As a spring snowstorm lashed against her face, 11-year-old Megan Drouin stood outside W. R. Myers High School in Taber, Alta., last Thursday and recalled the horrors of the previous 24 hours. On April 28, shortly after the lunch-hour break, a 14-year-old gunman had entered W. R. Myers and opened fire, fatally shooting one 17-year-old student and critically injuring another. From the classroom window of their junior high school adjoining W. R. Myers, Drouin and her friends could witness the growing pandemonium outside, as ambulances, emergency crews and police appeared on the scene. "We didn't know what was going on," Drouin told Maclean's, "but then some of my friends started to say, 'It's probably like that thing in Colorado.' " That "thing," of course, was the highly publicized shootings that had taken place at Columbine High School near Denver just eight days earlier, leaving 15 dead. Sadly, Drouin's friends were correct, and as she recounted how tragedy had now been brought to her doorstep, the slight, blond schoolgirl confessed that her biggest fear was the thought of returning to class when her school reopens this week. "I'm just worried it will happen again," said Drouin, "and that someone I'm really close to will be hurt."
So this is what it has come to for North American schoolchildren in the spring of 1999 - fear that the places where they gather daily to learn and play may suddenly turn into killing fields. In the wake of the Columbine shooting in Littleton, police forces across the continent found themselves dealing with a spate of both actual and threatened schoolyard violence, much of it apparently inspired by the two teenage boys who had perpetrated the Colorado carnage before killing themselves.
But it was in the unlikely setting of Taber - a prosperous farming community of 8,000 located 200 km southeast of Calgary - that the closest thing to a so-called copycat crime was committed. And it was here that students had to grapple most directly with the consequences. "You're supposed to feel safe in school," said Jessica Robinson, a Grade 10 W. R. Myers student, as she nervously knitted her fingers on her lap at Taber's civic centre. "But now it's like the worst place you would ever want to be." Sitting next to her, Robinson's classmate, Stacey Larsen, nodded her head in agreement. "It's like a nightmare," she said. "It's like some horror movie that we're having to live through."
A lot of people are feeling that way these days in Taber, a picket-fence kind of town that until now had been best known for its sugar refinery and harvests of sweet, juicy corn. One of the last remnants of Alberta's fabled Bible Belt, Taber boasts nearly a dozen churches of various denominations, including a strong Mormon presence. It is the sort of place where people often leave their car doors - and even their homes - unlocked, and where they still speak proudly about being law-abiding, family-oriented Christians. "We're a pretty protected and sheltered little place," said Mark Garner, a 42-year-old father of five who has lived in Taber his entire life. "We have clear blue sky, clean air and corn. We have things quite good and for this sort of thing to come into our community, it just taints everything."
Taber's cloistered little world was shattered shortly after 1 p.m. last Wednesday when a former W. R. Myers student entered the school brandishing a .22-calibre semi-automatic rifle, a weapon commonly used for rodent control on farms. While police are confirming few details of what happened next, some eyewitness accounts suggest the boy first pointed the rifle at a female teacher. After she indicated that she didn't consider the stunt funny, the boy continued down the hallway. He then confronted two 17-year-old students, who were late for class. Firing four rounds, he shot them both.
Over the next tense moments, others encountered the shooter. Grade 9 student Raegan Valgardson was crossing the hallway to the washroom when she saw a young man lying on the floor, bleeding. "I asked the kid with the gun what he was doing and he told me to get lost," Valgardson later told reporters. "So I ran away to my classroom, crying and screaming for help." Another Grade 9 student, Colby Cannady, said the shooter spared him. "He pointed the gun at my head and then at my stomach and said, 'Get out of here.' " According to 14-year-old Garrett Holstine, the situation was finally defused after he convinced the boy - whom he described as a close friend - to relinquish his weapon. Garrett said he told the shooter to put down his gun because "this isn't going to solve anything."
The official police version, as of late last week, was much more clipped. They said simply that the suspect - whose identity is an open secret among Taber residents but who cannot be named under the Young Offenders Act - was arrested "without further incident" by an unarmed Const. Dennis Reimer, the Taber police school resource officer at W. R. Myers. Police confirmed that one of the shooting victims, Jason Lang - son of a local Anglican minister, Dale Lang - had died shortly after being removed from the school. The other victim, who by law also cannot be identified, was taken to hospital where, by week's end, he was listed in "fair to serious" condition. The suspect was later charged with one count of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder.
As the drama unfolded in the hallways of W. R. Myers, teachers scrambled to protect their young charges. In a scene eerily reminiscent of the Littleton shooting, students were locked away in classrooms for up to three hours before being reunited with their parents. In some cases, they spent that time pinned against classroom walls, away from the windows, for fear of sniper fire. In others, they crouched behind their desks for protection. When the students finally did emerge, other echoes of Columbine quickly surfaced. As in the case of the two teenage killers in Colorado, the young Taber gunman was described by most former classmates as a loner who was frequently the object of teasing and ridicule (during the past year he had been home-schooled). "He didn't really like people," Grade 9 student Paul Garner told Maclean's. "Sometimes, you'd try to reach out to him and he'd just reject it."
Yet another parallel between the Littleton and Taber tragedies was the immediate - and massive - media interest. Reporters streamed into the tiny prairie town, filling hotel rooms and, at times, jamming the community's phone lines. While many townspeople were generous with their time and thoughts, others preferred to keep their sorrow to themselves. Reporters were generally polite when students or their parents declined to be interviewed - but frictions did emerge. Some Taber residents blamed the media blitz surrounding Littleton for contributing to what looked like a copycat tragedy in their own town. Others simply resented having their privacy invaded. A teenager who had come to lay flowers at the entrance to W. R. Myers reacted angrily when the TV cameras clicked on. "We came to pay respects to our friends and we can't do that with cameras in our faces, pestering us just to get a picture," he said.
In the most poignant example of private grief under public scrutiny, Dale Lang voluntarily appeared before a phalanx of cameras late last week to read a statement concerning the loss of his beloved son, Jason. "He was a very fine young man who loved life, played soccer, hockey and golf and enjoyed spending time with his friends," read Lang, his eyes welling with tears. "Most important, however, was his love for Jesus. It is that reality which gives us some peace in this time of chaos." With clerical eloquence, Lang then added that his family also grieved for "the sad state of a 14-year-old boy who could come to such a place as randomly taking another person's life for no reason. May God have mercy on this broken society and all the hurting people in it."
In subsequent media interviews, Lang confirmed that, in his heart, he had already forgiven the child who allegedly killed his son. But he also offered another chilling insight into the Taber tragedy. Lang said that, prior to last week's shooting, one of his other sons had overheard a conversation in which the boy who is now in custody alluded to the Littleton massacre. "He said he had a gun," said Lang, "and he thought it would be cool to see what it felt like to shoot somebody."
Amid the grief in Taber last week, some all-too-familiar questions emerged. How could such a thing have happened and what could be done to prevent it from reoccurring? As always, answers are elusive. Gun opponents, noting that Alberta boasts the highest levels of gun ownership in the country, said the shootings proved the need for stricter firearms controls. Harley Phillips, Taber's mayor and the town's former police chief, rejected that argument. Phillips says he is far more concerned with what he describes as the lax treatment of young criminals by the courts. He also sees a need for families and communities across the country to reflect on their priorities. "It starts with a simple thing, like parents spending more time with their children," he told Maclean's, "and it grows from there."
On a more immediate front, Alberta Education Minister Gary Mar told reporters last week that he is determined to do whatever he can to make the province's schools safer. But he added a caveat. "This was a random act of violence," Mar said of the Taber shootings. "No rational act can ever overcome irrational behaviour." That is scant comfort to the likes of Brad Potiuk, a Grade 12 student at W. R. Myers, who fears that the recent school mayhem - and all the attendant publicity - will just breed more of the same. "I think it's going to spread," says Potiuk. "It's going to happen again." Canadians can only hope - and pray - that he is wrong.
The Copycat Syndrome
Lunchtime, a high school - and a teenager with a gun. The parallels between last week's shooting in Taber, Alta., and the April 20 massacre in Littleton, Colo., are chilling. But while the timing and details of the Alberta shooting sent ripples of apprehension through many schools across the country, experts cautioned that the incident is unlikely to signal a trend towards more U.S.-style violence in Canadian schools. "I think the copycat phenomenon will be limited in Canada," says Raymond Corrado, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University. "The gun culture is much, much more dramatic in the U.S. The difference is the scale - he could have taken out a lot more people with a high-powered rifle."
But the potential for more bloodshed remains. Stephen Kent, a sociologist at the University of Alberta, notes that the outpouring of fear and grief that accompanied the shootings in Colorado, vividly portrayed on television, shows disaffected youth that it is easy to gain the attention they crave by wreaking havoc on the objects of their anger. "Educational institutions at all levels are readily accessible," Kent says, noting that they offer an easy target, with high concentrations of enclosed, unprotected people. "As long as weapons are available in society, there will be isolated individuals who, from time to time, will seek revenge in violent ways."
For those on the front lines, Taber is a clarion call to deal with violence in schools. Stuart Auty, a former vice-principal and now head of the Toronto-based Canadian Safe School Network, says it is "time that governments stepped up to the plate. Just about every high-school teacher in this country has got two or three kids in each of their classes who are behaviourally difficult." One answer, Auty adds, is "more early intervention programs" - because by the time an angry kid comes to class with a gun, it is too late.
Maclean's May 10, 1999