Why Eric Hainstock haunts me

At one time, school shootings were unheard of and unthinkable – a punchline in the movie “Heathers” or the song “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun.”

Unfortunately, school shootings became commonplace to us in the last decade. The word “Columbine” brings memories of watching students fleeing their once-safe sanctuary and running for their lives. No two shootings have been the same, but whether it’s been at a high school or university, they’ve been rash acts committed by emotionally troubled young men who changed and devastated lives forever.

In 2006, Eric Hainstock walked into his Wisconsin high school and shot his principal, John Klang, to death. A year later, he was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison.

Let me be crystal clear: Eric Hainstock, and other  young men like him, have destroyed people’s lives and need to be punished. I make no excuses or justifications for their behavior.

But I cannot help but think about the circumstances that brought them to the brink. In many cases, they endured intense bullying and teasing at school. The resources or tools to deal with that stress appeared to be absent or unavailable.

And it’s always made me wonder this: If we as adults can make workplaces safe, why can’t we do a better job of making our schools safer (or at least minimize conflict)? I realize that kids have to learn how to deal with conflict and conflict resolution – it’s a part of life – but in some cases, the young men I’m talking about were in a war zone.

Hainstock had intense abuse wherever he went – home, school, on the bus. His situation was extreme, and very different from mine. His parents were negligent and severely abusive – which would have made it even more important for school to be a safe, nurturing environment. It wasn’t.

Hainstock’s conviction, in August 2007, inspired me to write this post for Madison.com.

WHY ERIC HAINSTOCK HAUNTS ME

I’ve just returned from a long vacation, and from watching the news, from a distance, about Eric Hainstock’s trial.

Let me start this post by making a few things clear: What happened to John Klang is an awful, horrifying event that should never have happened. I feel for Sue Klang and for Mr. Klang’s friends, family, and students. Eric Hainstock was responsible for a horrifying sequence of events, and he clearly needs to answer for his actions.

But watching Eric, and watching the trial and its almost inevitable conclusion, has me deeply unsettled. What happened to Eric really, really haunts me…..mostly because I could have BEEN Eric, or Dylan Klebold, or any of the other sad, angry, lost souls out there who have done these awful things in the last decade or so.

I’m a responsible, even-keeled, professional adult now. I’ve got some friends and a support system around me. In high school, however, things were a lot different for me. In any given school surrounding, children are thown into an environment where homogeny and assimilation are rewarded or even mandated. Anyone who deviates from that is the target of a lot of hatred and harrassment.

There are different ways a teenage boy can open himself up for harrassment and teasing – kids pick on the brainy kid, the chubby kid, and the gay kid. In that department, I hit the trifecta – I was all three of those things. Every school has that ONE kid who, from the moment the first junior high class bell rings until graduation day, is the recipient of teasing, taunting, and challenges. In my school, I was that kid.

It’s my nature to fight back and ask questions, but in a scenario when you’re outnumbered by 10 to 1, my only sane choice was to hide or flee. It was a horrifying four years for me, like living and walking in a war zone, where every move had to be pre-examined, every classway path planned, every interaction analyzed to determine any risk for humiliation and physical violence.

The worst of it was my senior year, when in addition to the students, the faculty (and administration) began to join in the taunting, teasing, and harrassment. The phys ed teacher told all of his students to make sure that they did everything they could to “make that faggot drop out”.

I snapped in my senior year. Like Eric and like many others, I broke and I made a very bold, rash move. The only difference was one of direction – instead of killing someone else, I tried to kill myself.

I had a meltdown at school. My parents, thankfully, stepped up to the plate for me at a time of crisis. They intervened and, after a long absence, got me back into class and into an independent study program – away from the heinous gym teacher and from abusive students – so I could focus on my education and graduate.

Every situation is unique, and there is no way for us to trace the DNA of such a horrifying event. We don’t know who, or what, triggers a breakdown in logic, and blame seems like a wasted exercise at this point. I want people to understand that I am in NO WAY justifying the actions of boys like Eric and the Columbine shooters.

What I do wonder, though, is this – when you put people, young people, young boys, into what is effectively an emotional and physical war zone, and they react like soldiers and become combative…..what other outcome, exactly, did you expect?

We as adults have legal protections in our offices and in public spaces. Though adults sometimes “go postal” and attack co-workers, more often than not a problem is defused or eliminated at the root. But children – who are far less able to negotiate complex emotional terrain and complicated situations than adults are – are often not protected from this type of behavior and violence. In a situation like this, the kid departing from the norm is always the troublemaker. There’s a “boys will be boys” mentality that prevails.

This was most obvious to me in the aftermath of Columbine, where figurehead after figurehead talked about guns and getting guns out of school, but the teasing and taunting that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris received was either ignored or mentioned only as a footnote. Of course, securing our schools is a must, but when you only address surface issues like guns in school, you’re treating the symptom but not the disease.

Those boys did horrible, unspeakable things, and I don’t waive their responsibility for their actions for one second. But it eventually came to light that, at Columbine, most of the school had poured disdain, hatred, and verbal insults day after day at these kids.

We need to remember that ALL of us, each and every one, are catalysts in this world. Like the butterfly effect in science, what we say and what we do (or witness silently and don’t do) affects another human being, for better or for worse. Each word, each action, each lack of reaction can come back to affect us.

The thing that haunts me the most is a photograph of Eric at the trial. The picture is taken right after the verdict has been read, and I can see so many things in his face – fear, agony, a sense of abandonment, a bit of put-on teenage bravado.

Most of all, I see a sense of being totally, utterly lost, lost in a maze that he will never find his way out of. It haunts me so.

FOOTNOTE: After my graduation in the late 80s, my high school (in southwestern Pennsylvania) has continued to achieve “epic fail” status when handling conflict resolution. About ten or so years ago, they were profiled on ABC’s “20/20” newsmagazine. Why? When two teenage girls started to tease and attack two other students, they suspended the recipients of the abuse, instead of the instigators – a novel application of logic if there ever was one.

Eric is serving his sentence in Green Bay, and shared some details of his life in prison (and perspective on what happened) with the Madison independent paper Isthmus.

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