The Augusta Chronicle talked with some of the area's top students from the class of 1999 for their views on how their generation will be remembered in the aftermath of the recent school shootings in Littleton, Colo., and Conyers, Ga.
As the 1999 school year draws to a close, graduating seniors are dealing with the usual bittersweet emotions associated with the end of an important chapter in their lives.
But this year, a cloud hangs over the celebrations and the tears: the cloud of two recent shootings in American high schools that have brought teens and their problems into the national spotlight.
The actions of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris in Littleton, Colo., and the charges against T.J. Solomon in Conyers, Ga., have focused a barrage of publicity upon their peers. Many of the top students in area high schools say that although these young men are not representative of their generation, the shootings have made them a little more wary of their fellow students.
"I don't think that's fair (to stereotype teens). A lot of good things happen that you don't hear about. But how do you forget something like that? ... With all this publicity, everyone is suspicious of each other," said Mary Ann Douglas, the valedictorian of Westside High School.
"I think it's looking at your peers, who you've known your whole life, with different eyes," said Courtney Taylor, valedictorian at Hephzibah High School. "Since it's happening all over, it's the whole generation and that sounds bad because it is kind of stereotyping."
Officials at Augusta-area schools, like their counterparts across the nation, have tightened security and begun to take seemingly minor threats more seriously, students say. Students, as well, are more likely to turn in fellow students for making threats.
"Threats that would have been shrugged off before" are now being reported, said Stephen Hobbs, North Augusta High School's valedictorian, "because it could have just as easily happened here as there."
"The administration has become more strict since those incidents," said Lakeside High valedictorian Casey Roland.
Many students have said the May 20 shooting in Conyers hit them even harder than the more brutal Colorado shootings a month earlier because it was so close to home.
"When I first heard about it, all I could say was when and where is this going to happen next and is it ever going to stop," said Academy of Richmond County valedictorian Drew Goldsmith. "It makes you think about what people say and do. Most teen-agers think they're invincible, but something like these shootings show they're not."
Mary Ann, from Westside, has a friend who attends Heritage High School in Conyers and was "petrified" when she heard he had been injured in the shooting. She said she was relieved to learn he had not been hurt seriously.
"That was pure fear," Courtney said when asked about her reaction to the Conyers shooting. "It was first far away in Colorado, and then it happened here. It was a reality check."
Though some students say they still don't believe an incident like that could happen at their school, others say the shootings have made them fear their classmates.
"I felt like an idiot going to school the day after the shooting at Columbine," said Evans High School's junior class president Melissa Mackay. Her parents made her and her sisters sign out during lunch periods, she said.
"I told my mom I wish I could have grown up with her because this is a very scary generation," said Jaquelyn Travis, valedictorian at Lucy C. Laney High School.
Sechin Curry, Harlem High's valedictorian, didn't go to school at Harlem this year because he had joint enrollment at Augusta State University, but he said many of his friends are frightened to go to school.
"Nobody thought (the kids in Colorado) would do that, so who's to say it couldn't happen at my school. ... You can't tell what a person's thinking by the way they dress," Jaquelyn said.
But for the most part, these students still have faith in their generation.
"It's unfair to generalize the class of '99," said Greenbrier High valedictorian Kristen Wagner. She said the shootings should not be viewed as a typical event that happened throughout high schools across the nation.
"(The school year) ended on a bad note," said Courtney, of Hephzibah High. "This senior class will always be remembered as potential suicides and murderers. There are a lot of good things that go by the wayside, though."
School violence can be prevented, they say. The solutions the students suggest echo the ones offered by adults: stricter gun control, more parental involvement in children's lives, early intervention for troubled children, tighter security at schools, and more acceptance of each other.
"The same kids are getting picked on. ... There will always be kids picking on other kids. I don't think it will ever stop," said Westside's Mary Ann.
But a T.W. Josey High student has a different idea: "I'm not saying that it couldn't happen here, but we're in an atmosphere where everybody gets along and nobody's left out," said valedictorian Tamika Hornsby. "We try to get everyone involved."
Her school, she said, has groups that everyone is more or less a part of, and a good peer mediator and support group is available for people who need someone to talk to. "You're not left out unless you want to be alone."
Emily Sollie, Mark Mathis and Ashlee Griggs can be reached at 724-0851.
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