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BBHQ Boomer Essays:

School Violence: Lessons from the Past

Our Boomer-In-Charge at BBHQ, Hershel Chicowitz, writes about boomer memories and current events... from a boomer’s perspective. He is sometimes funny, sometimes provocative, some-
times a little of each. We hope you get a kick out of our Boomer Essays.

In elementary school when Marty began causing problems, school officials began watching him. And when his aberrant behavior passed a certain point, they thought not of Marty’s self-esteem or his need to express himself. They thought first of the safety of the other students. When he crossed a line... the administration saw him as a threat to the rest of the school.. and he was gone. And nobody complained. They saw him as a threat, and removed him.

This essay is available in its entirety to all visitors. Enjoy!

It is hard for me to think about what happened in Littleton, Colorado in the spring of 1999 without going back to my years in high school and imagining what our administration would have done. My gentle, “feeling” friends remind me of what a peaceful, safe and carefree time it was, while my pragmatic friends tell me you can't go back... those times are gone forever.... you can't compare them to today. Still...

I feel so helpless and angry when I see the crying faces of the friends and relatives. After the tears dry, inevitably we hear a grieving parent say, “I don't want my daughter to have died in vain. I want to make sure this never happens again... never... anywhere!”

The problem always seems to be no one's fault; no one is to blame. (Right after the tragedy in Littleton, I heard two "experts" on television go out of their way... repeatedly, to emphasize that we should not be looking to blame anyone for this tragedy.)

Balderdash!

Inevitably it boils down to this, they claim: This is an institutional problem, requiring an institutional solution. Good; we can all go back to whatever we were doing before, and leave it to the institutionalists... the politicians. They will take care of things for us.

Balderdash!

So we hear more about gun control, metal detectors, cops in the schools, more grief counselors and intervention specialists. Oh, there is an election coming up. Washington will throw money at this. Perhaps we'll be expected to do a few, minor things ourselves, too. (You know: trigger locks on guns, things like that.) But basically, once again, Uncle Sam is looking out for us.

Balderdash!

I am not so sure I would be as passionate about my utter disgust with and contempt for that approach if this were this first time something like this had happened. But they said the same thing when it happened in Pearl, Mississippi. And then Fayetteville, Tennessee... Edmond, Oklahoma... Springfield, Oregon... Killeen, Texas... West Paducah, Kentucky... Jonesboro, Arkansas... and Norwalk, Connecticut.

When are we going to learn that there is little if anything the federal government can do about this mess, and the more we concentrate on their role, the less attention we place on the real causes and cures?

As sure as the sun will rise out of the east tomorrow morning, it will happen again. It is as if this were some monstrous condition, the likes of which we have never seen before, and don't have the slightest idea how to deal with.

Well, my friends... we have seen it before. We knew what to do back then.

I went to school with an oddball character named Marty Berns. That's Marty over there, in our fourth grade picture. Marty is in the top row on the far left, next to Rick Saltzman, Mitch Dubick, and Nancy Reiches. (Others may wish to remain anonymous.)

Nancy's been a regular visitor to BBHQ. I talked to Rick Saltzman at our last reunion. But I haven't heard from old stick-in-the-mud Dubick in over a decade. (Imagine what his nickname was in school.) Word is he is an attorney in San Diego. Pity.

Our elementary school (Sussex) had a tradition requiring us to hand out Valentine's Day cards to each of our classmates. It was a little awkward; but maybe that was part of the plan. I remember I got a little verse in the form of a playing card from Marty that read, "Your teeth are like stars... they come out at night." He had bought some prank cards from what must have been the predecessor to Spencer Gifts. Perhaps harmless enough, but.... other things he did were not so harmless. Were school officials aware of the valentines and other stuff? You bet they were!

I lost track of Marty in junior high. He was no longer in school. But Marty was having problems. He had been in and out of a mental hospital. His psychiatrist recommended he go back into a hospital. But Marty had other plans. One day (February, 1970) he got a gun and shot his psychiatrist as he was getting out of his car in his driveway. Then Marty drove over to the Shaker Heights Police Station on Lee Road (just north of Chagrin Blvd.), took a small package out of his car, walked into the police station, set the package down, and walked out. And then, for a reason no one will ever know, he walked back into the police station. A few seconds later, the building blew up.

The bomb was so powerful that people felt it on the other side of Cleveland, 30 miles away! There was nothing left of the entire front of the building. But in another strange twist... one of many in this story... the bomb went off during a shift change at the station, and there were only a few people in the building. Only one person died in the blast: Marty Berns.

In the basement of Marty's home, the police found enough material to blow up an entire city block. In his car they found another powerful bomb, and a map. Marty had circled three locations on the map: his psychiatrist's home, the police station... and the local high school.

Why Marty decided to walk back into the police station is anybody's guess. And why the high school was third on his list – and not first – is matter of speculation. Marty was not a student at the school. But I will live the rest of my life believing that if it had been first on his list and not last, I (and 1,800 of my classmates) might not be here today.

Back then we were less willing to withhold blame. Marty's parents were criticized for allowing their mentally deranged son to have a chemical lab in their basement. What on earth were they thinking??!! There was absolutely no talk of Marty's self-esteem. Nobody said he was basically a good kid who just needed some time and attention. He and his parents were responsible – no one else. Of course, part of what made this story so big was that it was the first of its kind. This was so outrageous that it made headlines literally around the world – a decade before CNN.

And most importantly, way back in elementary school when Marty sent those stupid valentines, school officials began watching him. And when his aberrant behavior passed a certain point, they thought not of Marty's self-esteem or his need to express himself. They thought first of the welfare of the other students. The teachers were plenty busy with the rest of us without having to deal with Marty Berns. As soon as he crossed that line... way before Marty talked about killing anybody, or before he began wearing boots and a trench coat to school, the administration saw him as a threat to the rest of the school.. and he was gone. Forever.... well, almost forever.

And nobody complained. Nobody talked about mainstreaming him back into the school and treating him as though he was just a kid with a problem. They saw him as a threat, and removed him.

And 1,800 students went on to graduate from Shaker Heights High School over the next three years. (All right... so one of them became a lawyer... you can't have everything.) And 85 teachers remained in their classrooms, confident, secure, without having to worry about which student they should try to save first if some nut barged into the school with a gun... without having to decide if it was worth it to continue working in a profession they loved if it meant exposing themselves to some lunatic with an arsenal the size of a small army. The administration knew their priorities; they did their job.

Yes, life was so much safer and carefree then. It was safer and carefree because our parents made it that way!

Oh, I know... the standard response is that life was less complicated back then: we did not have the Internet; we did not have the video game, Doom; we did not have Marilyn Manson singing about what he was going to do with a gun. (“I got my lunchbox and I'm armed real well... so no one... with me; next mother... gonna' get my metal.”) We did not have Time-Warner lining its pockets with the profits from the Cop Killer album... as if these are like the locusts, killer bees, or the plague: acts of nature over which we are totally defenseless.

All that is a load of crap... nothing but lame excuses. I'll tell you this: I would be hard-pressed to go to the parents of any of those kids who were massacred and explain that their child's death is part of the horrible price we must pay so that Marilyn Manson can sing about what he wants to do with a gun, or so that two kids with a fascination with Adolph Hitler can be free to express themselves.

And I'll tell you something else: there is not a reason on God's green earth why we cannot do what our parents did: go to whatever lengths are necessary to protect our kids from the nuts in our society, no matter whose self-esteem is at risk.

Oh, we could do that. But apparently we have neither the common sense nor the guts that our parents did. We're too busy. It's someone else's job. Other things are more important.

Tell me... name me one thing that is more important. Just one....

At the service for one of the students in Littleton in 1999, Pastor Bruce Porter (himself a boomer) admonished his followers: “Stop being a victim; be pro-active. Speak to the culture you live in. Declare a cultural revolution. You have the power within your hands, young people. We cannot do it. We have failed.”

“We have failed,” he said. “We have failed.” That infuriates me to the core of my soul.

Personally, I am not ready to admit failure yet. Are you?


BBHQ visitor Harry adds this observation:

Harry: I went to camp (Shaker Day camp) w/ Martin. He was interested, as all boys are, in fireworks, at that time but showed me basic gunpowder and its lethal abilities by killing small animals and aimlessly blowing things up. I stayed away from him after that. My dad was a detective @ the police dept. and strangely enough chanced to walk by when Marti was “comin in.”

A visitor who apparently knew Marty better than I did adds this:

Marty lived in a two-family house. a friend of mine lived upstairs. We would shoot Hoops in the driveway with Marty and sometimes walk the neighborhood together. This was in elementary school. Marty would take us to his room and show us the gunpowder he was making and even GUN COTTON, an explosive as unstable as Nitro. He would blow up Salamanders and Frogs in the yard. He would look for new ways to make explosives. His parents knew this and complained to him, but he would yell and scream and they would quiet down. I never spoke to him at Byron and I never new if he went to Shaker. I was at Butch Himmel's house after school, about a mile from the Police Station when we heard and felt the explosion. Two hours later the found the car with a rifle in it and I said to Butch, I bet that's Marty's car. Only because it looked like the one his mom had, maybe 7 years earlier? It was real outrageous, because things like this did not happen,and! when I heard it was Marty I was not even shocked."

This shows that Marty was indeed a dangerous kid and that he exhibited clear warning signs. Back then, the people in charge took notice and took action. We are all better off because they did. But today.... we have forgotten those lessons, and we are all paying the price for our inaction.


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