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Thursday, April 20, 2000 Missoulian Editorial A year ago Thursday, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold tore through Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., killing 12 students, a teacher and themselves. Their killing spree shook the country, brought sobs to parents everywhere, and made educators shiver with fear for their own students and schools.

Harris and Klebold were college-bound students who didn't seem any more strange than millions of other teen-agers. They came from upper middle-class families. They lived in a quiet community of well-educated people. Only after their bloody visit to the school did people learn about their violent videotaped threats and their yearlong plan to attack other teens they dubbed enemies.

Columbine made the nation sad and afraid.

What has happened since?

Some short-term solutions are already in place or in the works. In Missoula, voters approved a $20 million school bond this year that includes a small slice for basic and simple school-safety measures.

Lots of schools, including many in western Montana, now go through "lock-down" drills that are meant to isolate classrooms and school rooms from roaming intruders.

Educators are more sensitized today to students who are isolated, angry, in trouble or who have a history - short or long - of violence, and are more likely to take seriously any sign of distress or threat of violence.

In the fall of 1999, the state Office of Public Instruction, the Montana Psychological Association and other groups sponsored eight community forums on youth violence. The gatherings helped bring teens, educators, law enforcement and parents together to talk about young people. They were a start.

Montana schools also are using programs such as the Montana Behavior Initiative to help resolve conflict and eliminate bullying, and to help build respect among students and educators in schools.

Now, attention needs to turn to prevention, which requires a much longer term view of problems, and a willingness for communities to get involved earlier and more cohesively than ever before. Montana communities must find ways to help and support the health and welfare of their youngest residents, not just at school.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Nancy Keenan and Attorney General Joe Mazurek conducted community meetings around Montana in 1994, and heard parents and students talk about the connection between violence in the home and hostility in the classroom and community. Criminologist Lonnie Athens, the subject of the book "Why They Kill" by author Richard Rhodes, finds a consistent pattern of abuse and neglect in the backgrounds of violent criminals and killers. Childhood experiences, not mental illness or poverty or media influence, are predictors of future behaviors, Athens contends. Is there information from these emerging theories that will help Montana?

Supporting after-school activities of children and young adults is critical. During these hours, kids learn, make new friends, are guided by caring adults and develop a sense of community that has immeasurable value.

Adult mentors, honoring the positive work youngsters do, neighbors taking an interest in young families, listening to children and young adults, helping guide children with rules and boundaries, talking with them about their problems - all hold a promise to strengthen the community around us and to provide a foundation for future generations.

If the mission seems too huge, start small. Hug your own children or grandchildren tonight. Tell them how much they are honored and loved. It is the best place to start.

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