I have long respected Debbie Pelley, the former Jonesboro teacher who over the years has fought battles with Arkansas legislators and nationwide on behalf of conservative values and principles.
Pelley is one of those people who can be as formidable as a badger in her beliefs as well as profound in the common sense she displays.
In March 1998, when Jonesboro’s Westside Middle School students Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, decided to bring weapons to the school grounds and shoot students and others as they exited the building, Pelley was teaching there.
The aftermath left four students and one teacher dead, with 10 others wounded. It was among the earlier school shootings in this era of America, coming a year before the Columbine massacre in April 1999.
As a former teacher of Mitchell’s, Pelley had earned the standing to comment reasonably on probable causes behind this tragedy, and was invited to testify before the U.S. Senate’s Commerce Committee on June 16, 1998.
In her testimony she warned of what she had observed and predicted as a root cause of such growing violence among teenagers. Clearly, few senators listened closely enough to her admonitions to take meaningful action.
Pelley, who wrote an opinion essay published this March, the 20th anniversary of the Westside shootings, said a significant problem with the safety of children today is not being addressed. Until it is, she predicted, shootings in schools and elsewhere would continue.
“Twenty years ago I said there would be continuous school shootings and said to friends that we don’t have a chance at anything different as long as our kids were listening to this [rap] music,” Pelley wrote. “… [O]ur children listen to [messages] every day that teach violence, love of guns, killing school children and even killing cops. The theme of this music is that the most glorious thing one can do is kill someone and be on death row.”
She continued: “Every time there is a shooting the liberals yell about the guns, but no one talks about the culture and its influence on our children. Liberals hide behind freedom of speech, and they were out in full force when I gave my testimony arguing that the culture or music had nothing to do with school shootings.
Dave Grossman, who wrote the book On Killing, has repeatedly warned about the video games that desensitize our children to violence and killing. In the Westside shooting one of the two young boys who did the killing was into music and the other was into video games.
In Pelley’s Senate testimony two decades earlier, she had provided ample evidence to support her contentions.
She told lawmakers Mitchell had been a student in her English class for an hour each day between August and the shooting. “Mitchell was always respectful, using yes ma’am and no ma’am in his responses to me. I never saw him exhibit anger, never saw him commit any hostile act toward any other student or exhibit any behavior that would make me think Mitchell could commit this act. In fact, he had a pleasant and even cheerful disposition and appeared to enjoy his many friends, and to enjoy life in general."
After the tragedy, she and a professional counselor, in discussions with seventh-grade classes, explored possible reasons Mitchell would commit such crimes. “The students said Mitchell had been listening to gangster rap music, and in particular to Tupac Shakur. They also said he had started to change a lot in the last two or three months,” Pelley testified.
In days afterward, Pelley said numerous students on many occasions said Tupac and another rap group known as Bone Thugs-n-Harmony were Mitchell’s favorite groups. “At this point I had never heard of either of these groups,” she testified. “Mitchell brought this music to school; listened to it on the bus; tried listening to it in classes, sang the lyrics over and over at school, and played a cassette in the bathroom ‘about coming to school and killing all the kids.'”
She said students told her that Mitchell in the previous months was always making the gang sign on the cover of Tupac’s album All Eyes On Me, and was more into the music than anyone else they knew. “Mitchell’s mother, and Mitchell himself, recently confirmed that he bought these albums this last Christmas, three months before the tragedy.” He also told his mother he believed the violent rap affected his psyche.
Pelley said one student brought in a Tupac CD that Mitchell had lent him and told her to keep it because “he didn’t want to have anything more to do with the music because he felt it may have been an influence in Mitchell’s life that led to this tragedy.”
Pelley testified that students showed her how to pull lyrics off the Internet — about 500 pages of violent lyrics — then identified Mitchell’s favorite albums and songs. “I wish every adult would take the time to read these lyrics as I have done,” she said. “Most adults would be in for quite a shock.”
A very good idea. This vile and violent “music” glorifying murder, drugs, crime and demeaning females is a far bigger problem across society than most realize.
Pelley testified surveys conducted in three middle schools in Arkansas and one in Missouri at the time indicated a large percentage of students in middle schools listened to gangster rap music. Here’s how the Arkansas schools broke down: At the first middle school, 39 percent of seventh-graders listened to Tupac and 67 percent to Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. In the second school of eighth-graders, 68 percent listened to Tupac and 84 percent to Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. The third school comprised of ninth-graders found 82 percent listening to Tupac and 37 percent to Bone Thugs-n-Harmony.
In the Missouri school, 65 percent of the fifth- and sixth-graders surveyed listened to Tupac and about 76 percent to Bone Thugs-n-Harmony.
Our problems most assuredly run much deeper than the type of weapons those who choose to kill will select.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.