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Why Kids Kill
Inside the Minds of School Shooters
By Peter Langman
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2009 Peter Langman, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
SCHOOL SHOOTERS: BEYOND THE SOUND BITE
If we have figured out the art of time bombs before hand, we will set hundreds of them around houses, roads, bridges, buildings and gas stations, anything that will cause damage and chaos.... It'll be like the LA riots, the Oklahoma bombing, WWII, Vietnam ... all mixed together. Maybe we will even start a little rebellion or revolution to fuck things up as much as we can.... If by some weird as shit luck me and V survive and escape we will move to some island somewhere or maybe Mexico, New Zealand or some exotic place where Americans can't get us. If there isn't such a place, then we will hijack a hell of a lot of bombs and crash a plane into NYC with us inside firing away as we go down. Just something to cause more devastation.
—An 11th grader
This quote was not written by a member of Al Qaeda or any other terrorist group. It was written by a junior in Columbine High School—a boy who came from a stable family, got good grades, and wanted to destroy the world. His name was Eric Harris.
This is a book about school shooters: Who are they? What makes them tick? Why would they even consider carrying out such horrendous acts? Facts about the attacks are easy to learn—what guns were used, how they were obtained, who was shot, and so on. What is almost impossible to find amid the media reports is an understanding of the minds of the shooters and why they committed murder. In the aftermath of school shootings—whether Columbine, Virginia Tech, or any other such attack—the same question is asked over and over from news shows to dinner-table conversations: Why do people do this? This book attempts to answer that question by looking at the psychology of the perpetrators of rampage school shootings.
What exactly is a rampage school shooting? Rampage school shootings occur when students or former students attack their own schools. The attacks are public acts, committed in full view of others. In addition, although some people might be shot because the shooters held grudges against them, others are shot randomly or as symbols of the school (such as a principal).
Rampage school shootings do not include two people having a fight that results in one shooting the other. Targeted gun violence that is related to gangs, drug deals, or boyfriend/girlfriend issues are not rampage attacks. As disturbing as these events are, they are not included in this book even if they happened on school grounds.
This book also does not focus on shootings in which an adult invades a school and kills children. For example, in 2006, a 32-year-old man named Carl Charles Roberts held a group of girls hostage in an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania. He shot 10 of them, killing 5. Roberts was an adult who had no connection to the school; he picked it as the site of his attack for an unknown reason. Although he committed mass murder at a school, his actions are not considered a rampage school shooting as defined in this book because he was not a student attacking his own school.
It is important to distinguish between the type of rampage attacks discussed in this book and other types of school-related homicides. Some studies of school violence look at all gun-related murders at schools. It is problematic to assume, however, that the different kinds of attacks are perpetrated by similar people or driven by the same factors. The inclusion of both rampage and targeted attacks in the same study muddies the waters, making it difficult to draw meaningful conclusions about what type of person perpetrates a rampage school shooting. The focus in this book on rampage attacks alone has made it easier to identify patterns among the shooters.
Rampage school shootings became part of the American cultural landscape in the 1990s. They are like terrorist attacks: statistically rare events committed by a handful of people who send shock waves through the nation. The 10 shooters presented in this book killed a total of 74 people (including themselves) and wounded 92. The damage, of course, extends far beyond these numbers. The families and friends of the victims have been stricken with grief and horror. Entire schools and communities have been devastated. Around the country, students, parents, and school personnel wonder if their schools are safe. And in response to rampage attacks, schools across the nation have implemented procedures and policies in attempts to maintain safety.
Large-scale attacks at schools and college campuses may seem to be a recent phenomenon, but this is not the case. Some of these next examples do not fit the definition of rampage school shootings, but they do demonstrate that mass violence in schools is not new. In fact, the deadliest school attack in the United States occurred in 1927, when a 55-year-old man named Andrew Kehoe murdered his wife and then used dynamite to blow up a school in Bath, Michigan. In all, Kehoe killed 45 people and wounded 58; most of these were children. The total number of casualties was more than double those of Virginia Tech in 2007.
Nearly 40 years later, in 1966, Charles Whitman, a 25-year-old student at the University of Texas, went on a rampage. First he first killed his wife and mother, then he set up a sniper position in a tower on campus and gunned down 45 people, killing 14. Here too, the casualties exceeded those in the attack at Columbine High School in 1999.
The 1970s and 1980s were not devoid of school attacks. In 1979, a teenage girl named Brenda Spencer opened fire on an elementary school across the street from her home in San Diego, California. She killed 2 adults and wounded 8 children and a police officer. Ten years later, in 1989, a 26-year-old named Patrick Purdy opened fire on an elementary school playground in Stockton, California. He killed 5 children and wounded 29 children and a teacher.
Despite this history of multiple homicides at schools, "school shootings" did not become a common term until the late 1990s. The academic year of 1997–1998 saw a flurry of rampage school attacks that followed in close succession:
October 1, 1997 Luke Woodham shoots 9 people in Pearl, Mississippi.
December 1, 1997 Michael Carneal shoots 8 people in West Paducah, Kentucky.
December 15, 1997 Joseph Colt Todd shoots 2 people in Stamps, Arkansas.
March 24, 1998 Andrew Golden and Mitchell Johnson shoot 15 people in Jonesboro, Arkansas.
April 24, 1998 Andrew Wurst shoots 4 people in Edinboro, Pennsylvania.
May 21, 1998 Kip Kinkel shoots 27 people in Springfield, Oregon.
What made the attacks in the late 1990s different from the earlier ones? These attacks were committed by young students who carried out assaults at their own schools. Andrew Kehoe was 55 years old. Charles Whitman was 25. Patrick Purdy was 26. In contrast, Michael Carneal was 14, Mitchell Johnson was 13, and Andrew Golden was 11. These were children who became killers. Not only were they young, but they were gunning down their peers—their own classmates. These were sometimes the kids they had grown up with since kindergarten, the kids they played with at recess, and in some cases, the girls for whom they had tender feelings. These were not cases of killing the enemy in war or gunning down members of a rival gang. These were cases of children killing children for no apparent reason. In response, people are left wondering "Why?"
Grasping for Answers
Many explanations of why school shootings occur have been offered. Some are based on research; some are the sound bites of newscasters and journalists in the wake of shootings. Common explanations focus on such issues as the influence of violent video games and movies, peer rejection, depression and suicidal thoughts, the easy accessibility of guns, side effects from psychiatric medications, the impact of bullying, and the consequences of being a loner who is uninvolved at school and has inadequate social connections.
In the wake of a school shooting, a brief period of massive media coverage often follows. Much of the initial information that gets reported is not accurate, and by the time more accurate information has been obtained, the media has moved on to other stories. Thus, reliable versions of the events often do not reach the public. For this reason, we need to go beyond the sound bite to a more nuanced look at the factors that are often cited as contributing to school shootings.
Rampage attacks are too complex to be attributed to any one cause. Thus, any meaningful approach needs to recognize multiple influences. Some of the explanations that have been offered are based on faulty information and therefore contribute little to our understanding of school shootings. Others, however, are what I call "factors that do not explain." In other words, these factors may contribute to, but by themselves they do not explain, why school shootings happen.
For example, an oft-cited factor in school shootings is the availability of guns or what is sometimes referred to as the American "gun culture." Numerous writers have looked at the geography of where school shootings have occurred and attempted to connect the extent of gun ownership or the attitudes toward gun control in a region and the occurrence of school shootings. Obviously, if guns were impossible to obtain, there would be no shootings. The availability of guns, however, does not explain school shootings. In fact, when shootings occur in areas where gun ownership is common, the misuse of firearms should be seen as particularly unusual. If every teenager owns or has easy access to guns, and virtually none of them commits murder, school shooters are clearly aberrations. Their acts cannot be blamed on the culture, because the acts themselves are contrary to the prevalent social norm of law-abiding use of firearms.
School shootings have also been blamed on psychiatric medications. Some people have claimed that medications have such powerful side effects that they drive kids to murder. Although all medications have side effects, the case against psychiatric medications often is exaggerated beyond the available evidence. For example, people have blamed Michael Carneal's rampage on psychiatric medication; I have found no evidence, however, that Michael was taking any medications at the time of the attack. Similarly, people have claimed that both Andrew Golden and Mitchell Johnson were taking psychiatric medications. Yet according to a team of researchers led by Dr. Katherine Newman, who conducted a comprehensive investigation of the Jonesboro shooting, "There is no evidence that either boy was on any form of medication."
Similarly, Kip Kinkel's rampage has been blamed on Prozac, which he supposedly was taking at the time of the attack. This is wrong. Kip had taken Prozac for a brief period but stopped using the medication approximately eight months before his rampage. In addition, he described the summer he was on Prozac as the best one he ever had. He was happier, less prone to anger, and the voices in his head were significantly diminished. Unfortunately, his parents stopped the medication after only three months. Perhaps because Kip was doing so well, they thought that he did not need the Prozac anymore. If so, they failed to realize that Prozac was making the difference for him. The irony is that if he had stayed on his medication, he might never have killed.
Nonetheless, it is true that Eric Harris was taking an antidepressant medication called Luvox at the time of the attack at Columbine High School. If you read Eric's journal, however, it is clear that he had the idea for the attack before he even started taking Luvox. And if you read the journal of Dylan Klebold, Eric's partner in the attack, you will find references to the attack months before Eric was on any medication.
Some people have argued that even though Eric may have had homicidal thoughts prior to being on Luvox, the medication pushed him over the edge. I disagree. Murder has occurred throughout human history without any psychiatric medications to push people over the edge. Medication is not necessary for murder; rage will suffice. And Eric was full of rage.
Eric was not a typical teenager who became a grandiose, raging, homicidal monster after taking Luvox. He did not need medication side effects to be grandiose and homicidal; he was grandiose and homicidal without it. The more we learn about Eric's history, the more we can see the attack not as an aberration created by Luvox but as an outcome of his personality.
Similarly, people have claimed that Jeffrey Weise, who went on a rampage in Red Lake, Minnesota, in 2005, was driven to murder by Prozac. Jeffrey had been prescribed Prozac, but it is not clear that he was still taking the medication at the time of the attack. Even if he were still taking the drug, however, this would not mean that Prozac caused his rampage. Jeffrey struggled with suicidal urges and had made at least one attempt to kill himself before he was given any medication. He described his life as "sixteen years of accumulated rage." Because he was at risk for suicide, he was given Prozac, an antidepressant. As with Eric Harris, we could take the view that the side effects of Prozac were so powerful that they pushed Jeffrey to murder. Another view, however, is that Prozac was so weak it did not make a dent in Jeffrey's rage or depression. Although it is possible that side effects played some part in Jeffrey's rampage, we have no way of determining that, and given the young man's history, there is no reason to assume he could not have committed murder without Prozac.
Most of the school shooters we will be investigating in this book were not on psychiatric medications. Psychiatric medications certainly can have serious side effects, but there is no reason to think that Eric Harris and Jeffrey Weise could not have committed murder without medication's side effects. Their violence can be understood as a result of their personalities and life histories. The focus on medication is interesting in that only 2 of the 10 shooters examined in this book were on medication, whereas at least 8 of the 10 used alcohol, marijuana, and possibly other drugs. Although psychiatric drugs have been blamed for rampage shootings, little attention has been paid to the possible influence of street drugs, even though they were used far more commonly by school shooters than prescription medications.
Another factor cited as contributing to school shootings is the extent to which the shooters are detached from their schools. Shooters often are thought to be uninvolved students lurking on the fringe of school culture. This picture is misleading. Academically, the shooters typically were average to above-average students. They were not the kids who were flunking out of school. Eric Harris, for example, was a dedicated student who maintained good grades, even as he was planning to destroy his school. Eric's teachers appreciated his interest and motivation. Several noted his "positive attitude and good cooperation." On a progress report, one teacher wrote "Eric is doing awesome!" Rather than hating school, Eric wrote on his Web site that he loved school (but hated homework). Why would Eric love school? One reason is that he had many friends there as well as fun classes, such as bowling and video production. Beyond this, however, Eric prided himself on being bright, and school was a forum in which he achieved recognition for his intelligence.
Many of the shooters were athletic and involved in extracurricular activities. Kip Kinkel was on his school's football team, Mitchell Johnson played football, baseball, and basketball at his school, and Eric Harris played on Columbine's soccer team and was involved with intramural soccer and volleyball. Both Andrew Golden and Michael Carneal played in their school bands. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were both part of the Rebel News Network at Columbine and served as assistants in the computer lab. Dylan was involved in the theater department, where he handled technical aspects of the productions. He also helped maintain the school's web server.
In short, the image of school shooters as alienated students who had no connection to, or involvement with, their schools is not accurate. Many were engaged in the classroom and participated in a variety of extracurricular activities.
Violence in television, film, video games, computer games, and books often is cited as a cause of rampage school attacks. This is a complex issue. On one hand, millions of kids are exposed to violence in the media without becoming mass murderers. Media violence cannot explain school shootings because the vast majority of people exposed to media violence do not become murderers.
On the other hand, the kids who commit rampage attacks often do have a fascination or preoccupation with violent media. They do not just play violent video games; they become obsessed with them. They do not just watch violent films; the films become their desired reality. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were said to have memorized nearly the entire dialogue from the movie Natural Born Killers. In fact, NBK, the initials of the movie, became the code name for their attack on the school. Kip Kinkel's parents were so concerned about his obsession with violent movies that they discontinued their cable service. A couple of weeks before Jeffrey Weise's rampage, he had watched the movie Elephant with some friends. Elephant is about a school shooting, and Jeffrey fast-forwarded to his favorite part—the scenes of the rampage.
Excerpted from Why Kids Kill by Peter Langman. Copyright © 2009 Peter Langman, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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