Monday, September 14, 2009

The Truth about School Killers--Columbine Reconsidered

by Joanna Campbell Slan

Those of us who write about murder, madness and mayhem, have a duty, I believe, to write honest fiction, fiction at its core which reflects reality. So, if you haven’t read Dave Cullen’s new book Columbine, I urge you to do so. Cullen was a member of the press who covered the story in its immediate aftermath. With the passing of time, he hopes this book will correct some of the “media blunders during the initial coverage.” It’s fascinating to note that many of these have passed into common acceptance, despite their erroneous nature.

Myth 1: Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were loners. Outcasts. Kids are the margin of their high school’s society.

Truth: The Secret Service studied every attack at schools over a 26-year period, 41 attackers and 37 incidents, and found that while some of the perpetrators were loners, fully 2/3s were not. Dylan and Eric dated, had friends, even went to school events regularly. Yes, they might have been bullied on occasion, more to the point, both boys boasted about bullying others.

Myth 2: You can tell a potential troublemaker by his disciplinary record and academic performance.

Truth: Dylan had been a good student until he and Eric started working on what was to be “Judgment Day” at their high school Then his grades dropped precipitously. Conversely, Eric ended the fall semester with glowing comments about his positive attitude and cooperation. His grades had never been better than before the attack.

Myth 3: Video games encouraged the boys to be violent.

Truth: While it is true that Eric hacked into Doom so he could create increasingly violent characters, a better determinant of potential violent behavior is an examination of the content of written assignments. Fully 1/3 of the attackers studied by the Secret Service exhibited violence in their written assignments. (In other words, English teachers had the best insight as to who was at risk!) Steven Kazmierczak, the University of Illinois grad student who killed five at Northern Illinois University, wrote a paper called “No Crazies With Guns,” an analysis of whether the mentally ill should have access to weapons.

Myth 4: Melodramatic outbursts such as, “I hate you!!!!” are signs of impending violence.

Truth: According to Cullen, “Perpetrators are just as likely to remain calm. No correlation has been established between emotional intensity and the actual danger it foretells.” However, the more specific the threat—as to time, place, manner of violence and rationale—the more seriously it should be taken.

Myth 5: Plans for violence are often kept secret.

Truth: The FBI discovered that once a young person committed to a violent act, there was “leakage.” The plans would be announced in various ways “no matter what the subject matter, the conversation, the assignment or the joke.” For example, both Klebold and Harris hinted about their plans to other kids, even involving others to help procure weapons. Dylan wrote page after page of specific murder plans in Eric’s yearbook. In a video production class, they made movies showing their contempt for others.

Myth 6: Killers just “snap.”

Truth: Non-violent people don’t react by “snapping.” Steven Kazmierczak made a three-hour drive from one campus to the other before shooting five people. Harris and Klebold planned every aspect of their killing spree. Luckily, they weren't very good at making bombs or they would have killed as many as 2,000 people.

Myth 7: No one could have predicted this happening.

Truth: The local sheriff’s department had been contacted no less than 15 times by one family about threats Eric Harris made. Other students called Steven Kazmierczak “Crazy Steve.” Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, had been declared mentally ill and ordered to seek treatment.

Myth 8: There’s no discernable pattern to predicting who may become a school killer.

Truth: The FBI has created a list of 28 criteria divided into four areas: behavior, family situation, school dynamics and social pressures. Substance abuse shows a high correlation to these risk factors, and the key seems to a majority of items from ALL four areas. Among these are access to guns, treatment for mental illness, and a recent loss. The most common “loss” is a break up with a girl friend, but it can be any sort of personal sense of “failure” such as a public embarrassment.

I’m curious. Are any of the “truths” revealed above surprises to you?


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Powerful post, Joanna. I still remember clearly first learning about the Columbine killings via shortly after they happened.

These truths do not surprise me, though many I hadn't heard before. What makes me nuts is, in each tragic incidence, how many signs were displayed leading up to the killings, yet these signs went ignored. Everytime I hear of another mass shooting, I think: "Haven't we learned ANYTHING from Columbine?" I truly believe the Virginia Tech incident might have been avoided by people paying attention to certain behavior patterns of the killer.

Once, many years ago, a co-worker told me she was going to bring in a gun and kill us all. I reported it to my boss. Although he admitted the woman in question was not stable, he told me I was being a "troublemaker." I went to HR, who took it very seriously. Turns out, it wasn't the first time this woman had voiced such a threat. She was fired soon after, but not until she displayed other bizarre behavior.

Lisa Bork said...

Wow, a lot of this post is new information to me. Interesting, too. It's most frightening to think all the signs were ignored.

Dave Cullen said...

Thanks for the generous review of my book, Joanna. You did a really nice job pulling together some of the big myths there.

As for your question on whether they were surprises, they sure surprised me when I discovered each one of them researching the book.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Dave, it's an honor that you stopped by. I was particularly struck by your desire to revisit your early reporting. As a j-school graduate, I respect that sort of dedication to the craft, a type of character increasingly lacking in today's "well, I wrote it so it must be true" atmosphere.

Sue Ann, "troublemaker" is another word for someone thinking outside the box and ahead of the curve. You did the right thing.

Lisa, I guess if Dave had been content with the early information, we wouldn't be having this virtual conversation. I wonder how many school administrators will take the time to properly educate themselves. I suspect not enough--and they owe it to our kids and our communities to do so.

Anonymous said...

On Nov. 21, 2008, the Harris and Klebold parents were sent the same letter requesting cooperation. "Your stories have yet to be fully told, and I view your help as an issue of historical significance," it said. "In 10 years, there have been no major, mainstream books on Columbine. This will be the first, and it may be the only one." The letter came not from Mr. Cullen but from Jeff Kass, whose Columbine: A True Crime Story, published by the small Ghost Road Press, preceded Columbine by a couple of weeks.

"Mr. Kass, whose tough account is made even sadder by the demise of The Rocky Mountain News in which his Columbine coverage appeared, has also delivered an intensive Columbine overview. Some of the issues he raises and information he digs up go unnoticed by Mr. Cullen." --Janet Maslin, New York Times

"A decade after the most dramatic school massacre in American history, Jeff Kass applies his considerable reporting talents to exploring the mystery of how two teens could have planned and carried out such gruesome acts without their own family and best friends knowing about it. Actually, there were important clues, but they were missed or downgraded both by those who knew the boys best and by public officials who came in contact with them. An engrossing and cautionary tale for everyone who cares about how to prevent kids from going bad." -----Ted Gest, President, Criminal Justice Journalists

GM Davis

Alan Orloff said...

Thanks for the fascinating post, Joanna. (and thanks for what sounds like a fascinating book, Dave!)

Sue Ann - I think the world needs more of your kind of "troublemaker," one who's looking out for the welfare of others, and fewer of the real kinds of troublemakers.

Suzanne Adair said...

Good post, Joanna. Does anything in your essay surprise me? No, especially not after reading Gavin de Becker's book, The Gift of Fear. The media often sensationalize this type of violence as random, unpredictable, leading individuals to feel that "It Could Happen to Me at Any Moment." In truth, the clues are there, but people ignore them for various reasons.

G.M. Malliet said...

This was a fascinating post, Joanna.

Dave Cullen said...

Thanks, Joanna,

It took three publishers and over nine years to figure the book out, and in the first version, the examination of the press ran over 100 pages. Eventually, we decided that was way too much for a general audience and trimmed it to fewer than ten, but you she see my spreadsheets! That was hard to cut. But it was very interesting to chart the day by day and hour by hour developments, of how these myths sprang up and then solidified into "fact" so quickly.

Thanks for the nice comments, too. I agree with Alan, that we need more "troublemakers" like Sue Ann. What a ridiculous response.

Sue Ann, I've written about V Tech, too, and you are right, that was certainly preventable. Cho actually went to mental health centers to get checked out.

And Suzanne, you are right: it can happen anywhere, but that does NOT mean it happens randomly, or with no warning. We have to keep our eyes open. And that "we" includes school kids, so for it to work, it means creating an environment where they will go to an adult, instead of trying to evaluate the threat themselves.

Deborah Sharp said...

As a former reporter for USA Today, I covered several school or workplace violence events ... what always struck me was 1) that there ALWAYS were clues that went unnoticed (but then hindsight is 20-20); and 2) how such events, which generally happen so quickly, leave lasting tragedy and so many shattered lives.
Good post, J, and thanks to Dave for what appears to be a thoughtful book.

Lonnie Cruse said...

Doesn't surprise me, Joanna, but it does make me angry that clear signs of trouble many killers display before others are ignored and then everybody is soooo surprised after the disaster. Urrr.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Some years ago, we had a situation in my son's school where a threat--naming a specific day for a killing spree and a target--was painted on the restroom wall on a Friday. On Monday, when my son arrived at school, the kids were sharing it via their cell phones--and the police arrived. Over the weekend, no action had been taken, no notification of the parents, but there on Monday when the place was filled with kids, the administration decided (after 1st period) that the whole school community should come into the chapel for a school-wide convocation. (Picture it--balconies, few exits, stationary seating. Basically a cow pen, if you are a shooter.)

My son phoned and said, "Mom, I don't want to go to the convocation. If someone DOES have a gun, we're sitting ducks."

I told him to come home.

You'd have thought the school would have learned something after Columbine. Okay, a couple of things: 1.) take every threat seriously 2.) call the police in right away 3.) don't put kids in a vulnerable position 4.) inform all the teachers of the increased risk(my son's 1st period teacher had NO idea why the police were gathering outside) and 5.) have a plan that includes free-flowing information so that students, faculty, law enforcement and parents can all increase vigilance.

Dave Cullen said...

What a great discussion. Deborah, I can second that. The FBI refers to it as "leakage": kids always leak.

In addition to signs, most of them actually TELL someone: more than 80% of the time. Most often they tell multiple people.

Joanna, You were right to get your kid home. Why take chances--he can miss a day, or a convocation.

I outlined what we've learned about what to do in a piece for Slate this spring, "The Four Most Important Lessons of Columbine"

If you want to read the full FBI report, or the Secret Service report, I've got them both linked at my Columbine Guide, in the evidence/reports section, on this page, under #1:

Both reports are excellent, and easily readable, intended for a lay audience. I was impressed by both.

falwyn said...

Very interesting post. Gavin de Becker's books also deal with this sort of thing - risk assesment, how there are always signs, etc (not just for school shootings, but other kinds of violence as well). I highly recommend them.

starviego said...

You are still being lied to. Big time. If you want to find out what really happened at Columbine I suggest you read what the eyewitnesses had to say: