Friday, April 23, 1999

Outcasts need to hear that people care

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The news coming through the radio in Stephen Sorrell's office was bad and sad. Students had been shot. Death had visited Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

        “Not again,” Stephen said to himself.

        His mind immediately went back to that May day in 1994, when he looked a killer in the eye and asked for his murder weapon.

        The killer was Clay Shrout, a junior at Ryle High School. Before he came to school that May morning and took his math class hostage, he killed his family.

        Stephen Sorrell was the school's assistant principal. He went into that math class and talked Clay into handing over his gun.

        Today, Stephen is the principal of Campbell County High School. He carries the memory of that day with him as he walks the halls of his high school.

        He keeps an eye out for outcasts. Clay Shrout was an outcast. So were the two students at Columbine who turned their school into a killing field that claimed 15 lives.

        “I look for the kids who are being made fun of, the loners, the quiet ones, the ones who don't want to fit in anywhere.”

        The principal has an open-door policy. “Anyone who wants to can come in and talk.” But he knows outcasts aren't the drop-in type. So, he walks up to them and starts talking.

        “Often, we'll talk about music first. I play French horn and electric bass. So I can discuss just about anything from Marilyn Manson to Bach and not sound like an idiot.”

        He also tries not to sound condescending.

        “That would make me just as bad as the kids who make fun of the outcasts,” the principal said.

        “I want them to know they have some self-worth. What they think matters. And someone is going to listen to them.”

        He wants them to know someone cares.

Direct approach
        When Judy Kabitsch saw scenes and heard descriptions of Columbine High on TV, they reminded her of Lakota West High School.

        Both schools sit on sprawling modern campuses. Their students come from wealthy suburbs and old family farms.

        Judy wants the similarities to end right there. As a school counselor at Lakota West, she uses a direct approach to deal with students who are drifting out of control.

        One student recently exhibited suicidal tendencies. She started giving her possessions away, handing out copies of her will and telling friends what she wanted at her funeral.

        Judy Kabitsch became alarmed. “She might have been thinking about taking her life as well as committing a more violent act that would take other lives.”

        The counselor spoke with the student and her parents. She recommended that the girl receive professional help.

        “I did it in a very gentle, friendly voice. My tones were soft but professional,” she said.

        “I was very direct,” she added. “You have to be.”

Hugs needed
        As the Talbert House's director of prevention services, Mary DePaola is trained to go into schools and put a stop to problems before they reach the crisis point.

        When she counsels a high school student who might be planning to harm himself or other classmates, she looks for these warning signs:

        Preoccupied with violence, weapons and hate crimes. Cruelly mistreats animals. Makes threats. Plans violent acts. Has access to weapons. Belongs to a gang. Alienated from society. Becomes aggressive when angry. Drug abuse. Family discord. Poor grades.

        She also has a list of ways to help these students. Each requires people to show they care.

        “These children are going through so much,” Mary told me. “They need to know they are valued by their parents, their family, their school and the community.

        “They need to know they are loved.”

        And they can't hear it too often.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

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