I SPENT A SATURDAY NIGHT IN MID-APRIL HELPING chaperone a dance in the cafetorium of Danforth Junior High, the school in Wimberley where my older son Jake attends eighth grade. My assignment was to guard the door at stage left, making sure no one left the building before the dance was over. I mistakenly let three boys leave after telling them they couldn’t return, only to find them back inside half an hour later, reeking of tobacco smoke. Other than that mild transgression, I had a splendid evening watching young teenagers, all brimming with adolescent energy and confusion, having fun, chatting in cliques and clusters, boys with boys and girls with girls, meeting together on the dance floor to embrace gawkily whenever a slow song was played.
Nine days later, I stood at the same spot in the Danforth cafetorium at a town meeting. We’d all gathered to ponder why, just three days after a shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, four 14-year-olds were in the Hays County Juvenile Detention Center in San Marcos on charges of conspiracy to commit murder and other assorted acts of violence and mayhem, including blowing up their school. Instead of watching kids on the verge of what for many of them would be one of the most exciting times of their lives, I saw them sitting stone-faced next to their parents, hanging on to the words of the superintendent of the Wimberley Independent School District, the sheriff of Hays County, and an assistant district attorney. Standing between the speakers at the podium and the somber audience was a phalanx of men holding video cameras backlit by bright floodlights, and television reporters whose perfect hair, perfect teeth, and stylish outfits made them stand out from the more casually dressed local residents.
According to authorities, the evidence against the four boys included bomb-making instructions downloaded from the Internet, gunpowder, and crude bombs. And apparently the boys had given police the names of specific teachers and students they had told each other they’d like to get. Many people in the audience who stepped to the microphone praised the superintendent, the school administration, and the sheriff for acting swiftly on the heels of what had happened at Columbine High School. Some called for remedies such as metal detectors, school uniforms, and prayer to ensure the students’ safety. Numerous others wondered aloud how the boys, if they really did what they were accused of doing, managed to develop such anger and hate.
I had arrived back home that afternoon from a trip to Chicago on family business. While traveling, I’d seen footage of Jake’s school on television framed by words and voice-overs linking Danforth Junior High to the violence in Colorado. On television even the wooden sign at the edge of town identifying Wimberley as “A Little Bit of Heaven” appeared sinister. The whole world, it seemed, was watching my community.
I just had time to pick up Jake and take him to the town meeting. I asked him a few questions about school and the students’ reactions. He didn’t seem to want to talk about it, so I asked him how his television appearances had gone. Jake was the newly elected president of next year’s freshman class, and while I’d been out of town, several reporters had contacted him. Since I’ve earned a living most of my adult life as a reporter, I didn’t want Jake to be afraid of the media. At the same time, I fully understood why many parents were telling their children not to speak to anyone from the press.
“They edited me down to ten seconds,” Jake said.
“Welcome to the world of soundbites,” I replied cynically.
After the meeting, we came home and watched Jake and my wife, Kris, on NBC’s Dateline. Kris talked about the fear of Wimberley being another Littleton and voiced concern for the boys who’d been detained. Jake admitted he had once downloaded instructions on how to make a smoke bomb from the Internet a year ago. The interviewer asked him why he did it. “I was curious,” Jake said, acknowledging our concern when we had learned about it.
I was relieved that Jake had said “smoke bomb” instead of “bomb.” I thought that by appearing on the program maybe Jake and Kris brought a little reason into what I feared was a state of hysteria being whipped up by the media. But as we continued to talk, Kris and I started wondering if we’d done the right thing. By being forthright, had we set ourselves up? Should we have just told the reporters no and spared our son the glare of scrutiny? Jake played Doom and Quake, and we had gunpowder in the house, in the form of Black Cat firecrackers left over from New Year’s Eve. Would the authorities be paying us a visit next, confiscating computers and fireworks? Kris worried that she’d betrayed Jake’s trust by telling the Dateline producers about our own downloading incident. I was so rattled I couldn’t tell Jake about the item I’d read in the newspaper about the father in Port Aransas who had turned in his son for downloading bomb-making instructions from the Internet—one of numerous similar incidents across the state and the nation that week. Instead I had to advise Jake that if investigators approached him at school, as they had other students, he wasn’t to say a word until we were present, along with an attorney. The four boys who’d been detained had only the county precinct constable present to explain their rights during their initial interrogation; they weren’t allowed to see their parents for more than 24 hours.
It wasn’t just us. Everyone in town was uncomfortable until the end of the week, when the cameras and reporters finally left. That’s when my community really got busy. Parents, students, and teachers held formal and informal meetings to discuss how to keep kids engaged, identify problems, and seek solutions. Two buildings at the Emily Ann Theatre, an outdoor theater