School Violence: Prevention and Response

Testimony of Dr. Helen Smith
Before the Ad Hoc Committee on School Violence

by Dr. Helen Smith

Honorable Members of the Ad Hoc Committee on School Violence:

Thank you for inviting me to provide this testimony. As a forensic psychologist, I have examined over four thousand adults and children, including many violent juveniles. I am currently serving as an expert witness in a case involving perhaps the youngest juvenile to be tried for murder as an adult in Tennessee: a boy who was twelve years old at the time he killed. I have examined killer kids both before and after their crimes, and have spent a great deal of time trying to fathom why kids kill, and what can be done to prevent such tragedies in the future.

But before we can address prevention programs for violent youth, we must first understand the root causes of violence in young people. There are a multitude of biological and sociological explanations offered for why kids go over the edge and kill. Biologically oriented theorists ask the question: is there really such a thing as a natural-born killer? Some experts think so.

Genetic and Sociological Theories About Predisposition to Kill

Some researchers as early as the nineteenth century believed that criminals were born, not made, and attempted to identify criminals based on their facial features, skull bumps, or other physical characteristics. These "bad seed" theories have since been discredited. In the 1960's, there was a controversy over whether criminals have special chromosome patterns. Evidence for the "XYY" syndrome or other chromosome anomalies remains inconclusive. Currently, many experts are looking at an expanding body of research that indicates the foundations for aggression may be set not by genetics but by influences during gestation. Studies have shown that an expectant mother's stress level, nutritional habits, use of drugs and alcohol, and exposure to environmental toxins, may hardwire the fetal brain into a state of hypervigilance or aggression. These studies suggest that a mother's poor health habits, emotional state, or exposure to harmful substances can affect the fetus by impairing the neurological mechanisms that regulate temperament and self-control.

Researchers have also found that after mothers watch violent television shows, their unborn children became as agitated as their mother in terms of heart rate and movement. Psychologists theorize that these types of prenatal reactions affect the fetus's brain circuitry, possibly making children so affected more susceptible to being high-strung or aggressive as they grow up. But the evidence for these theories is so far not strong enough to support any policy changes. Their conclusions are tentative at best. And given the past history of such theories -- which frequently wound up employing "junk science" to reinforce racial or social stereotypes -- we should be cautious about basing legislation on them. The same is true for many other, nonbiological, explanations.

Sociological theories say that inner-city youth may kill because they are rageful at a society that has excluded them from the mainstream and made the American Dream beyond their reach, or because they are poor and have to commit crimes to survive. Suburban delinquents are also regarded as victims of their surroundings -- victims of the intense pressure on them to compete, of materialism, of neglectful parents. These kids are thought to be rebelling not only against parents, but against middle-class values, and to be seeking meaning instead through kicks and thrills.

All of these theories have a common trait: they look for a single cause. And, not surprisingly, that cause usually turns out to be something that the researchers disapprove of. That alone should make us suspicious: It is often popular, in our argument-driven society, to place the blame for any tragedy on some scapegoat or another. In the case of school killings, commentators have blamed violent movies, the Internet, guns, rap music, or the popularity of occultism. In my opinion, it is a mistake to call any of these factors "the cause" of school killings.

The truth is that teens who kill -- in school settings or elsewhere -- are already deeply disturbed individuals who are easily sent over the edge. Children who kill tend to have mental and emotional problems, histories of neglect and abuse, problems with substance abuse, and poor relations with their peers. The predisposition to violence is already there. A person thinking about crime may pick up ideas from the media or become more certain about the feasibility of a particular crime. But a responsible person will not be turned into a criminal by what he watches or reads. In addition to mental problems, these children also might have learning difficulties coupled with family problems. This would increase the likelihood that they may feel stressed to the limit and feel that the only way to deal with their frustration, despair, or malaise is to bring it to a climactic conclusion.

In the case of the school shootings, the predisposition to violence and the need to do something to ease their emotional problems was easy enough to see. Kip Kinkel was already on Prozac, and his classmates (usually the best sources of information about dangerous teens) had voted him "most likely to start World War III." One of the Jonesboro killers was already facing charges for child abuse. Kinkel, the Jonesboro boys, and several other school shooters all told classmates in advance that they were planning something.

Common Characteristics of School Killers

In fact, school shooters almost always give off warning signs well in advance of their tragedies. They tend to brag to classmates about planned acts of violence, to show a morbid (beyond normal for juvenile males) fascination with weapons and death, and often to have a history of committing personal violence against other children, siblings, and small animals. They are usually unpopular with their classmates, and are often teased and ridiculed as "nerds" and nobodies until they develop an overpowering need to strike back.

At an earlier stage, violent children (though school killers are often an exception here) tend to have a history of violent behavior going back to preschool. Headbanging and screaming uncontrollably at ages three or four are trouble signs; so are firesetting and cruelty to animals. Unfortunately, these warning signs are often ignored by parents and educators. When they are, the results are sometimes tragic or potentially harmful.

Let me give you an example. A colleague of mine, a school psychologist, told me about an eleven-year-old boy she had evaluated for special education. His teachers had given her notes he had written that seemed rather disturbing. These notes described his wish to harm other people and to learn what it is like to watch them die. He said that he had microwaved gophers and other small animals to watch them "burn to a crisp" in order to "feel what it is like to watch them die." My colleague showed his parents these notes and told them about his bizarre behavior (aside from the above, she had observed him rolling around in manure in back of the school while he thought no one was watching). His parents' response was to say that their child was creative and would probably grow up to write screenplays. Perhaps some education about what is normal pre-adolescent behavior might have taught these parents that their son's behavior and note writing should be seen as a cry for help.(1)

Prevention for at-risk Children

It is impossible to prevent all school shootings, just as it is impossible to prevent any crime entirely. Some of your committee members may remember that Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was once shot at by one of his own honor guard, proving that even totalitarian societies cannot completely screen out dangerous individuals.

Nonetheless, there are things that can be done. The most important thing that we can do to prevent school killings is to listen to the kids. All of the recent school shooters told someone that their rampage was going to happen; in some cases they told many people. In some recent tragedies that didn't happen, alert school officials found out about the would-be killer's plans and were able to head off disaster. If Kip Kinkel had been sent for 30 days of psychological observation when he was caught bringing a gun to school, a tragedy would have been averted. If school officials had known that his classmates considered him dangerous, they might have taken the threat more seriously. Instead, under a simple-minded "zero tolerance" policy, he was sent home -- where he killed his parents. School officials must know more about their students, and they must encourage their students to report threats of violence, which among other things means they must earn the trust of their students.

But there is another kind of listening that goes beyond the immediate threat. Most school shooters report feeling alone and powerless before their crimes, the victims of bullying and teasing from their peers and of indifference from their adults. One Springfield high-school student was reported to say that the only time anyone pays any attention to a teenager is when he picks up a gun. Sadly, there is some truth to that.

Some Tennessee schools have had good results with a program that ensures that troubled kids have a "designated listener" available at all times. The teen is allowed to pick someone he or she trusts at the school -- even if it's the Janitor or a cafeteria lady -- and to talk to that person whenever he or she feels the need. This has been enormously effective in reducing violence, and is worth trying elsewhere.

Schools should also focus on reducing the bullying and social isolation that tend to produce school killers. We like to think of children as innocent, but as we all know they can be very cruel. A prevention effort that reduced bullying and teasing would almost certainly reduce school killings drastically -- and it would also benefit the millions of people whose teenage years are miserable, but who will never kill.

The most important common thread among school killers is a feeling on the part of the teenager that he could not express in words the depth of his true feelings of rage as a result of feeling rejected or hurt or stressed. As Luke Woodham said, "One second I was some kind of heartbroken idiot and the next second I had power over many things."

From powerlessness to power, from despised outcast to national celebrityhood in a culture where celebrityhood is everything: It's easy to see what these school killers get out of their outrages. But without suggesting that their actions are justified -- because they're absolutely not -- it isn't hard to understand their actions. Tragedy, yes. Senseless tragedy, no. As one formerly picked-on "nerd" of my acquaintance -- now a successful professional with bad memories of junior high -- notes, "what's amazing isn't how many of these shootings there are, but how few."

These high-profile national tragedies mask a much lower profile tragedy of equal or greater proportions: thousands, maybe millions of ruined lives and miserable teenage years. As our schools try "zero tolerance" programs to keep out weapons, maybe they should consider zero tolerance for bullying, teasing, and ostracism. Not only would such a program probably do more to prevent school killings than the zero-tolerance program that failed to stop Kip Kinkel, but it would also improve the lives of the vast majority of nerds and outcasts who will never be killers. Surely they deserve some attention, too.


Finally, lets talk about some legislative solutions that might reduce the likelihood of another tragic killing:

1) States such as Oregon are looking into laws that would have a 30 day observation period for any student who brings a gun or dangerous weapon to school. This could possibly be at an alternative school or in a program where the child would have more supervision and perhaps a psychiatric or psychological evaluation.

2) Counseling and psychotherapy should be more readily available in school programs. Much of the funding for counseling has been reduced in recent years, despite the increase in depression and emotional problems for children and teenagers. One recent study in USA Today pointed out that depression is hitting children at younger and younger ages and may be caused by the greater isolation that today's children are feeling. Depressed children also are less socially adept than their peers. Depression, isolation and stress have been linked to the characteristics of the recent school shooters. Research on depressed children finds therapy stressing change in their approach to problems is highly effective and therapy may possibly help a potential school shooter find a different outlook on how to cope with problems than by using violence.

3) Long term parenting programs for high-risk families and short-term in-service programs for all families of school-age children. These prevention programs might focus on teaching parents about what is appropriate behavior for healthy adolescents as opposed to those who are depressed or aggressive. Many times, parents think their children are just going through typical teenage angst or are melancholic because of their age. Yet all too often, their behavior is a cry for help.

4) Violence prevention programs for children. Some of these programs have shown promise in inner cities. Such programs are even being used in elementary schools; they teach children to praise others, avoid insults, resolve conflicts peacefully, manage anger, and to speak about hurt feelings. Education is also key in helping students to identify other potentially dangerous students. There have been other school tragedies that have been averted by other students telling school officials that someone has a bag of weapons and school officials acting on the potential threat.

5) In-service programs for teachers to assist them in recognizing the symptoms of at-risk children. Teachers may not always recognize signs of emotional distress. For example, I recently explained to a group of teachers that one of their students was very depressed as shown by several personality tests I had administered. All of them were surprised since this boy acted out his depression by being physically aggressive towards students and teachers. One teacher even commented that when she was depressed, she usually sat around with no energy overeating and did not realize that often, those who are depressed act out in ways that she would not expect.

6) Critical thinking skills can prevent violence. There has been research showing that youthful impulsiveness, a characteristic of school killers, may be linked to younger teenagers' frenetic brain activity in the amygdala, which is primarily linked with emotions and instinctual reactions. Older teens and adults show more activity in the rational frontal lobe -- the brain tissue involved in planning, insight and organization. Society can encourage young teen-agers to develop the frontal lobe by teaching them to think more rationally. This may translate into integrating more critical thinking skills into school curriculums to teach teens more logical ways to solve problems. Paradoxically, school curricula aimed at helping teens get in touch with their emotions may actually make things worse -- given the emotional makeup of many troubled teens -- while programs that substitute rational thought for emotion may help them deal with their problems constructively.

Finally, a warning: legislators, like physicians, should pay close attention to the Hippocratic first principle. First, do no harm. In truth, we lose far more children to swimming pool accidents, domestic violence, or drunk driving than in school shootings, which are rare -- but highly publicized -- events. (Indeed, all evidence indicates that school shootings are on the decline, and have been for several years.) The past twenty years or so have seen one national school "crisis" after another, producing layer after layer of regulations, laws, and policies all of which persist long after the initial reason for them has gone, and the advocacy groups behind them have moved on. Despite the pressures to "do something" that are generated whenever a tragedy receives national publicity, such regulations often serve to make things worse, by tying the hands of school administrators, and by distancing teachers -- and sometimes even parents -- from their primary responsibilities. The best protection against school violence is to be found in caring, hands-on teachers and responsible, involved parents. You can't get those by legislating.

August 27, 1998