Thursday, February 02, 2006

Groundhogs, bullies, lawyers and children, Part One

Usual disclaimer: The opinions on this blog are mine. They have nothing to do with my employer or its parent company. Please don't dooce me.

We do Groundhog Day a little differently in Moses Lake. In this town, the groundhog hole is over by Frontier Middle School. The groundhog sticks his head out, and if he doesn't get blasted with a high-powered rifle into little woodchuck McNuggets, we know spring is on the way.

Ten years ago today, 14-year-old Barry Loukaitis walked late into his algebra class at Frontier Junior High in downtown Moses Lake. He was wearing a trenchcoat, cowboy boots, and enough personal armament to make a Green Beret feel overprepared. When he came into the classroom, instead of a note excusing his tardiness, he distributed lead. Within seconds, two kids and the teacher were dead, another kid was winged, and he had taken the rest hostage. Another teacher get himself into the room under Barry's watchful eye, talking soothingly to him and offering himself in exchange for the other kids. Barry wanted to put the muzzle of the rifle in the teacher's mouth as security, but had to settle for pointing it at him. Without so much as a twitch of warning, the teacher jumped him, shoved the gun aside and wrestled him to the ground. The rest of the kids were unharmed, the teacher was a hero, and Barry was on his way to a jail cell. Class dismissed.

This much everybody knows. Moses Lake was famous, at least until Columbine bumped it off the front page three years later. A town that had yet to get Internet service was on the cutting edge of a trend that would echo through the 90s: the site of the first school-shooting-rampage. Welcome to Moses Lake. Don't forget your Kevlar.

Those of us who still lived here after the news crews had moved on saw it from a little different angle. When the sirens started blaring outside Frontier, my 7-year-old daughter was across the street, delivering business cards from my printshop. Barry's parents owned a sandwich shop a few blocks away; they were a regular customer as well. (Wharf Rat really liked delivering their menus, because they gave her free candy bars as a tip.) It was (and mostly still is) the sort of place where I didn't feel worried about letting a little girl have the freedom of downtown.

Everybody in town knew somebody who was involved. My first boss at the paper was the uncle of the girl who was wounded. Our current editor's little sister was in the classroom. When it's in your backyard, the national news stories are just the tip of the iceberg.

There are no happy endings in something like this. Barry was charged as an adult, and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. His parents, already on the rocks, divorced and left town. The teacher who saved all those kids' lives is now the principal at the local Catholic school. Eventually bigger and uglier school shootings came to pass, and the media moved on. The phrase "going Frontier" became a local version of "going postal."

Barry Loukaitis has become a poster child for the tough-on-crime crowd that want to lock up juvenile psychopaths and throw away the key. And that's how Barry's case was handled. The community came together, not for justice, but for revenge. Which is where my opinions sometimes get me into trouble.

He was a screwed-up kid, to be sure, but not a psychopath. He knew right from wrong. He knew, for example, that bigger kids beating up and humiliating a smaller one is wrong. Barry was assaulted, called names, swirlied, wedgied and (so I've heard) even held down in the school locker room and urinated on. Combined with the troubles he had at home, he simply reached a point where he couldn't take any more, and he snapped in a huge way.

Let him scoff who has never been in junior high. I remember, in seventh grade, being beaten, called "idiot" and "faggot", and held up for public ridicule. And that was just the teachers. My classmates (most of whom had gotten their growth before I did) went for more exotic torments, like tickling me until I wet myself, or holding my nose and force-feeding me garbage. The pinnacle of fun, for them, was something called poling. That's where you get one big kid on either side of the victim, pick him up by his limbs, and ram his genitals into a goalpost. After a couple of impacts, you learn to twist so as to take the blow in a buttock. Believe me, you learn.

I used to daydream about something much like what Barry did. Praise God I didn't have access to the kind of guns Barry did, or you'd have been seeing me on the news fifteen years earlier. By high school, I was habitually carrying a six-inch knife in the lining of my coat. Word got around, and I was left alone. Never had to do anything with it, although it was a near thing a couple of times. A couple of years ago, I ran into the worst of the teachers, now retired, the one whose favorite epithets had been "faggot" and "useless." Even twenty years later, it was literally all I could do to keep from jumping on the man and pounding him into the intensive care unit. He didn't remember me.

That's it for Part One. Part Two deals with the part of the story that really burns my butt (and may get me in trouble).

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