News and views from the award-winning author of the Class H Trilogy: AMERICA LIBRE, HOUSE DIVIDED and PANCHO LAND

Friday, December 14, 2012

The School Shooters In Our Midst

 (AP Photo/Newtown Bee, Shannon Hicks)













Earlier this year, science and psychology journalist Rebecca Coffey released MURDERS MOST FOUL: The School Shooters in Our Midst, a book that explores the wave of slaughter-style killings at America's schools and universities. In light of the shocking events in Newtown, Connecticut, I asked Rebecca to shed some light on this most recent tragedy.

Q. According to your book, the recent school shooting in Connecticut is part of a long history of similar incidents in the United States. How far back do these tragedies go? 
A. Like Friday’s elementary school massacre in Connecticut, America’s very first school slaughter targeted the young and those who taught them. In 1927, school board member Andrew Kehoe detonated the local elementary school, killing 37 children and seven adults. Since then, school massacres have always been a part of our culture—though since then they have been perpetrated exclusively with guns.

Q. Is there any pattern that can be traced between these terrible events? 
A. Unfortunately, aside from “mostly guys and almost always with guns,” no. School murderers come from all ages, races, economic backgrounds, and temperaments. A few common threads:
•  While few of the culprits were diagnosed with mental illnesses at the time of their massacres, for many their actions brought them into such close scrutiny that their illnesses were belatedly addressed.
•  A good handful had horribly traumatic pasts.
•  Most of the perpetrators really liked guns—lots of heavy duty ones. They were also good at smuggling them into places where they didn’t belong.
•  Most killers worked alone.
•  Except to dispense with relatives who might be “embarrassed” or get in the way of the planned rampage, most of the killers had not killed before the day of their rampage.
•  Most of the perpetrators were Caucasian.
•  Some attacks took place in urban schools, but most were launched in the suburban and rural communities to which families move to avoid violence.
•  Not a single massacre showed signs of having been carried out impulsively. Quite the contrary. Diaries and videos left by the Columbine High killers showed that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold planned for over a year. And certainly Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech spent time assembling his arsenal and creating the materials he mailed to NBC. Time will reveal whether the Newtown massacre was carefully planned.
•  Each massacre provoked a rush of media coverage.
•  Each massacre resulted in a frantic national discussion about how to
prevent the next one.

Q. Are there any precautions parents can take to help keep their children safer? 
A. I think parents' best opportunity is to work with schools to help them follow the FBI guidelines, which actually seem quite sound. The FBI notes that almost all school shooters—even the very young ones—"leak" about their plans during the planning period. Sometimes they tell not just one person but many. The FBI says that children must be encouraged to report threats they hear on the playground to parents or trusted teachers.
  In my opinion, this would require that schools get rid of zero tolerance policies. How can anyone expect a child to report a friend’s “leakage” if the friend may turn out to have been joking but, even so, will automatically be expelled?

Q. How should parents explain these terrifying incidents to young children without creating irrational fears?
A. I have asked many therapists precisely that question. I hear time and again that what is most traumatizing for children who hear about school massacres is the feeling that they are helpless in the face of gargantuan forces. The remedy, then, is to help children feel like they have at least some power. I've watched therapists working with children ask them how they think they can help protect each other. For very young children the plans they devise won’t necessarily be practical. But devising them may make them feel less helpless, and that is important.

Q. Is there anything you believe can be done to keep our children safer in schools? 
A. There are lots of security firms with expensive answers to that question, but there's very little school budget money to hire security officers or implement new procedures or technologies. And a school that feels like a fortress is not necessarily where a 5-year old, for example, will feel like learning.
  That said, in my opinion we need to throw more financial resources at the problem of school massacre. The FBI has published excellent guidelines about how to assess threats and communicate with law enforcement and mental health agencies, but the schools have no money to implement the guidelines. Counselors, administrators, and teachers remain untrained. Systems are not in place for reaching out to community resources for help with potential murderers.
And the elephant in the room is still gun control. We all know that parents should keep guns out of reach of children. I think that the events of Friday December 14 have once again made clear that automatic weapons should be kept out of reach of everyone. Period.
***

Rebecca Coffey is an award-winning print and radio journalist and documentary filmmaker. She is the author of the book MURDERS MOST FOUL: The School Shooters in Our Midst. She currently contributes to Scientific American and Discover magazines, and is a broadcasting commentator for Vermont Public Radio. Learn more about Rebecca Coffey and her work at her website: www.RebeccaCoffey.com.

Postscript
A tragedy that involves the deaths of 20 school children begs an explanation, a pat answer that will prevent this from happening again. That's not surprising. As a culture, we are spoon fed that notion by politicians eager to win our votes and an entertainment industry that thrives on providing a satisfying emotional climax in the length of a TV show or feature film. Reality is not that simple. They are called "senseless tragedies" for a reason. All the same, these terrible events deserve analysis and introspection. I want to thank Rebecca for sharing her insights at the cost of some sleep. I’m especially honored she took the time to answer my questions after 10PM on a day that had already been filled for her with requests for interviews. She appeared on four radio programs yesterday.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez