was trapped in a room, with classmates and the teacher who ultimately died, as the killers rampaged through the school. She spoke, in the monotone of the traumatized, of hearing the teacher, who was also her basketball coach, gasping for air. Of hiding under a desk, just praying that the shooters wouldn't enter her classroom. Of how the gunfire finally stopped and she walked through bloody water - the school's sprinkler system had gone off - and over dead bodies and finally into the sunshine of a perfect spring day.

After Columbine, many and very sincere efforts were launched to understand how it could have happened, and how to prevent future incidents. Various anti-bullying measures and other security programs made many schools much safer places. And Columbine-like plots have been foiled before they were put into play.

And yet, memories fade, as does the vigilance with which we guard these vulnerable buildings where children spend much of their days. It's too early to know whether Charles Carl Roberts IV left any tell-tale clues in advance of the horror he was going to unleash on that one-room schoolhouse. Maybe he couldn't have been stopped. Or maybe we let our guard down once again.


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