Tragedy 101: `Degrassi' pushes limits with school-shooting episode

Tragedy 101: `Degrassi’ pushes limits with school-shooting episode
By Sarah Rodman
Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Everything is about to change at Degrassi High School.

The relative calm of the fictional school at the center of “Degrassi: The Next Generation” will be shattered when one character brings a gun to school with tragic results in a special two-part episode.

Of course, the Canadian-produced show – which airs in the United States on The N on Fridays at 8 p.m. – has tackled tough topics in the past, including domestic violence, substance abuse and teen pregnancy.

But, as “Degrassi” head writer Aaron Martin points out, “The issues in the past have been for specific characters, and this one really affects the entire school.”

Tortured but brilliant student Rick Murray (Ephraim Ellis) can no longer take the harassment of fellow classmates who are angry with him for abusing a girlfriend. He targets one student for payback.

The ensuing shooting will change the atmosphere of the entire school and the life of popular Jimmy Brooks (Aubrey Graham).

“It’s definitely brought Degrassi to a more adult, darker place than it’s been in the past,” Martin says.

Dark enough that Miriam McDonald, 17, who plays Rick’s crush, Emma, says she and her fellow cast members were in a “state of shock” after reading the script.

The producers and writers went to great lengths to make the cast understand the scope of the topic, Martin says. As did The N, which will air several public service announcements as part of the broadcast.

“Not that we don’t do a lot of research for every episode, but for these kinds of episodes, we really make sure that we have a person who’s an expert in the field,” Martin says.

For this episode, the producers brought in bullying expert Barbara Coloroso, who worked with the families of survivors of the Columbine shooting.

“She gave us amazing insights into how (bullies) work and how this cycle of violence keeps happening over and over again.”

Graham, who plays the target of Rick’s anger, says he knows something about bullying from his time as a mixed-race student at a predominantly white school.

“I definitely had to defend myself a lot, I used to get a lot of racist comments.” He chose not to fight back but to take solace in the friends he did have.

All involved hope viewers can see past the headline-grabbing aspect of the shooting to the more insidious problem of bullying.

“We were all trying to very delicately balance things to make sure nothing was glorified about any of the events,” says McDonald of the episode’s evenhanded tone.

For his part, Graham, 18, says, “I hope the one thing that people take away is just the fact that (you should) value your life. It doesn’t matter what life you’re living, try to make the best of it because it could change at any point in time.”

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