While French authorities ponder the reasons why a 24-year-old al Qaeda-linked killer murdered seven people in that country in the past week, including three children as they entered their school, three members of the French military and the father of two of the murdered child, America appeared to pay little attention to yet another incident of violence or potential violence in our schools. Two Meadowview, Virginia (population 967) 5th grade elementary students, ages 10 and 12, were being held in a juvenile detention center on charges of conspiracy to commit capital murder and possession of a firearm on school property. The local Commonwealth’s Attorney said the boys planned to kill or harm multiple individuals at the school and then flee the area. Evidently a teacher spotted a gun in one of the boy’s backpacks at the end of the school day, took the boys to the school office and called authorities. One tragedy averted, but how many more will we face this year and beyond?
Columbine High School, where in April 1999 two students killed 13 and then committed suicide, Red Lake High School, where in March 2005 one student killed 9 and committed suicide, Virginia Tech, where in April 2007 one student killed 32 and committed suicide, are but three of the 190 + school related shootings that have taken place in America in the 32 years since 1979. In this same time period 170 students and 110 faculty members and others were killed in these incidents, almost 400 were wounded, and 10’s of thousands forever affected by this terrible form of violence on campus. Of note, between 1969 and 1978 there were 16 gun related acts of violence related to America’s schools, while in 2009 alone there were 18 such incidents, and at least four in 2012 to date.
Had the Meadowview, VA boys been successful, at least one, the 10-year-old, would likely have been the youngest shooter on a school campus in U.S. history.
The FBI, the US Secret Service, the National Education Association and many other organizations and individuals have attempted to tackle the problem of firearms related violence on the school campus’ of America. Some will be quick to point out that while less than 300 people died in these school related incidents during the 32-year period between 1979 and 2011, at least 41,000 per year died as a result of auto accidents on our nation’s highways. The key word here, of course, is accidents. There was a time when most Americans believed that our nation’s schools were the second safest place, next to our own homes, for our children. Now to help continue that belief we have armed law enforcement officers and airport-like metal detectors that our children must pass through to get to their classrooms. There are other external threats, of course, that factor into the potential danger our children face in school. Few can forget when the 32-year-old milk truck driver, armed with three firearms and other weapons, entered a one room Amish school in rural PA in October 2006, where he murdered five girls, ages 6-13, before committing suicide. Others have acted out in similar manners.
The various studies conducted in the wake of Columbine and other school related shootings, those specifically related to student shooters, found that there was not one key reason to explain the otherwise unexplainable; why one child could kill another. What has been found is a multiple number of reasons or possible explanations, but, in reality, many of the shooters did not live to tell their stories, and those that did, in many cases, were not able to explain their murderous behavior.
Many times we, including fellow students, teachers, parents and other care givers, simply miss or ignore the various warning signs that might foretell of a mass murder on campus in the making. We talk about “psychological leakage,” for example, using this term to suggest that few student shooters act alone, or at least without the direct or suspected knowledge of their plans becoming known to others. In this day of mass communications, students talk together, telephone, text, e-mail, tweet, face book or use some other form of social media, sometimes hundreds of times per day, to communicate their instant thoughts, ideas, fears and plans. “Don’t come to school tomorrow,” one shooter communicated to some of his fellow students, while other shooters-to-be, at least after the fact, were known for their aberrant to threatening behavior. The message, though somewhat veiled, was nonetheless there, but no one read it or seemed to care.
We hear about bullying as an obvious reason for school related shootings, but many children are the victims of physical or emotional bullying, yet few bring a gun to school. Most child, and many adults day dream or fantasize about dealing with the bullies in their lives. Some simply live with it, some turn into themselves, perhaps spiraling downward into depression; some quit school or their jobs, and a few pick up a gun and act out on their fantasy. They make the bully, and those around him or her pay with their lives.
Some seek revenge, like in the above with bullies, by bringing the great equalizer, the gun, to school, while others attempt to get even for the untold number of perceived acts of emotional, social or physical aggression against them by their suspected antagonists.
Some have suffered a significant "narcissistic injury." This can be best described as a type of emotional hurt that strikes at the core of one's sense of value and worth, even though many may consider the situation over inflated and unrealistic. A person like this will also have expectations that others will recognize and treat him special for no other reason than he believes he is entitled to their deference, and when he doesn't get the attention he believes he is due, inappropriate behavior is likely to follow. When an individual with these psychological characteristics experiences a significant disappointment or socially embarrassing slight, they may over-react and often will, in the extreme, set out to not only harm, but attempt to figurative destroy the person who was responsible for what they perceived as an attack.
Some experience ongoing mental health issues. Most know that the years leading up to and during one’s teens are not easy. Young men and women feel all kinds of pressures, including issues related to personal approval, popularity, and simply finding their own and perhaps a group identity. Jocks, Goths, gang bangers, band members; they all have their own clothing codes that need be followed to sustain membership. Today many children feel financial pressure as their parents are laid off and their very homes are being repossessed. They may worry about a parent being out of work or the family's financial problems; this while up to 45% of such children will experience their parent’s divorce, for some the ultimate assault on their personal sense of stability. And while most children will survive these emotional assaults, some will succumb. The elephant in the adolescent’s bedroom can also be some type of beginning or ongoing mental illness or substance abuse issue. Drug, alcohol and other abuse; anorexia; manic/depression; obsessive compulsive disorder; PTSD; schizophrenia; self mutilation and suicidal ideation can all be factors in both a child’s behavior as well as his or her decision to bring a gun to school.
Then there are the violent role models on TV, in the movies, and the thousands of points rewarded in video games for murder and mayhem, games that some school shooters played for hundreds of hours prior to perhaps acting out the role they played in the otherwise benign combat or grand theft auto game. By some estimates, children spend eight hours per day watching TV, on the Internet, or otherwise engaged in some form of social media usage.
I was on TV shortly after a school shooting, and tried, in vain, to get across the point that we need counselors in grade schools, perhaps young men and women recently out of college, who could both be potential role models for children as well as could help such children identify non-violent means of conflict resolution. Long before our children get into high school and perhaps begin coming into contact with the criminal justice system, they need to develop the ability to resolve conflict without violence, and to feel good about themselves in doing so. On that particular show I was told that there simply wasn’t time to discuss such an idea – a sad commentary on what we consider important on TV talk shows. “If it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead,” or so goes the media hype concerning the gratuitous violence that is aired on television and the movies.
Lastly we must consider a child’s access to a firearm in the home. By some estimates there are 300 to 350 million guns in the hands and homes of private individuals in America, at least one firearm for every man, woman and child in this country. The Second Amendment to the US Constitution protects the right of the people to keep and bear arms. Adopted in December 1791, it is part of our Bill of Rights. While some may argue its questionable application today, it is the law of the land, something our forefathers and family members, to include many of ourselves, fought to preserve. Along with the right to keep a firearm, however, is at least an implication that gun ownership is more than a right; it is also a responsibility. Anyone who owns a firearm should insure that such weapons, if not under lock and key, are at least maintained in a manner that would prevent a child from obtaining the weapon and bringing it to school, like, for example, the 10 and 12 year old boys did with a .22 revolver in rural Virginia on 3/16/12.
We know the likely motives of school age shooters; we know how they get access to weapons; we know the warning signs, and we know the price we pay if we miss or ignore such pre incident indicators. Our problem, of course, is that there is no 100% accurate test we can give that can tell us who the next school shooter will be, but we can identify those students likely to be at risk to do so.
Are we willing to expend the emotional and financial resources to help these otherwise challenged adolescents before they act out their anger, frustration and fantasies in such a violent manner? The two boys in Virginia, like most who plan or decide to engage in such conduct, had no real escape plan, only to “run away.” While many children want to “run away,” few, thankfully, pick up a gun to send a goodbye message to others. Our test, as a society, is to help our children deal with these thoughts, ideas, emotions and personal challenges in a way that provides them outlets other than violence while at the same time equipping them to deal with the additional challenges of their future adulthood. It is a test we must not fail!
For more information concerning personal and family safety and security, to obtain a free copy of our DVD "Protecting Children from Predators," and to find out the identity and location of sex offenders in your community, go to www.LiveSecure.org.