The Montana Shooting: Reflections on a Tragedy and Thoughts on the Future

On April 27, 2014, a tragedy in the U.S. state of Montana shook the high school exchange community from coast to coast, and reached across the Atlantic to Europe. Diren Dede, a 17-year-old high school exchange student from Germany, was shot and killed just weeks before he was scheduled to return home. Diren had reportedly entered an open garage in his neighborhood late that night, and the owner of the house shot him. Some news reports say Diren was “garage hopping,” a fad in which teens run into open garages looking for … alcohol … soda … snacks? It’s supposed to be a prank. It didn’t turn out that way for Diren Dede.

I’ve been thinking about this horrific event, not quite knowing how to apply it to my work with exchange students. It’s an absolute tragedy for everyone involved, with ripple effects to Diren’s family and friends – both back home and here in the U.S. – and to exchange students all over the country. It’s been difficult for Germans to grasp how this could happen; many of us here in America can’t figure it out either.

risk diceI’m not planning to discuss who did what, and who is at fault for what; it’s hard to sort out the facts from a distance. But I think it makes sense to look at the situation from the perspective of exchange programs, and in particular the perspective of the 2014-2015 group of exchange students and their parents as those students prepare to leave for the United States this summer. I’ve heard, for example, that one German student’s parents refused a host family placement in the state of Wyoming because Wyoming is next to Montana and therefore it, too, must be a dangerous place to live. The reaction is understandable, but it’s unfortunate. What might that student miss by not spending the year with the host family in Wyoming who chose her application from among all others?

Lessons Learned From Tragedy

How do we in the exchange community reduce the chance of this kind of thing happening in the future? How do we further ensure our students’ safety, which is already constantly on our minds? We have to start by understanding that teenagers aren’t adults. We know their brains are not fully developed. They process risks differently from how they will view risk several years from now. Risk, for all practical purposes, just doesn’t exist for them. Moreover, we know that many teenage exchange students anticipate that their study abroad experience will be a vacation from their own parents. That’s a normal teen feeling regarding the prospect of being away from home. It takes time for them to learn that they are living a real life, not a vacation life, in their host country.

Those of us working in this field try to teach them that they are coming into a totally different environment from their lives back home, and that they have to adapt. That means they have to grow up pretty quickly; we’re expecting them to suddenly make good adult-like choices, change habits they may have lived with for years, and adapt to a different community and a different school system from what they are used to – all in a few months. We’re there to help them along that path, and to help them make good decisions. But we can’t foresee everything. Garage hopping? Most of my colleagues and I had never heard of it. But I guarantee it’s on the list now, regardless of whether that is, in fact, what was going on that night in April.

Warning our students to be careful and to make “good” decisions has nothing to do with whether they are in Montana or Oregon. In the U.S., the principles of private property are such that the idea of walking into someone else’s garage at midnight – much less someone you don’t even know — is a terrible idea. This isn’t good, and it’s not bad; there’s no value judgment. It’s just a fact, part of our “normal.” Acknowledging that Diren may have made a mistake in walking into the garage of a neighbor at midnight does not justify the action of the homeowner. But it still leaves the question of why a teenager was walking around at midnight in the garage of someone who, by all accounts, he did not know.

No alcohol imageThe simple answer is that Diren was 17 years old. If you have – or have had – a 17 year old, you “get” it. They do things like this, things that make the adults around them ask “what were they thinking?” Most of the time, a teen’s bad decisions are just dumb, with little or no long-term consequences. Some of the time, there are mid-level consequences – a fine or a court appearance for a teen caught drinking alcohol, for example, or financial consequences for crashing a car the student wasn’t supposed to be driving. For an exchange student, bad decisions can lead to the disciplinary action of immediately being sent home. Sometimes, however, the consequences of making the wrong decision are even more tragic and irreversible.

This is why, in the high school exchange community, we have rules about “act first and ask questions later” when it comes to student safety – if there is even a hint that a student is in trouble or in danger, U.S. government regulations require us to take action to protect the student and investigate the circumstances afterwards. This is why parents and host parents want to know where their children and students are when they are out on their own, and who they are with and what they are doing. This is why it’s common for U.S. teens to have curfews. It’s always hard for exchange students to understand; many of them feel they are being treated like children, and they often have been accustomed to much more freedom in their home country.

But they’re not at home now. They are in a foreign country, with foreign rules and foreign customs. Host parents shouldn’t be afraid to impose the rules and guidelines – not only are we talking about teens, with risk management brains that are far from fully developed, but we’re talking about teens who don’t understand their host country’s peculiarities – any host country, not just the United States. Natural parents of students can help by trying to understand that they can’t expect the rules and customs of the host country to be the same as their own; they can encourage their children to adapt to the reality of life in their host country. This can’t totally prevent students from making bad decisions — but I believe it substantially reduces the possibility.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, we all need to figure out how to move forward. Should we give up on the idea of cultural and education exchange in this country? I believe that would be a serious mistake. Does it make sense to cancel your child’s plan to come to the United States this August? I would strongly disagree; terrible things can happen anywhere and at any time. Should we establish a new rule that exchange students can’t go out after 10 pm? That would be silly.  How about not allowing exchange students to ride in a car? Of course not, although the fact is that the chance of being killed in a car accident is far greater than of being shot. That doesn’t stop us from getting into cars. Life does go on for the 30,000 exchange students who come to the U.S. each year, and for the new batch that will be here this coming year.

Diren Dede should not have died that night in April. He should be preparing his return home to Germany after a year that would have framed his approach to his life as an adult. I don’t know how to help alleviate the pain Diren’s family, host family, and friends feel right now. I know there is nothing I can do directly. But I also know I will continue to work to bring young men and women to my country to learn the value of study abroad and cultural exchange, and I will continued to encourage U.S. teens to do the same in reverse. If they stay home, it’s true they won’t suffer from things that could go wrong. They won’t cry from getting in trouble for a bad teen decision. But we won’t meet them, either, and they won’t meet us. And that seems like a shame for everyone. Better, in my opinion, to learn somehow from what has happened and to work to make sure there aren’t other headlines like this.

Photo credits: ©2014 Thinkstock.com
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