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 built for high school theater productions with volunteer help last year, have been secured to organize after-school and summer activities. The programs, to be run by volunteers, are the only such alternative to a school system still facing budget cuts after eliminating programs such as art and music from the elementary school. The end-of-the-day advisory period eliminated at Danforth this year is scheduled to be reinstated next fall. Gary Weeks, a craftsman who makes rocking chairs and serves as the president of Wimberley Teens, Inc., the nonprofit parent and student organization that sponsored the dance I had chaperoned, called a meeting to try to anticipate what ninth graders in high school are going to need next year. Nathalie Harris, a parent of another eighth grader and the owner of a Christian bookstore, has organized a campaign to write letters to the boys in detention, noting that they were her daughter’s friends and that instead of seeing them, her daughter sees only empty desks in her classes now. Mike Crowley, a neighbor who manages singer-songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore, is organizing concerts in August and October to benefit the Emily Ann and further involve the community. Churches are stepping up their youth programs, and Jake has signed up to go on a mission trip to Nuevo Laredo with the Wimberley Presbyterian Church this summer. Wimberley’s like that.
At this writing, the boys are still in the Hays County Juvenile Detention Center. Something in the back of my mind tells me that in the full light of day the incident will fade away, that the evidence was factually correct but that the consequences implied by that evidence were blown out of proportion, an understandable overreaction on the side of caution in response to the events at Columbine High. Besides the shame of spending time in the juvenile detention center and being shown on television in prison orange, the four boys will in all likelihood have to attend another high school, which at this time in their tender lives is severe punishment indeed.
The sheriff and school authorities were right to act swiftly. If it could happen in suburban Colorado, it could happen anywhere, even in Wimberley. But I think the parents and friends of the boys detained were right as well. Those boys are our problem too. What prompted them to do what they did, if their intentions were in fact malicious, as has been claimed? Another eighth grader told me that one of the boys detained, who came to Wimberley from Hawaii, disliked a teacher for referring to him as “Kamikaze,” reminding me of the comment of one parent at the town meeting: “If we have zero tolerance for students, shouldn’t we have zero tolerance for teachers and administrators too?” The incident has prompted both Kris and me to reassess our roles as parents, with the full understanding that no matter how good a job we might do, it will never be good enough. We’ve tried to keep the dialogue going at our house, and there have been some bumps along the way, as there always will be. We’re trying harder to listen with open minds. I still worry that in our rush to feel safe and secure we don’t violate the trust that has been built up with our children over the years. If the rules and restrictions we impose on teens become too onerous, will they still feel comfortable enough to confide in us? Will they be able to make mistakes, part of the process of growing up?
On the next to last page of the same edition of the Wimberley View that ran the headline “Wimberley Shocked By Arrests of Four Junior High Boys” was a picture of the eighth-grade boys’ track team. The photograph included three of the four boys detained. They looked like good kids to me, just like my kid, just like your kid. We may be relieved it wasn’t our child who was detained and accused, but those four boys who are being held belong to us too, at least in a village like Wimberley. We didn’t need the whole world watching our little town to understand that.