Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Crossing the Rubicon: Violence Comes to School

January 18, 2013
Image credit: iStockphoto

"Guns don’t kill people, fast moving bullets do."

Like most youngsters at 14 years old, I sometimes came home from school and said to myself, "I could kill that kid." Of course I never meant it and never once did I think it was even within the realm of possibility. Things have changed. After the Columbine Massacre, I tried to find out why.

Profiling a Shooter

The night after Columbine, I was in Chicago and invited to be interviewed by John Callaway as part of a panel on Chicago Tonight, a news program on WTTW, Chicago's public television station. Earlier in the week, the U.S. had bombed Kosovo with its biggest attack in that war. I remarked that our culture had crossed a Rubicon, somehow accepting that we could solve our problems by killing, and that affected the Columbine massacre. Later, I regretted the comment because, in retrospect, it was useless comparison.

A few days later, I visited Balboa High School in San Francisco and asked a bunch of young African American boys if they thought that such an event could happen at their school. "Never happen here," they said. "Only white kids are dumb enough to kill at school; blacks only do it at home." (Figure 1 below proves them right.)

My understanding of gun violence in school was later enhanced when I had the opportunity to meet John Nicoletti, the psychologist from Denver who was assigned to the Columbine case, and Brooks Brown, one of Eric Harris' and Dylan Klebold's close friends. John shared with me a report that studied school shootings up to and including Columbine, which has since been published as Violence Goes to School: Lessons Learned from Columbine. Below are two interesting charts from that report. The first describes characteristics of school shooters, and the second is a cumulative profile of school shooters.

Credit: J.P. McGee & C.R. DeBernardo
Figure One: Who are the killers?

Cumulative Offender Profile: Schoolplace Violence Perpetrator

  • Indicators of low self-esteem
  • Cruelty to animals
  • Fascination with firearms of explosives
  • Mother or other family member disrespects them
  • Violence is the only alternative used in most instances
  • Planned activity: Premeditated act as indicated by statements made prior to the act -- offenders were not closed-mouthed.
  • Lacks discipline
  • Seventeen years of age or younger
  • White male
  • Has mass or spree killer characteristics
  • Seeks to defend narcissistic view or favorable beliefs about self
  • Precipitating event before shooting -- i.e. failed romantic relationship, lack of support from family; rejection, may be acting on or out of revenge
  • Acquires firearm weapon from home, generally owned by a family member
  • Perceives he is different from others; dislikes those who are different. History of expressed anger or minor acts of aggressive, physical contact at school
  • Exhibits no remorse of flat affect (emotions) subsequent to the killings
  • May listen to to music lyrics that promote violence
  • May appear to be a loner
  • May be described as an average student
  • May appear sloppy or unkempt in dress
  • May be described as isolated from others, seeking notoriety, attempt to "copy cat" other school shooting incidents by attempting to do it better than the last offender
  • May have history of mental health treatment
  • May have propensity to dislike popuar students or students who bully others
  • May have expressed an interest in previous school shootings / killing incidents
  • May feel powerless and to this end may commit an act of violence to asset power over others
  • May have openly expressed a desire to kill others

Figure 2: What do killers look like?

Credit: J.P. McGee & C.R. DeBernardo

A Culture of Bullying

Brooks Brown, co-author with Rob Merritt of No Easy Answers: The Truth Behind Death at Columbine High School, offered insights that came to influence my understanding of Columbine. He strongly believed that violence in the media and video games was not responsible for Harris' and Klebold's actions. At the same time, he said that they played video games frequently. The most interesting answer he gave was when I asked him why their parents didn't know what was going on before the shooting. "They didn't want to know," he said. "How can a parent not know when their children are building bombs in the basement and practice killing small animals?"

In a YouTube video, Brown suggests that Columbine's culture of bullying considerably influenced Harris' and Klebold's outlook.

A Cultural Comparison

Israel, where I live, provides an interesting comparison relating to gun violence in schools. All children grow up learning about violence, because everybody knows of someone who was hurt or killed by terrorists. They watch horrors on the news far more than American children; what is happening in Syria, for example. The horrors they see daily are not fiction, but part of a reality that they grow up facing. Boys and many girls must serve in the army and learn to use guns. Yet there has never been a school massacre by random shooters. There have been horrible terror attacks, but all were politically motivated with a political agenda. Israeli children still watch violent movies, play the same video games and have a per capita equal number of the mentally challenged as their American counterparts. This seems to support Brooks Brown's contention that video games are not the reason for shootings in school.

Indeed, there other factors. Guns are hard to get in Israel. Applicants must pass an intensive training course, have a reason to need one, and go through a lengthy background check that can take weeks. No assault weapons are legal and there are no gun shows.

By the time of the Newtown, Connecticut shootings, there had been more school massacres and tragedies since Columbine. And, sadly, there have been even more since Newtown. I keep thinking of my crossing the Rubicon analogy and trying find out what that line is and how we crossed it.

Firepower vs. the Power of Knowledge

My conclusion is this: the Rubicon that I have been trying to define is not the availability of weapons, although restricting certain weapons is necessary. I believe it has to do with the relationship that Americans have with guns. It's complex and unique to America. It involves legal issues, the money made by weapons manufactures and sellers, and the social issues and drama that create a love/hate connection to violence, fear, power and powerlessness. Holding a gun gives an unequaled feeling of power to those who feel powerless, and I believe that is the real reason for school shootings. Even legitimate gun owners feel a rush when they pull the trigger, whether aiming at animals or targets. The bigger the weapon, the greater the rush. To stop gun violence, we need a major cultural shift about how we as a society relate to these weapons. Let me suggest a few things schools should -- and should not -- do about this issue.

  • Arming teachers and administrators is a ridiculous idea, which very few take seriously. The chances of helping during an assault are minimal and the risk of doing harm is great.
  • Armed guards in school are not the solution. Columbine had two, and they failed to stop the attack.
  • Metal detectors are used in Israel, but schools are generally fenced in with only one entrance. In the U.S., schools are too porous with too many exterior doors and windows to be really secure. The metal detectors are also daily reminders of danger, which makes the weaker students feel a stronger need to arm themselves.
  • A better idea would be including the police as part of the faculty to teach classes about the danger of guns and why students should not have them. In any case, classes need to teach that owning guns is legal but comes with responsibility. We need to stress to students that guns do not make you stronger.
  • We also need to increase the message of "see it, say it," which means reporting to authorities those students who do have guns. Brooks Brown knew on the morning of the Columbine shooting what Klebold and Harris were going to do, but he didn't want to get his friends in trouble, so he didn't call the police. Schools need to do everything they can to change this attitude.

We have made cultural shifts about the importance of seat belts, the danger of cigarettes and the health consequences of the way we eat. There is no reason to think that we can't also make a similar shift about guns and violence.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Bullying Prevention
  • Mental Health
  • 9-12 High School

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