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Sunday, January 16, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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In Moses Lake, guns avoid blame

The Associated Press

TELEVISION, WE ARE TOLD, is to blame.

When children shoot children - and alarmingly, it has happened often in recent days, in Colorado, Kentucky, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Washington and most recently in Oklahoma - the search for explanations inevitably leads to the tube.

An Associated Press poll finds that most Americans think the most effective deterrent to school violence would be to reduce the amount of violence portrayed in TV shows and movies.

But just how consuming is TV?

Ask the residents of Moses Lake, Wash., and Salmon Arm, British Columbia - two towns very much alike, each with about 15,000 people, each with similar incomes and ethnic makeup.

Both see the same television shows. And yet one has been riddled with violence, and the other has not. In one town, parents traditionally have spent time with their kids; in the other, they're just learning how.

MOSES LAKE - The people of Moses Lake knew there were problems even before a headline-grabbing tragedy tore at the town's heart: a 1996 school shooting in which two students and a teacher were killed.

It was horrific violence in a city of less than 15,000 that already had more than its share of problems.

Drug use was up. Juvenile crime was up. The community was looking for answers, a quest that intensified after the Frontier Middle School attack by 14-year-old Barry Loukaitis.

There was suspicion that television, extreme movies and video games could be preying on the vulnerable - Loukaitis had rented the Oliver Stone film "Natural Born Killers" more than a half-dozen times.

In this town where firearms are more common than tractors, it's considered as sure as sunrise that guns are not the problem. The soul-searching pointed residents to their very core: to families, some deeply troubled, who were failing to value and nurture their children.

The town took action. Self-improvement came to Moses Lake in the form of task forces, more counseling and police services - and a new pool and skate park and Boys & Girls Clubs.

"Mercy." "Generosity." "Compassion." Signs advertising these and other virtues are propped in store windows throughout town by students. They are the brainchild of Colleen Trefz, 41, a mother of four and a parent coordinator in the school district.

The shooting and its aftermath "just shook our community like you can't believe," said Trefz. "I saw a real need for character education."

"People are sticking their noses into things that need to be done," said Angela Foland, 38, a store cashier and mother of two young children. "It should have been done a long time ago."

"The Desert Oasis," boasts a sign welcoming visitors to Moses Lake, a break in the pancake-flat land of Eastern Washington. Cars sail past on Interstate 90, heading west to Seattle or eastward to Spokane. Those that pull off find a lake with 120-plus miles of shoreline and the hint of a life where a tranquil day of fishing is as close as your back yard.

The city, named for an Indian tribal chief, is new enough for most buildings to have an efficient, strip-mall drabness. Potatoes are a major crop, and Nestle and other firms have set up processing plants. At defunct Larson Air Force Base, Boeing tests new planes and Japan Air Lines pilots are trained.

Residents have a record of investing in the future. In the late 1950s, they raised property taxes to improve the library system, "one of the most successful votes ever," recalls longtime librarian Skip Munson. Dozens of parks and athletic fields, a municipal ice skating rink and the Adam East Museum and Art Center were developed over the years.

The Boys & Girls Clubs opened in 1998. The 1999 budget was $141,000; the 2000 budget, to include a new club, is $430,000, most donated by residents and companies, says executive director Ryan Graves.

At times it takes an outsider to help a town see what it needs - like Mark Evans of Youth Dynamics, a Washington organization that aids troubled kids. He came to Moses Lake in 1995, a Christian scout in search of a flock.

"There was absolutely no question this was where Youth Dynamics was going to fit," he said. "There wasn't a lot of outreach to kids, particularly the nonchurched kids we focus on."

A month before the school shooting, he addressed an audience about problems in the youth culture, including violence. "Afterward, one member came up to me and said, `You don't understand. Those things don't happen here.' I thought, `You are so clueless.' "

There was evidence of trouble in Moses Lake and neighboring cities. Grant County exceeds Washington's average for antisocial behavior, including youth violence and drug abuse, said Jennifer Lane, director of the Grant County Prevention and Recovery Center.

That's one reason the state awarded $151,000 for an addiction program, Lane said. In 1997, violent-crime arrests among children aged 10-17 were 6 per 1,000 county residents - more than 50 percent higher than for the state. Domestic-violence arrests were higher by 43 percent.

In Moses Lake, violent youth crimes rose from 17 to 127 from 1991 to 1997.

Teenagers repeatedly burglarized a shop in 1993 as part of an arms race between rival gangs that netted 20 guns. In nearby Quincy, an elderly couple was shot to death in bed in a 1996 raid to steal guns, and four teenagers were convicted.

Doubters aside, by Feb. 1, 1996, Evans had raised the seed money he needed for a Moses Lake youth center.

The next day, Loukaitis, carrying two handguns and a deer rifle under a black trench coat, walked into his algebra class and opened fire.

He killed Leona Caires, 49, and Manuel Vela Jr. and Arnie Fritz, both 14, and severely wounded Natalie Hintz, then 13. Tried as an adult and convicted of three counts of murder, Loukaitis was jailed for life without possibility of parole.

Evans started working with kids the day after the shooting.

Television to blame?

"It's all back to the parents," says a teenager, one of about 40 who have gathered, at a reporter's request, to talk about TV and their lives.

"Parents too often use television as a baby-sitter. Those kids are the ones most influenced by the TV because their parents aren't there," says one teenager.

When they were younger, their parents more closely monitored their TV time. They're considered mature enough now to make their own choices and to put programs, even those that are violent or sexual, in perspective.

Television isn't a big factor in their lives, anyway, most contend, although close to 90 percent of homes get cable or satellite; teenagers say school, homework, sports, friends, computers and family - not necessarily in that order - take up most of their day.

Adults aren't necessarily so relaxed about TV, especially when more vulnerable children are involved. At Youth Dynamics' downtown center, where big screen sets are part of the lure, Evans has become wary of the increasingly popular "WWF Wrestling" show and its clones.

No fear of guns

If television gets a bad rap in Moses Lake, guns do not.

Twenty years ago, students would pull into the high-school parking lot with rifles in their gun racks, ready for after-class hunting. Weapons are less visible now, but support for gun ownership is readily apparent.

"I've grown up with guns all my life. We have guns at home; my dad's a big-time hunter. I'm not afraid of guns," said Sara Conley, a 16-year-old with an all-American rÀesumÀe: basketball, golf and law school as her goal.

Attitudes didn't change

The school killings didn't change attitudes. Neither did a subsequent tragedy: Ten months later, victim Arnie Fritz's cousin, Aaron Harmon, 14, killed himself, his mother and stepsister.

Wal-Mart sells rifles in its sporting-goods department; the local Kmart does, too. At least four other stores stock weapons, along with private dealers who hold federal firearms licenses - and those who don't.

Over at the Olde World Trading Co. on Division Street, Eric Van Woert, whose family owns the store, says business is brisk. Some customers say they fear new gun-control laws, beyond the current five-day waiting period and background checks tightened in 1998 by federal law.

People can change, and they can change a town.

"What I see is more parents willing to acknowledge they have a weakness," says Cynthia Calbick, whose community-college program teaches parenting skills to 200 people a year.

Officer Dan Bricker joined a school-liaison program the day after the school shooting. He's certain he knows why kids go wrong: "Negative attention is better than no attention; 99.9 percent are trying to send out signals they need help."

Help is what the town is trying to give them - and itself - and there are signs of hope. In 1998, violent youth crimes dropped more than 17 percent from the year before.

"I hope people look at our community and say, `Wow, they learned their lesson. There's something there we like,' " said Colleen Trefz. "I want people to emulate us, not pity us."

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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