School violence response expands

BY JOSHUA LEWIS | LITTLE ROCK, ARK. | December 16, 1999

LITTLE ROCK, ARK. (Dec. 16, 1999) -- David Gill wants to demonstrate that triumphs do come out of tragedies. And to prove it, the Presbyterian pastor and director of a retreat center is organizing a national camp for survivors of now all-too-common school shootings.

With the arrest Friday of an 18-year-old Florida teenager for allegedly threatening Columbine

students and with a recent school shooting in Fort Gibson, Okla. that injured several children,

Gill believes there needs to be a place where young people who endure such tragedy can share

their experiences.

"We do feel there's a need for these kids to connect with one another," Gill said.

In fact, groups of students have made smaller-scale initiatives on their own. For example, students from Littleton, Co., visited those in Conyers, Ga., where a shooting came close on the heels of the one at their school, he said.

Gill wants to create the same kind of contact and dialogue but include students from schools where the largest shootings have occurred -- Padukah, Ky.; Pearl, Miss.; Springfield, Or.; and Jonesboro, Ark.; as well as Conyers, Littleton, and now Fort Gibson.

He has conducted three similar camps at the Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center in Little Rock, Ark., for survivors of a 1998 shooting at a school in Jonesboro in which nearly a dozen students were wounded and five people lost their lives.

One of the big questions for students and their parents at those camps was, "Where do we go from here?" Gill said.

"We began -- at the encouragement of the parents and the kids -- moving into leadership skills. They said basically, 'Let's begin to move from being victims to being leaders and healers of others. You know, we don't want to come to camp every year and just remember what happened on the tragedy day.' Their idea was let's reach out to others and learn how to help others through the unique experience we've had, instead of just burying it. Let's take a tragedy and turn it into a triumph, which was the theme of our first camp."

In that vein, participants helped Arkansas tornado survivors at their second camp and, this summer, packed health kits for Church World Service.

It helped the survivors to realize that "some people deal with tragedy every day and let's look at the bigger picture. It helps you gain perspective on your own tragedy when you realize that you're not alone," Gill said.

Indeed, that would be one of the main purposes of a national camp: to help survivors realize that they are not alone.

Many of the Jonesboro survivors were in middle school and have several more years of school remaining. Those students can be there for others, like the students in Fort Gibson, Gill said.

That kind of bonding and potential for healing is what Gill would hope to accomplish with a national camp, but he says he doesn't have any preconceived notions about the format and would like the students to determine it for themselves.

There will be a curriculum for the weeklong camp, but it will be flexible, he said.

"Maybe from this camp, which now looks like it will happen -- I'm making more and more contacts into these communities -- a peer-to-peer network will emerge.

"It wouldn't surprise me at all for them to say at the end of the week, 'Let's form some kind of a way of staying in touch with each other and figure out what it is we could do both for healing...and maybe for prevention. Maybe there's things we can do...maybe there's something we can write together. Maybe there's something we can put on together that would be helpful to schools that are looking to prevent this kind of thing.' "

Putting together such a retreat is not as simple as deciding to have one, however.

There is the challenge of bringing together groups with different experiences, Gill said. Some of the schools are urban. Others are rural. Some students are middle schoolers. Others are in high school. Some schools are big, others small.

And Gill has met with some resistance to his idea from the various communities affected by school shootings. In some of the places, many people -- clergy, school officials, and parents -- are just tired of talking about it and tell him they just want to move on.

"Our response is: We understand how you can feel that way. But we also feel that we want to talk about it in a way that does move us on. And that's what we're trying to orchestrate here. Maybe they just don't understand quite what we have in mind."

Gill first learned the value of retreats to disaster survivors as a staffer for Heifer Project International, when he helped organize a retreat after the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City.

"People want to connect with other people who've been through similar experiences," he said.

"We see the need for 'connectionalism' in this," Gill said. So far, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) have committed financial support to the national retreat, and more support may be forthcoming since many additional denominations have helped fund smaller-scale camps in the past.

National denominations and communities alike are looking for resources to help young people "struggling to say, 'What if this happens to us?' or, 'What is the Christian response to preparing our young people for this?' or just dealing with the fact that we're now living in a world where disaster doesn't necessarily mean Mother Nature," he said.

Updated Dec. 17, 1999

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