I have a few thoughts to share after the shooting at Memorial Middle School in Joplin, Missouri that happened Monday. These are not thoughts on the cause or the solution for school violence. I don’t know if the cause is violent video games, the coming of the end times, overprescription of Ritalin to young boys, broken homes, too much sex on TV or media hype. I suspect the third and the last. On a bad day I consider the second. But I digress…
I work less than a mile from Memorial Middle School. I have friends and acquaintances who attended school there when it was a high school and friends and acquaintances whose children go to school there or will soon. My daughter is in middle school, though we live about 25 miles away, so she isn’t in the same school system.
I haven’t seen anybody saying “We thought it couldn’t happen here.” That seems to be the mantra when these things happen. Hopefully in Joplin, we knew it could happen here. After all, it happened in the much smaller town of Riverton, Kansas, fifteen miles to the west, less than a year ago.
Memorial doesn’t fit the “mold” of recent school violence. Violence at Memorial should come as no surprise (more on that in a minute), but it is surprising that it fit the suburban and small town mold, right down to the trench coat. We might have expected drug violence or gang violence. A drive-by shooting would have been less shocking.
Memorial is in absolutely the worst neighborhood in Joplin. To the north and east are busy commercial streets. Immediately to the west are two Catholic schools, McAuley Catholic High School and St. Peters Middle School. West of that is a residential neighborhood that has the lowest property values in town and some of the worst crime. To the north is a light manufacturing and warehouse area and railroad tracks.
Twenty years ago, Joplin was expanding primarily to the south. Since then it has started expanding to the north and historic neighborhoods in north Joplin have seen quite a bit of “rehabbing”. The established middle class neighborhoods and new neighborhoods in the south are served by South Middle School. The new neighborhoods in the north and most of the rehabbed areas are served by North Middle School. The inner city is served by Memorial Middle School.
Joplin is a small city, about 45,000 people in the city of Joplin and a few thousand more in the Joplin Schools. The metro area covers two counties and has less than 200,000 people. So the worst part of Joplin isn’t the worst of places, but it is bad enough. I’d say it’s comparable to the riverfront areas of Memphis and St. Louis, outside the brightly lit trendy areas and tourist spots.
There’s crime. Driving home this evening, about midnight, within a half mile of Memorial, I passed two incidents involving multiple police cars. Two is unusual, but one is not. Within a mile of Memorial there were multiple rapes of girls 15-20 years old in the late evening hours earlier in the year; a suspect was arrested. Meth labs are common and meth use is everywhere.
The homes are awful and the property values in the toilet. In 2004, when the Joplin housing market was hot, I listed a foreclosed home owned by Freddie Mac about 3 blocks from Memorial Middle School. (The sale including price is public record, or I wouldn’t discuss it.) It was on the market for several months before being placed on an auction. It was in bad shape, but I had sold similar homes in decent neighborhoods for $15-20,000 and often in a matter of weeks. This home spent months on the market, then sold at auction for $1500.
Memorial is not Columbine. It’s not Jonesboro. It’s the school in the poor part of town. It’s the school in the drug area, the high crime area. Of course it could happen there.