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Cheryl Hudson reports from the American South on the distorted reporting of the schoolyard shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas

The lesson for today from Westside Middle School

The first report I heard of the schoolyard shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas in March was on the local news station in a neighbouring Mississippi town. The horror of four little girls and their teacher being shot dead by two young boys was made all the more real to me by the direct local reporting. In a press conference that evening the arresting police officer mentioned that he knew one of the boys personally from a state-run deer hunting programme. In the local coverage there was no attempt to generalise from the tragedy: how could such a singularly horrific event provide any general lessons?

When the national media got hold of the story, however, it took on a completely different character. From this unique tragedy Americans were asked to learn lessons about the damaging effects of a 'gun culture', the vicious consequences of violent movies and computer games, and, especially, the evil results of bad parenting. Over the protests of the people of Jonesboro, the national press discussed the need to tighten gun control laws, and the parents of the two boys Mitchell Johnson and Drew Golden were placed under close critical scrutiny.

The Southern 'gun culture' came under fire as the media indulged the stereotype of Southerners as truck-driving, wife-beating, whisky-drinking, ignorant rednecks. Journalists' sensibilities were particularly offended by photographs of Drew Golden as a toddler, dressed as a cowboy and carrying a gun. The sinister suggestion was that young Drew had been socialised into committing murder. Reporters conveyed a sense of hopeless inevitability about the events at Westside middle school.

It is certainly true that guns are common in the South, where hunting is both necessary and popular. Young people learn how to handle guns early. Several southern states run deer hunting programmes for young enthusiasts. The rationale is that the more kids know about guns, the better shooters they will become and the more deer they will hit. Deer tend to overpopulate the many wooded areas in the South, and hunting helps reduce the menace they present to drivers on the road and highway system.

But contrary to the impression given by the national media, while most of the children who attend schools like Westside know how to shoot a gun, the targets they aim at are tin cans and deer, not their classmates. Moreover, access to firearms is always strictly supervised. Golden and Johnson had to break into a safe and a locked house to get guns and ammunition. Local people expressed complete shock and disbelief at this extraordinary incident, and saw nothing inevitable in the shootings.

For those looking for moral lessons and scapegoats, it was not enough to blame the gun culture of the South. National commentators soon turned their attention to the importance of good parenting. Mitchell Johnson's parents were divorced and his father, a long-distance truck driver, had been away from home for long stretches. Drew Golden's father had taught him how to hunt and shoot, and encouraged his son's macho behaviour. The two very different parenting profiles of these children were strangely both used as explanations for the kids going off the rails.

Listening to the media discussion of parenting in the aftermath of Jonesboro, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is no such thing as a competent parent. Widespread anxieties about changing family structures are reflected in the endless hand-wringing about parental neglect, parental absence, time-starved parents, and the lack of parental discipline.

Absent and divorced parents are charged with creating an emotional void in a child who is then likely to vent his frustrations on others. Parents who allow their kids to watch violent videos or play violent video games are accused of slowly poisoning their children's minds. Time magazine referred to South Park, Jerry Springer and Nintendo games as the 'ultimate in crazed nannies' (6 April 1998). Article after article has warned parents to take more responsibility for their children's moral and spiritual upbringing, lest they grow to be psychopaths. About a week after Jonesboro, Oprah Winfrey dedicated her talk show to an interview with the parents of a teenage murderer. They were asked to prove that they did everything possible to prevent their child growing up to kill. And indeed, they were able to prove that they had provided 'age-appropriate' discipline and had demonstrated their love. After their son had thrown the TV remote control at his father (a 'tell-tale sign'), the parents tried to have him committed, but the judge ruled against this; a few days later the teenager raped and murdered a smaller boy. The judge, it was inferred, had blood on his hands.

The experience of parents like these is used as an illustration of the inadequacy of parenting generally. The lesson is that, whatever parents do, it can never be enough. Of course, there may have been very little that these particular parents could have done, but it does not follow that every parent must look to the authorities to contain their children whenever they throw a temper tantrum. The answer to the problem of impotent parenting always seems to be assistance from an external source: judges, social workers, counsellors. As the Oprah show concluded, nobody could ultimately be a good enough parent - it is up to the state to regulate the families of disruptive teenagers.

In reality nobody, not a judge, a teacher, a parent or a counsellor could have predicted what Drew Golden and Mitchell Johnson were to do. The media hysteria that attempts to explain the incident by reference to redneck culture and incompetent parenting inflates an individual tragedy into a general social malaise. The result of such a reaction is likely to be a drastic curtailment of freedom, for both children and parents.

Events similar to Jonesboro have been reeled off to show how children today are becoming gun-wielding maniacs. In fact, despite the publicity attached to cases like Jonesboro, Pearl in Mississippi and West Paducah in Kentucky, violence in US schools is becoming less common. Meanwhile, schools are being turned into fortresses, with metal detector checks, locked gates and security patrols. These restrictions can only do untold damage to children's outlook, turning the world into a place to be feared. *

Additional information from Chris Lee

Reproduced from LM issue 111, June 1998

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