These were not the talking heads who, on CNN the day after a school shooting, muse on the reasons some kids feel the need to hurt each other. These were the people who best know what children think.
More than 600 students from across Maryland gathered today to address the issue of school safety, in an event requested by students, sponsored by state agencies, and listened in on by 200 teachers and administrators. At a conference center here they heard from the state school superintendent, the lieutenant governor and the superintendent of the school system that includes Columbine, the Colorado high school where two students killed themselves after a rampage that left 12 students and a teacher dead and two dozen wounded in April.
But most important, the students heard from each other.
Working in small groups, the students--from elementary, middle and high schools in every county--discussed what they think are the causes of and solutions for school violence. They mentioned the expected--too much bad stuff coming from Hollywood, lenient gun laws, and glorification of killers on the nightly news. Far more often, though, they gave answers that differed significantly from those heard on talk radio, in Congress or from adults in general.
Here are the kinds of things the students said can breed discontent and, ultimately, violence: Parents who don't pay enough attention or, worse, are poor role models. Pressure from adults to do more work than they can handle. Being teased about what they wear or how they look. Feeling stupid in class. A lack of respect, or at least tolerance, for differences. And, perhaps most commonly mentioned, failing to fit in while surrounded by cliques.
"If you feel connected to your school, to your activities, to your environment, to your community, you're not going to go and shoot someone there," said Courtney Dredden, 17, a senior at Atholton High School in Columbia and one of the event's student facilitators.
But isolation, intolerance, inattention: None of these can be erased with a signature from the governor or a vote by the school board. The students here said that if something seems like an easy solution--or even an easy piece of a solution--it probably doesn't solve anything at all.
They derided measures enacted after the shootings at Columbine such as mandating identification badges, installing metal detectors and banning trench coats. "I think that's just a quick fix on their part without looking at what really causes problems," said Megan Hanford, 16, a junior at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda.
At the same time, they admitted the limitations of their offerings. The students good enough to be invited to contribute to an anti-violence conference probably aren't the ones who best understand alienation and desperation, they admitted. And they know that the problems they identify can't easily be wiped away, at least until Congress enacts anti-teasing laws along with anti-gun ones.
Still, they were clearly thrilled to be speaking out and listened to. The ideas offered today will be collected in a Safe School Action Guide and distributed throughout the state.
In addition, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) told students that the state is going to offer grants up to $5,000 for students to begin their own violence prevention programs in schools and that in the next few months the state will set up a 24-hour, toll-free hot line to report safety concerns.
The students appreciate those measures. But in their small groups, they offered their own mandates.
To administrators: Include diversity awareness, character-building and peace studies in the curriculum, and offer mentoring and conflict resolution programs. Make sure to punish the smaller stuff, such as fighting and harmful language.
To teachers: Trust your students, be more understanding of their responsibilities outside of school and encourage them to be proud of and nurture their unique talents.
To parents: Don't teach prejudice. Keep involved and be attentive.
"Any parent can sign their signature, but it takes an active parent to really know what's going on," said Ronald Watson, 12, a seventh-grader at Southwest Academy here.
And as Mia Allen, 14, a freshman at Frederick High School, put it, parents should realize that being a kid is stressful and "lay off a little bit."
Finally, to themselves, they issued the biggest challenge, one unenforceable by any law: Go talk to someone different, someone who doesn't fit in. Say hello in the hallway, the students offered. Be a friend.
CAPTION: Ronald Watson, 12, left, and Justin Norris, 14, offer their views on school safety. More than 600 students participated in the state-sponsored event.