If the media hadnt reminded everyone that March 18, 2003 marked the 10th anniversary of the shooting at Harlem High School, would anyone have remembered?
Certainly not the students. This years Harlem seniors were in second grade back in 1993. The freshmen would have been in preschool.
The teachers and administrators probably wouldnt have remembered, either. Who wants to commemorate something so terrible?
I sure dont. Though my high school days at Harlem were over years before Bryant Gillom shot two other kids in a hallway, knowing such a horrible thing happened at my alma mater was like a kick in the guts.
It only made it worse that I knew the shooting consigned my school to the magnifying-glass treatment for months - and now years - from media that otherwise wouldnt pay much attention to Columbia Countys smallest high school except during baseball season.
Principal Barry Hemphill captured the feeling perfectly when he said the shooting meant the school family crossed a line and you can never go back. Its that cliched but true thing about the end of innocence.
Close to home, we knew the shooting wasnt a sign that Harlem or our other schools were bursting with violent kids. We knew Bryant Gillom brought a gun to school for the same reason every kid busted with a weapon claims he had it: to defend himself. When Ronricas Pony Gibson and Rico Lee met up with Gillom in the hallway on that day 10 years ago, it wasnt the same compliant kid whod complained about being bullied: Now he was a punk with an equalizer. Within seconds, Gibson was dead and Lee was badly wounded. Gillom soon was in jail.
The innocence was over.
Before that day in 1993, Columbia County had just one school cop. Not long after the shooting at Harlem, every high school got one. We now have five. And now all of them carry guns.
Strangely enough though, we didnt arm the cops because of the shooting at Harlem. That came because of another shooting, years later, on the other side of the country.
Perhaps we should be relieved. If someone refers to Harlem now, we think of great baseball teams, an incredible drama department, kids who are a heckuva lot smarter than I was when I walked those halls. Think what it must be like to be an alumnus of Columbine, a name synonymous with school violence.
The shooting at Harlem hurt us and made us more careful, but because we knew Gillom and felt like we sort of understood what made him tick, our eventual reactions were better measured. But Columbine just scared the hell out of everyone; our reactions ranged from inflamed to hysterical.
Maybe theres a message, 10 years beyond the Harlem shooting, to bring some sense of perspective to an anniversary no one wants to have: It isnt violence in school that causes us to react, but fear of violence.
We can demonstrate, statistically, that there is less school violence today than there was 10 years ago, at Harlem and elsewhere. But because parents are afraid, we strap guns on our school cops, install metal detectors and surveillance cameras and talk tough about zero tolerance as a way of shaking our fist at school violence even as we shake in our boots lest we have another Columbine. Or even another Harlem.
Harlem High is a great school. It doesnt deserve the unfair weight of a 10-year-old legacy, any more than our irrational fear should strip away the innocence we rightly invest in our schools.
Maybe 10 years is enough to remember. And enough time that we can finally forget.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to email@example.com, or call 863-6165, extension 106.)
Date opens memories of Harlem shooting
Shooting quickly changed safety measures at school
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.