The Message

Kid Stuff

On April 8, Boulder High School students, supplemented by a few media members, packed the school's auditorium to see a mini-film festival and panel discussion about the school's video-production department. Before any talk could take place, however, teacher Matt Greenman introduced a Channel 4 news clip broadcast a week earlier. As the lights dimmed, anchor Kathy Walsh's face popped onto a screen that spanned the proscenium; next to her was a computer-generated illustration labeled "Video Violence." Walsh looked somber as she introduced a report by journalist Shaun Boyd, who revealed that murder-and-mayhem-filled videos made by Boulder High students aired on Channel 54, the city's public-access provider, mere weeks before the fifth anniversary of the slayings at Columbine.

A serious topic? Maybe -- but an amusing thing happened as Channel 4's item unspooled. Upon seeing goofy, unrealistic footage of a girl being stabbed, boys getting shot and one unfortunate fellow receiving a smack to the head with a golf club, the kids started laughing. Not embarrassed laughter, mind you, but full-on guffaws. A snippet of video-production teacher Jim Kavanagh declaring, "I do not condone violence," earned squeals of mirth, too. And after Boyd sniffed that instead of telling students, counselors or parents about the content of the videos, Kavanagh "put them on cable TV," the audience hooted as though Jason Biggs had just inserted his manhood into an apple pie.

Granted, Kavanagh didn't seem terribly gleeful as he took the stage a few minutes later, joining the other panelists: Greenman, a couple of Boulder High parents, a member of the school's improvement team, plus students Max Peterson and Mike Messimer, the budding filmmakers responsible for the golf-club scene. In a statement about his experiences over the past few weeks, Kavanagh pointed out that Channel 4 representatives interviewed him at 4:30 p.m. for a package set to appear at 6 p.m.; in his view, the timing suggested that Boyd and company were more interested in sensationalism than in discovering the truth. He also decried the "if-it-bleeds-it-leads mentality that obviously Channel 4 subscribes to" and took issue with what he saw as the unsophisticated implications of the Boyd story and similar pieces by the station's partner, the Rocky Mountain News, which subsequently published an editorial ripping Kavanagh. "What makes an Eric Harris or a Dylan Klebold or a Kip Kinkel is far more complicated than violence in the media," he noted.

During a Boulder High assembly,  Jim Kavanagh 
throws it back at the media.
Mark Manger
During a Boulder High assembly, Jim Kavanagh throws it back at the media.

In contrast, the way Channel 4 and the Rocky heard about the videos in the first place was quite simple. Speaking to the students, Kavanagh described the person who contacted these organizations as "a retired economist" with a longtime ax to grind with Channel 54. When he caught a glimpse of the students' efforts, Kavanagh continued, "this embittered fellow took advantage of the Columbine anniversary" to try to "bring down" Channel 54 and Boulder High's video department -- "and he's gotten the Denver media to play right into his hands."

The man in question is Michael Kennedy, age seventy. He alternately describes himself as a former business instructor at the University of Colorado, a disabled veteran, a world traveler who's worked with NASA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a single parent whose two kids graduated from Boulder High and the director of a self-defined "think tank," the Center for Enterprise and Accountability. In this last capacity, Kennedy closely monitors Channel 54, recording hour upon hour of programming and carefully logging anything he considers to be objectionable. His press release about the Boulder High flicks displays his flair for colorful language. In a passage headlined "Three Columbine Type Shooting [sic], Murders and Bloody Gore," he fulminates about "two sinister teenagers...dressed in ominous grey metallic jumpsuits and wool caps with Uzi automatic weapons protruding from their pockets" whose slayings are memorialized by "graphic close-ups" and a "zoom on one victim's bloody crotch wound."

Kennedy's characterizations make the videos seem much more shocking and explicit than they actually are. Dawn of the Dead they're not, in large part because of the skill level of the various videographers. The movies were created by first-year video-production students assigned to create a chase scene that would feature basic rudiments of film technique: a point-of-view shot, a reaction shot, an establishing shot, clean entrances and exits and so on. Kavanagh has been using the chase project in his lessons for years, and he says that when his latest batch of students asked to employ violent imagery, he only gave them the go-ahead after they agreed to put such material in the context of a parody. The finished products didn't always make this clear, he concedes: "Sometimes the students weren't able to get their ideas across -- but it was supposed to be funny."

Of course, even professional satirists are misunderstood by a certain percentage of the populace; there are probably still folks who think "Short People," Randy Newman's musical lampoon of bigotry, was actually an attack on midgets. When it came to the Boulder High directors, Kennedy certainly didn't get the joke. "You can say this is kids' attempts at humor," he allows, "but my message is, when is murder or violence humorous or entertaining? Since when is cold-blooded murder an art form?"

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