Here’s a new slant on the cluster of suicides of four teenage girls from Schenectady High School, New York, that was stimulated by abuse and bullying in school and a war-zone environment outside school. Instead of working together to transform the school and the neighborhood environment, Rev. Veron House, pastor of the Life Changes World Ministries in Schenectady, and school superintendent, Eric Ely, are arguing over who was to blame and who should be responsible for fixing the problem.
Rev. House has been quoted as saying, “This is not a community problem, this is not a church problem, this is a school problem, and this is becoming a school epidemic because everyone that has done this is from Schenectady High."
On the defensive, Superintendent Ely responded, "We're not the parents of these children. We have them a third of the time, parents have them two thirds of the time. We're going to do everything we can to keep it from happening. But ultimately, when a child goes home and takes their life, there's not a whole lot a school employee can do about that."
Who’s right? Of course both of them are right. But facing each other with finger-pointing makes both of them wrong.
The useful question is not who’s to blame and who should be punished, the people in the neighborhood or the principal and teachers in school. The better question is how to bring people together after numerous and tremendously painful deaths, in order to create a community that simply won’t tolerate hate and violence in the school or on the streets. Here in Denver, after the massacre at Columbine High School, it has taken 10 years for that healing spirit to become evident.
This question is not new. The difficulty of establishing a safe and functional communal life after multiple, horrible deaths has been part of human struggles since the beginning of time. For example, we see the same struggle in the families of Romeo and Juliet.
Even further back, the same subject and a wise solution are described in graphic detail in the three tragedies called the Oresteia, written by Aeschylus in 458 BC. In the Agamemnon, the Libation Bearers and the Eumenides, the murders are for different reasons than in Schenectady and Columbine High School, but the end effect is the same. Violent death rips apart the fabric of a community and people struggle with what to do.
Why do I bring up literature that’s 2,500 years old? Because the violence of today has also been faced by people in all cultures, times and places, and we have recorded the approaches that only lead to more pain and also the wisdom that points the way to solutions.
Aeschylus shows that the age-old solution – pointing fingers, apportioning blame, imposing punishment, retribution and vengeance – only drives people into separate, warring camps and perpetuates the cycle of violence. He also shows that only after the people involved have come together, having been transformed by the intense pain and suffering that everyone feels underneath their defensive and hostile poses, can they dedicate themselves to change the environment together. One line from the tragedy is, “We must suffer, suffer into [wisdom].”
As community leaders, Rev. House and Superintendent Ely are failing in their responsibility. Instead of analyzing and parsing out the blame, they must lead the community to come together to create a new spirit that will neither tolerate harassment, bullying and abuse at school nor the street violence that requires police and metal detectors at school doors.
Until Rev. House and Superintendent Ely rally a core of outraged students and parents to rid the area of violence, there are no tactics, plans and skills that will help them. I’d expect Rev. House to know how rituals for painful grieving can transform the hearts of his parishioners into wisdom and determined action. Only after they have united resolutely to clean up the school and the neighborhood, will expert tactical advice and guidance be productive.