April 20, 1999. A fairly unremarkable day in its early hours, but by time the beginning of the school day rolled around at Columbine High School, we would remember it as one of the most infamous tragedies in American history. It would be repeated on several accounts, in other places and other countries, and yet we haven’t obsessed about it as much as we have 9/11, which has (thankfully) not been repeated. The following story isn’t about Columbine, but rather the aftermath. The following is a true story, and I know this because I experienced it. It’s nothing horrible, nothing life changing, just something that was a direct result of the wave of paranoia that Columbine produced in the minds of American school administrators. I might not get the whole truth correct, but the major facts and questions I remember.
“Would Mike Reyes please report to the main office?”
The intercom has summoned me, and in compliance I was released from class. I had no clue why they were calling my name, especially during the last period of the day. You would think it’s kinda late to be driven home by your parents. I didn’t do anything warranting a reward. I couldn’t figure out what I did to be called down at the end of the day to the office. Whatever it was though, I didn’t have a good feeling about it. I walked into the office and I was escorted into the office of Vice Principal Fitzpatrick. He was the VP for 9th and 11th grades at Howell High School. Sitting alongside him was Detective Rice, a cop who was well known among those who worked for the town. (My father and grandfather were volunteer firemen, so they of knew him.) Also sitting in the office was my mother. That was the final sign that things couldn’t be good.
I was told to sit down and almost immediately the questions began. What type of music did I listen to? What radio stations? Was I prone to violence? It turns out, there were three sign confessions stating that I, and two friends of mine, planned on blowing up the school and were overheard speaking violently in the library. Ok, so the guy who never got in a full on fight (at least on record), the guy who never had to serve a detention in his life, the guy who was an editor on the Newspaper was the one who was fingered for trying to destroy the school, as well as a meek and a nerdy friend of his? If anything, the trio in question was more likely to shout taunts at each other about Star Wars and Star Trek, not bomb making recipes. Yet here we sat, in what was pretty much an interrogation, answering to baseless charges leveled by three anonymous individuals.
The big question here was who was the stupider party involved? The three individuals who took advantage of the system to report something in a fit of paranoia, or the individuals in the position of power who were treating the rumor mill as a trusted source of intel? My mother was furious with the school, and so was I. I did not fit the profile for either of the shooters. I didn’t own a trenchcoat, I’d never touched a real gun, and I most certainly didn’t listen to Marilyn Manson, and when I eventually started to like some of his songs I didn’t like them because of some sick revenge fantasy I’d cooked up in my mind. (If anything, I liked how they were scathing criticisms of the world we lived in, and how it sounded like it was coming from the inmate who ran the asylum.) At the time, I listened to talk radio and Britney Spears, I was going through my Republican phase, and I was in the midst of my Sci Fi nerd period. In short, someone accused the kid of Alex P. Keaton and a Star Wars geek of trying to blow up the school. Starting to see the ridiculousness yet?
After the interrogation, I saw that one of my other friends was being brought in for questioning, his mother in the office waiting for their turn at the wheel. His father being a well placed employee in the Township gave a long rant on how stupid and wasteful it was to use a Police detective in the matter. My bet was it was due to the lack of concrete evidence, and the lack of smoke to match the proverbial fire. The most we were scolded on was using school computers to look up our emails. That was the most we’d done wrong. Yet we were put through such a ringer, and all because the higher ups felt they had to treat every threat as a serious threat. I can’t say I had it bad though…two years later 9/11 would happen, and the same type of incident would happen but on a grander, more hurtful scale. At least when I was in school, they didn’t have the policy of extreme rendition. Who knows, they might have taken me to Freehold Boro, where they don’t have as many “rules” as Howell did.
I have a younger brother at Howell now, and another going this fall. I hope they don’t have to deal with the same type of incident that I did. I know it won’t be at the hands of Mr. Fitzpatrick, seeing as he left Howell High a year or two after. His replacement was much friendlier, and someone who knew I wasn’t that type of person. The most I’d get called back into the office for after this incident was an inquiry into one of our trio’s absence from school (he was sick with the flu, they asked if he had access to “military paraphernalia”), and to accept the gavel that began my term as Senior Class President. Yet this is the time I remember the most. This was the incident that to this day still gets me a little pissed off. They say you should learn your history, because if you don’t you’re doomed to repeat it. Fitting irony then that a school administrator, and then later several top Government officials, would forget the relevant lessons of the Salem Witch Trials, which were also forgotten during the McCarthy Era. Still, it could have been worse.
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