'We Cannot Run Away' From
Public Schools After Shootings
By Art Toalston
FRANKLIN, Tenn.--Keep meeting with your peers, keep on praying and witnessing, urged a key organizer in the Christian club movement on public school campuses after three students were killed in a shooting spree at a Kentucky high school Dec. 1.
"Today, many of America's teenagers are bold about living and sharing their faith in Christ more than ever. They have to be!" said Benny Proffitt, head of First Priority of America, which has nurtured a network of Christian clubs on 3,000 of the nation's 40,000 middle- and high-school campuses since the organization's founding in 1984.
"These teenagers experience an anti-Christian American culture that many of their parents don't understand," Proffitt said of today's students. "Our public schools are the greatest mission field in America.
"We cannot run away, but we must run to them. Christians have always done their best in difficult situations. This one should be no different."
Meanwhile, a California-based organization which monitors school violence has noted such tragedies, despite wide publicity, actually may be on the decline and remain quite rare, while resources for helping students deal with violence issues can be obtained from the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board in Nashville, Tenn.
First Priority, with campus clubs in 160 U.S. cities and communities, will be receiving letters to be forwarded to the families of the slain students and to the 30 to 40 students who were in a prayer group scattered by gunfire before the start of classes Monday, Dec. 1.
In a memo to First Priority leaders across the country, Proffitt wrote that the families and students "need to know these students did not die in vain, but their sacrifice may fuel the fire of revival on campuses all across America."
Killed by a fellow student in the attack were Heath High senior Jessica James, 17; sophomore Kacey Steger, 15; and freshman Nicole Hadley, 14. Charged with their murder is freshman Michael Carneal, 14.
Letters should be mailed before the start of Christmas break to First Priority at P.O. Box 681119, Franklin, TN 37068-1119, for forwarding to the families and students.
Of the shootings which left three dead and five wounded, traumatizing the 600-student Heath High School and the small town of Paducah, Ky., Proffitt said, "I believe this was a random act of violence, but this time it was an attack on Christians. This is another call for spiritual awakening in America. Until America returns to its Christian roots, these kinds of violence could become more commonplace for our children."
To the question, Would Christians in America meet to worship and pray if their lives were in danger? Proffitt said, "I believe many would," while acknowledging, "Being persecuted for your Christian faith, even to the point of death, is very common around the world, but not in America."
The Paducah murders come two months after a bloody rampage at a high school in Pearl, Miss., in which a 16-year-old student distraught over a breakup with a girlfriend stabbed his mother to death and drove to the school with a rifle under his trench coat where he killed his former girlfriend and another girl, wounding seven others. Six other teens later were arrested as accomplices in what police called a satanic cult.
Despite the national impact of such horrors, U.S. school violence actually may be on the decline, according to the National School Safety Center, Westlake, Calif., which tracks newspaper reports of such incidents.
So far this year, school violence has claimed 25 lives, the same number as last year -- but less than half as many as in 1993, the first full year the organization began its tallies, according to a Dec. 3 article in The New York Times, which noted that the numbers are not complete because the organization counts only incidents found in news reports. But the center's executive director, Ronald Stephens, said he believes the total reflects 90 percent or more of all such deaths. Since July 1992, the center has counted 191 students killed at schools since, 148 in shootings.
The trend over the last few years parallels the decline in violent crime generally, Stephens told The Times. He speculated, "I think it's gone down because school safety is a little higher on the agenda," because the Federal Gun-Free School Zone Act of 1994 requires schools receiving federal money to have a mandatory minimum one-year suspension for students who bring guns to school.
According to The Times, "The only scientific data on violent school deaths comes from a study reported last year by the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which counted 105 such deaths from 1992-1994. Until that study is repeated, said Bill Modzeleski, director of the Safe and Drug Free Schools Program at the United State Department of Education, it is impossible to know whether violence is really declining."
The newspaper quoted Modzeleski as saying, "People hear about Kentucky and Mississippi and another multiple homicide earlier this year in Alaska and they think that kind of violence must be common and they get scared. And it is horrifying, but it's very unusual.
"There are 52 million kids in public school, and they're safer in school than elsewhere," Modzeleski said.
Among Southern Baptists, a campaign, "Positive Impact: Teen Violence Intervention" campaign, was launched in December 1996 and is ongoing as an effort to circumvent teen violence. The campaign, launched by the Sunday School Board, will be the focus of winter youth events sponsored by the SBC agency.
A key goal of the campaign "is to lead churches to acknowledge that violence is out there and to show that something positive can be done about it," said David Bennett, SSB youth specialist.
"We want to make an impact and help in these tragic situations," Bennett said of the Paducah, Ky., and Pearl, Miss., killings. "We want people to know we care and have resources to bring comfort and provide handles for proactively addressing teen violence issues."
Information about "Positive Impact: Teen Violence Intervention" resources may be obtained by contacting Bennett at (615) 251-2853.
Christian entertainer Michael W. Smith and his wife, Debbie, parents of five children ages 5-13, are among the key endorsers of the initiative.
Bennett said youth specialists in the BSSB's discipleship and family development division began four years ago thinking about a resource for church youth leaders that would sensitize them to the violence around them and aid them in responding to it.
"The message relating to violence is so complex," Bennett said.
"It's not just, 'Don't hit each other.' There is so much more to it. ... As with any social issue or moral crisis, the birth of positive change starts in the heart. Positive Impact is calling youth to become peacemakers, first, through their church youth groups, then to their homes, schools and communities."
The aims of the "Positive Impact: Teen Violence Intervention" campaign are:
-- to lead youth to analyze how they might live in peace while taking steps to live in safety.
-- to lead youth to recognize their sources of protection and ways they might increase their resilience.
-- to lead youth to create positive, close-knit relationships through the Spirit of Christ.
-- to lead youth to express an understanding of how to be a good friend who makes a positive impact in the lives of their friends.
-- to lead youth to recognize that being drug- and alcohol-free is evidence of their commitment to living as Christians as well as a deterrent to violence.
-- to lead youth to commit to living a life free of violence.
For more information on this topic, see this related story:
Posted December 9, 1997