*As seen in the June 19th issue of The State Journal.
On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold massacred 15 and wounded 24 innocent students and faculty at Columbine High School, and the intensive media coverage of the scene became etched permanently into the American psyche as an entire nation watched in stunned horror. On April 16, 2007, shots rang out--this time on the campus of Virginia Tech. That fateful morning, Seung-Hui Cho killed two students at West Ambler Johnston Hall, a co-ed dormitory, went back to his dorm, changed clothes, retrieved his hard drive and cell phone and mailed a media package. Cho then proceeded to the classrooms at Norris Hall where he barricaded the doors with chains. While dozens were either wounded or injured, including many who jumped from a second story window to escape the massacre. Cho mechanically and methodically killed 30 students and faculty. before committing suicide as the police closed in on him. The entire country again became outraged and sickened by the senselessness and the enormity of the loss.
Memories are scarred and nerves remain raw from the Virginia Tech shootings. Some cannot forget the horrible carnage. Others choose to reflect on the candlelight vigil and quietly honor those that were killed and injured. As the emotional scars slowly heal and as we honor those lost and wounded, we have a sacred responsibility to do as much as we can to prevent such senseless tragedies from reoccurring. The question still eating at the hearts of all touched by these tragedies--like the echoes of the shots that rang out-- is why? What would make anyone act so brutally? These murders were not just cold and calculated, they were planned for the shock value of the whole scene--crimes aimed not only aimed at maximum carnage, but also aimed at the psyche of those who would observe the carnage. They were in a real sense shooting at us.
After Columbine, Peter Langman, Ph.D., a child psychologist and clinical director at KidsPeace in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was determined to find meaningful answers to prevent further tragedies. Langman, as background for "Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters," combed through a decade of records on 10 of the most notorious school shooters to find some answers. Certain trends became obvious: West Paducah, Kentucky, Jonesboro, Arkansas, Springfield, Oregon, Littleton, Colorado--all these shootings occurred in small cities and quiet rural areas ( not in violent urban areas). Certain truths are a bit more difficult to sort through. According to Langman that, "Shooters are trying to accomplish something. They are trying to change the way that other kids in their peer groups define them." While we would like to blame the parents, we must not lose sight of the role that peer pressure and self-image affects young adolescent behavior.
Langman states that the media and the public do not always get the right picture. As a society and as individuals, we tend to want to find simple solutions to complex problems so we can reorder in our minds these chaotic events. Many people tend to latch on to pieces of the picture to explain why -- they watched violent movies, played violent video games, listened to heavy metal music, were loners and were bullied and mocked by their peers. The one answer that we all tend to cling to is that "retaliation makes sense. Kid's picked on, comes to school, gets revenge." However, for each school shooter that fits this convenient pattern, there are scores of other students that also do but are not predisposed to commit horrific crimes. "Millions of kids watch violent movies and live in households that harbor firearms. Yet only a few have gone on to become mass murderers."
Statistics show that the number of school homicides actually decreased after Columbine in 1999: 1) from 1993 through 1999 the average was 31 deaths; and 2) from 1999 through 2006 the average was 16 deaths. One way to analyze the drop in student homicides is to look at what responses were made by schools from a security perspective: 85% of schools have restricted access to buildings during school hours, 41% have restricted access to the school grounds during school hours, 48% have required ID badges for faculty and staff, 43% use security cameras, while only 1% use daily metal detectors.
The decrease in school shootings might be attributed to these types of security measures, but I believe that increased awareness, diligence and alert communication of early warning signs are at the heart of the decline. Most school shootings were planned over an extended period of time (and not an impulsive rage); in hindsight, there were usually clear warning signals. Most shootings seem to follow an extensive planning stage in which the shooter begins fantasizing about shooting others, starts taking concrete steps acting out the fantasy and then actually completes planning the real event in excruciating detail. At some point, the shooter solidifies in his mind to go forward with the plan, and thereafter the plan something he must do. Once this stage is reached, without an intervention, the bomb is ticking and the only question that remains is simply when the explosion occurs.
Langman divides school shooters into three main types of school shooters:
The Psychopathic Shooter
The psychopathic shooter lacks a conscience and is unimpeded by remorse for their hurtful actions. The psychopathic shooter is narcissistic, displays a lack of empathy, and may have a sadistic tendency to inflict great pain simply to relish the experience. Unfortunately, psychopaths are also usually intelligent, manipulative and deceitful. Langman places Eric Harris in this category.
The Psychotic Shooter
The psychotic shooter does not live in the real world all the time, and may have delusions, develop false beliefs, and hear voices or have visions that guide their behavior in irrational ways. Langman places Dylan Klebold in this category (after reading his diary).
The Abused Shooter
The abused shooter is characterized by a traumatized upbringing, either growing up in an abusive home (where a parent has a history of criminal behavior or alcohol and substance abuse) or having been the victim of sexual abuse. The problems facing the abused or traumatized shooter may be completely different from the psychopathic shooter or the psychotic shooter.
Langman believes we can use the information he has gathered to better predict and prevent future massacres in our school systems. One of the ways Langman believes we can predict those that are predisposed to commit homicides at our schools is whether they have engaged in "attack-related behavior". Has the student taken concrete steps toward an assault? Has he (rarely a she) made a hit list, built a bomb, gathered the ammunition, warned his friends, and is he serious and unrelenting in his intentions? Langman also believes that one of the major audiences we need to educate to be diligent about these risks are the kids themselves -- they are our first alert system for preventing these types of atrocities.
One local case demonstrates that actions by peers in taking note of the warning signs and contacting authorities can prevent a horrific scene. In May of 2008, an ex-employee of a youth center near Parkersburg threatened in an email to a female friend that he was going to return to the youth center and make his colleagues "pay with pints of blood." He stated that he understood why people went on shooting sprees, that he would return and burn the building to the ground, and make "Columbine, Ruby Ridge and all the other shootings look like a video game. One thing I can do is shoot well." The center on a typical day is home for 50 to 60 children. The friend tried to convince him that he did not really mean what he was saying. He confirmed he was serious. She immediately contacted the authorities in Wood County. Sherriff Merritt was quoted as saying, "If you get information like this, you have to act on it immediately." The suspect was apprehended seven miles from the facility with a cache of firearms and ammunition in his car.
The early detection and reporting of serious threats is the best way to keep our children safe. These efforts can make a difference by elevating the awareness in our local school systems, emphasizing a multi-layered network in our schools to detect any early warnings, and developing innovative programs to counsel troubled youth in our schools. Examples of innovative programs designed to address these situations include: 1) the Adolescent Suicide Prevention and Early Intervention Program (ASPEN) developed by Prestera Center for Mental Health Services and 2) the Choices Program, a school and family based outpatient service, developed by Northwood Health Systems. Our schools must be proactive in establishing clear and multiple lines of communication so students and parents have more than one channel to report a serious threat. School counselors trained in the early detection of these incidents and understanding the parameters of the duty to warn are an important part of prevention. Most of our schools in West Virginia have not only taken this challenge seriously, but are alert to identifying these issues every day.