My View ... Lessons of the past must help shape our future

The circumstances were different than when 20-year-old Adam Lanza gunned down his mother and then 26 children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut last Friday, but the chilling aftermath was much the same....

The circumstances were different than when 20-year-old Adam Lanza gunned down his mother and then 26 children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut last Friday, but the chilling aftermath was much the same....

I was a junior at Grand Rapids Senior High School back on Oct. 5, 1966, when a student who had allegedly been the victim of bullying pulled a .22-caliber handgun while on the sidewalk outside the middle school before classes that morning. Before anyone knew what was happening, he shot a fellow student in the chest, as well as School Superintendent Forrest Willey, who had advanced on him in an attempt to disarm him and was wounded in the abdomen.

I remember being in my homeroom class when the announcement came over the public address system telling students to stay in their rooms when the bell rang. I don't recall if that original announcement included the information that a shooting had just occurred outside the school, but the rumors instantly began to run rampant. When we later learned about the fate of the student and superintendent, we reacted in disbelief. I was classmates with one of the superintendent's sons, and all I could think of was the sorrow he must have been enduring at that moment.

In our isolated community in northern Minnesota, violence wasn't something you heard a lot about during those days, particularly gun violence. We had all lived through the assassination of President John F. Kennedy a few short years earlier, but that sort of thing simply didn't happen much around Grand Rapids, and never in our own little world within the school. People's grandparents died of old age. Sometimes a beloved parent or sibling died tragically in an accident, or of an untimely disease. But the thought that someone - one of us - would draw a gun and shoot a 14-year-old student and our superintendent was, well, unthinkable.

Doctors told the parents of the injured 14-year-old that he would likely die of his chest wound, and a priest gave him the last rites. Miraculously, he went on to survive, but eight days following the shooting, Superintendent Willey succumbed to the injuries incurred by the shooter's second bullet and became the first person to die in a Minnesota school shooting.


That incident from long out of my past, and the one that occurred last Friday in Connecticut, were different in many ways, but the outcome was similar - tragic death at the hands of an emotionally disturbed young person who was inexplicably unable to fit into the world around him.

In both cases, those close to the shooter may have had some inkling that something bad was about to happen. The day before the Grand Rapids shooting, the perpetrator brought bullets to school, showing them to the students who had teased him and telling them he intended to use them. The teasers didn't believe he was serious.

Those who knew the family of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooter said his mother was reluctant to leave him alone due to his reclusive and irrational behavior, and yet he expressed a certain aversion to having her around him. Most of the time, he reportedly stayed in the house, had very little social contact, and neighbors said they were somewhat afraid of him, describing him as "a ticking time bomb."

Were these warning signs that someone should have recognized? In the case of the Grand Rapids incident, they surely were, but those were the days before bullying initiatives and zero tolerance rules about weapons were in place, and the incident with the bullets went unreported and unheeded - until it was too late.

In the case of last week's violence, the warning signs of the young man who suffered from a particularly isolating form of autism also went largely unheeded, perhaps out of a mother's love and reluctance to force the issue of his mental illness - until, once again, it was too late.

The .22-caliber handgun used by the Grand Rapids shooter wounded two people in fairly short order, but had he been equipped with the assault weapon used by the Sandy Hook Elementary shooter, he may have wiped out many others before he had a chance to think about it, and before anyone had a chance to stop him.

The two incidents took place 46 years apart, and yet the one I carry the first-hand memories of is still with me. Let us hope that we have learned lessons from both. Schools today are far more secure than they were back then, and issues such as bullying and mental illness are getting far more attention. And yet, the magnitude of school violence seems to have increased in its horror.

I read somewhere in all of the aftermath of the Connecticut shootings one statement that made eminent sense: "Perhaps it is time that we stop doing what we want to do and start doing what's right."


Gun dealers around our area are reporting a dramatic uptick in the sale of assault weapons since last Friday's shooting. To me, we should instead stop being defensive about our rights to bear any and all types of arms and ban the sale of assault weapons and high density ammunition clips.

I believe we need to start paying more attention to what our kids are doing and saying and put a stop to behavior that could potentially lead to harm or violence.

We need to recognize mental illness for what it is, and see that those who need help get it without judging them.

And most of all, we need to put compassion toward our fellow man ahead of what simply "feels good" ourselves.

Sound hopelessly old-fashioned? Well, it is - but consider that these lessons have their roots in that time long ago, on that sidewalk outside the Grand Rapids Junior High School. But we're obviously still not where we need to be yet today.

Maybe, just maybe, it's time we did something more about it.

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