I’m not sure how much news coverage this is getting outside of Wisconsin. But this morning John Klang, the principal of the Weston school district, was shot by a student. Klang was ultimately taken to University Hospital in Madison and died this afternoon at 3:30. A fifteen year old student came into the school with a shotgun and a concealed handgun. A janitor got the shotgun away from him but when the student appeared to be pulling another gun out of his pocket both the janitor and the teacher who were in the hall at the time took cover. The principal confronted the student and was shot three times while struggling to disarm him (which ultimately he apparently succeeded in doing).
I graduated from Weston ten years ago. Klang wasn’t principal yet but he had been on the school board for years. His three kids were quite a bit younger than me but we were on the same school bus route, so I knew them reasonably well. I also knew the janitor who wrestled the gun away from the kid. He was a janitor when I was still a student. And he worked with my father while my father was still a janitor at the high school (a position he left when I was 14).
I’ve been reading the news coverage. I feel a detached sense of grief and horror. I haven’t been back to the school in years. I don’t keep in contact with anyone in the area except my parents. I always felt like an outsider there. And I was. My parents moved there when I was a toddler. They’re happy there and fit in well enough but they aren’t strongly tied to the community. Still it is the place where I spent almost my entire childhood (certainly all of it that I remember). So this feels tragic and shocking in precisely the way things feel tragic and shocking when they hit close to home (literally, in this case).
I am shocked because it is always shocking when tragedy strikes. But I am not shocked that it happened in rural Wisconsin. The same things happen in rural Wisconsin as anywhere else. There’s drugs. There’s violence. There are weapons. All of it is on a smaller scale because there are so many fewer people. Although I suppose it’s worth noting that per capita weapon ownership is probably highest in rural areas.
I am sad about John Klang’s death. My heart goes out to his family, to his children who are adults now but who I will always remember as the children I knew on the school bus. I have the utmost respect for the janitor who acted so quickly to try to disarm the student.
I am full of anger and grief. Of course some of that grief is related to the death itself, but most of it is grief over the way our society fails large groups of children. When I heard the news I thought of my fellow classmates at Weston when I was there. I thought of the troubled angry outcasts struggling to deal with bad family situations, failure in school, ostracization. Often all three at the same time. I thought of the students I had actually been afraid of. And I thought of the ones who were intensely lost in their own pain but nonetheless sweet souls.
I look at the pictures of the shooter. He’s just a kid. He’s 15. My senior year there were a couple of eighth graders who used to hang out in the band room during their study hall, which overlapped with my lunch hour. I knew them both well. They were sweet boys but intense and sometimes prone to deep anger. One was in foster care and had a string of discipline issues following him. The other mostly stayed out of trouble but you could see clouds of trouble in his eyes, nonetheless. I thought about the two of them this morning when I heard the news because I imagined that the shooter might not be all that different from either of them. I’ll admit I wasn’t surprised when stories this afternoon identified him as a special ed student (Weston shunts all the students with discipline problems into special ed, which I think sometimes only causes them to feel more isolated). And while I was deeply saddened, I was not surprised to find that he was a victim of child abuse.
I’ve known too many children in situations that no child should have to bear. And it breaks my heart to think about the long-lasting effects those situations have. How does a fifteen year old child reach the point where they show up at school with a shotgun and a pistol? Inevitably these sorts of incidents lead to a condemnation of the media. And I won’t argue that there is no effect of violence in movies, TV, and video games on children’s behavior. But I think those effects are utterly and completely trivial compared to the effects of physical and emotional violence in children’s day-to-day lives. Of course the questions that will be asked in the wake of this is how we can be sure that children are safe in school. Perhaps greater security in schools will be proposed. How many people will ask how we can be sure that children are safe in their homes? How many people will ask what sort of emotional support and mental health care this child had after his father was charged with felony child abuse and allowed no unsupervised visits for a year and a half?
I have read a number of comments various places that essentially come down to “what is wrong with people?” In most cases that blame seems directed toward the shooter. It’s sort of a “what is wrong with kids these days?” sentiment. And while I can understand that thought process, it’s not where my mind goes first. The first though that comes to my mind is “how did we manage to fail these children so completely?”