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School Killings: Prevention and Response

Testimony of Dr. Helen Smith
Before the Arkansas House of Representatives
Committee on the Judiciary
July 14, 1998

by Dr. Helen Smith

Honorable Members of the Arkansas House Judiciary Committee:

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. 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.

It is 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. The predisposition to violence is already there.

In the case of the school shootings, that is easy enough to see. Kip Kinkel was on Prozac, and his classmates 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.

Warning Signs

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 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.

Prevention

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 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.

Conclusion

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. 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.

July 14, 1998

 


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