Making Sense of School Shootings
By John W. Whitehead, Rutherford Institute, February 28, 2012
On Feb. 27, 2012, a teenager—reportedly a victim of bullying and something of a social outcast—walked into a Cleveland high school and opened fire in the cafeteria, killing two students and wounding three others. The teenager, identified as T.J. Lane, has been taken into police custody. Now media pundits are speculating on who or what is to blame for this latest spate of violence.
Yet we’ve been caught in the grip of a cycle of school violence that started almost 20 years ago. It was February 1997 when a 16-year-old Alaskan boy pulled out a shotgun and killed his principal and another student. Two years later, on April 20, 1999, two teenagers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, opened fire on classmates and teachers at Columbine High School, killing 12 students and one teacher and leaving 24 others wounded.
Then, on October 10, 2006, a 13-year-old seventh grade boy, apparently fascinated with the 1999 Columbine High School bloodbath, carried an assault rifle into his Joplin, Missouri middle school. Dressed in a dark green trench coat and wearing a mask, he pointed the rifle at fellow students and fired a shot into the ceiling before the weapon jammed. This was no spur-of-the-moment act. It was a planned attack. The student’s backpack contained military manuals, instructions on assembling an improvised explosive device and detailed drawings of the school. Moments before he fired the rifle, the boy said to a school administrator: “Please don’t make me do this.”
The outbreak of school shootings that have taken place over the past two decades have forced school officials, public leaders and parents to search for ways to prevent further bloodshed. In their attempts to make the schools safer, students have been forced to deal with draconian zero tolerance policies, heightened security, routine locker checks, guard dogs, metal detectors and numerous other invasions of their property and privacy.
Despite the precautions (all of which have proven to be altogether ineffective), other student-led shooting sprees and bloodshed followed, culminating with the most recent incident. To be sure, the instinctive response to this latest school shooting will be to appease parents by adopting measures that provide the appearance of increased security. However, enacting tighter zero tolerance policies and installing more metal detectors in the schools will do little to advance the dialogue on why such shootings happen in the first place.
One thing is clear: there are no easy solutions. In fact, there’s so much that we don’t know about school shooters. For example, a 2002 U.S. Secret Service report on school violence, based on interviews with students who had planned and executed school shootings, found that there is no profile for a school shooter. Shooters come from many types of families and from all incomes, races and academic backgrounds. And there are no easy explanations—such as mental illness, drugs or video games—for their actions.
Moreover, as the Secret Service report found, the shooters plan their shootings in advance. They “did not snap.” According to the report, most shooters told their friends what they were planning. But the friends neither reported what they had been told nor tried to stop the shooters. And when the Secret Service asked former school shooters what they would have done if a teacher had asked them what was wrong, the shooters said they would have told the adult the truth, including their plans. But are we adults listening? As one school shooter recalls, “Most of them don’t care. I just felt like nobody cared. I just wanted to hurt them.”
In struggling to understand the teenage mind—and find some motivation for the rash of school shootings of the past several years—public leaders have targeted everything from the negative influence of movies to music to violent video games. Now the scapegoat seems to be bullying and peer pressure.
Evidently, something more sinister than disgruntled students is at work here. While there are conditions—such as peer pressure, low self-esteem, childhood abuse, etc.—that can trigger or facilitate violent behavior, we’re facing a crisis that goes much deeper, one that has as much to do with a lack of spirituality and morality as it does with education, relationships and culture.
Young people have unfortunately become the casualties of our age. They know that something is dreadfully wrong, but many adults, busy trying to make ends meet and keep pace with the demands of work and raising a family, often do not hear when the kids scream for help. For example, at least one in 10 young people now believe life is not worth living. A 2009 survey of 16- to 25-year-olds by the Prince’s Trust found “a significant core” for whom life had little or no purpose, especially among those not in school, work or training. More than a quarter of those polled felt depressed and were less happy than when they were younger. And almost “half said they were regularly stressed and many did not have anything to look forward to or someone they could talk to about their problems.”
Paul Brown, director of communications at the Prince’s Trust, noted that the study showed that there are thousands of young people who “desperately” need help: “Often, young people who feel they have reached rock bottom don’t know where to turn for help.” Family relationships help, but too often because of the fractured modern family, little support can be found in the family setting.
Indeed, our young people are members of a lost generation—raised in a world where life has little to no value, the almighty dollar takes precedence and values are taught by primetime sitcoms and Saturday morning cartoons. They are being raised by television and the Internet and nourished on fast food. They are seeking comfort wherever they can find it—in sex, drugs, music, each other. They are searching for hope and finding few answers to their questions about the meaning of life.
More so than any previous generation, young people are growing up in an age of overwhelming mass media, mixed messages and multitasking. The average American child lives in a house with 2.9 TVs, 1.8 VCRs, 3.1 radios, 2.6 tape players, 2.1 CD players and a computer. Forty-two percent of American homes are “constant TV households,” meaning that a set is on most of the time. The average American watches television about four hours per day, and it consumes 40 percent of his or her free time.
Gone is the innocence of childhood. In a multitude of ways, children have been adultified, and their childhood is disappearing. Today’s young people often know more about sex, drugs and violence than their adult counterparts. By the year 2000, 25 percent of U.S. teens were involved with weapons; 70 percent admitted cheating on tests in school; more than 15 percent had shown up for class drunk; and five million children—including three-year-olds—were regularly left home alone to care for themselves. As University of Edinburgh professor Stuart Aitken writes, “In short, the sense of a so-called disappearance of childhood is, in actuality, about the loss of a stable, seemingly natural foundation for social life that is clearly linked not only to laments over the lost innocence of childhood, but also a growing anger at and fear of young people.”
No wonder life seems so meaningless to so many. According to a June 2009 study, 15 percent of American teens who were in 7th through 12th grades believe they will die before age 35—a perspective strongly linked to risky behavior. Activities related to such a pessimistic view of the future include attempting suicide, using illegal drugs, sustaining fight-related injuries that require medical care, engaging in unprotected sex, being arrested by the police and contracting HIV or AIDS.
Wherever these young people turn, life is chaotic—wars, violence, environmental crises, oil depletion and terrorism, to name a few. Children are confronted on a daily basis with issues, images and material of all sorts—abortion, drugs, alcohol, pornography—and preyed upon by sexual predators, marketing mavens, even the government. Although teenagers can cope with a number of emotional hazards, with each additional hazard introduced, their resilience—like soldiers in combat too long—diminishes to such an extent that breakdowns are imminent. As Cornell University professor James Gabarino recognizes, one of the key factors leading to violence is a “spiritual emptiness” that brings on a feeling of not being connected to anything, of having no limits for behavior and no reverence for life.
Dr. James P. Comer, professor of psychiatry at Yale University’s Child Study Center, suggests that in order to treat the damage done to the next generation, “We’re going to have to work at systematically recreating the critical elements of community that once existed naturally. We can’t go back to the past, but there was a time when people cared about each other and would look out for each other.”
Is anyone listening?