April 21, 1999
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And joining me now is Gerald Tirozzi, Executive
Director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals
and a former Assistant Secretary at the US Department of Education.
James Garbarino, Professor at Cornell University and Co-Director of
its Family Life Development Center; he is the author of Lost Boys:
Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them. Franklin Zimring,
Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley; his new
book is American Youth Violence, And Dr. Joan Kinlan, child and
adolescent psychiatrist and former head of the Psychiatry Unit for Incarcerated
Children in Washington, DC.
JAMES GARBARINO: Well, I think probably there were. But as you pointed out, one of the problems we face is that a lot of kids show a lot of warning signs. You know, the proportion of kids in our country who are disturbed enough to need professional mental health services has roughly doubled in the last 25 years from about 10 percent to about 20 percent. But I think these - you know-- these boys and their attraction to the dark side of our culture coupled with the fact that they did seem to have a grievance against their peers certainly should have had more caring probably, not just from their peers, but from adults. And it's very clear that most school systems around the country really just aren't the mental health services that troubled kids need and the spiritual services that they need. I think that's a very important part of all of this, the kind of spiritual emptiness that so many kids feel. And when they feel it, when things go bad in their lives, there's nothing to fall back on and also there's no limits to their behavior.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dr. Joan Kinlan, do you agree with that? Is that what you see, the kind of emptiness?
DR. JOAN KINLAN: I do. I think that Dr. Garbarino is really talking about the spiritual emptiness that often is present in these kids and often these kids, too, have come from homes in which there's violence, especially domestic violence. Of course, this then is magnified by any kind of TV violence, and often they've had some kind of difficulty themselves, like learning disabilities or emotional problems. But really they haven't developed the coping skills because certainly all kids have losses, abandonments, rejections but they don't have the inner resilience to really cope effectively and not resort to aggression.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Did you see in what you've heard so far, would you have seen warning signs that that should have been dealt with in this situation?
DR. JOAN KINLAN: I think that there are many troubled youths in our schools. And I think it's very hard to say which one is going to be the one that's going to do something really terribly violent, like these two particular youngsters did, and I think what we need to do is to have a more caring atmosphere, certainly schools in which there's an authoritative principal who is caring and nurturing to his teachers, is able to set up an atmosphere in the entire school in which this atmosphere prevails; clearly strict attention to rules but also having a nurturing side. And I think that that really helps in our school system.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Gerald Tirozzi, what do you see in this case that particularly hit you and stood out?
GERALD TIROZZI: Well -
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Aside from the horror of it. I mean, with the specifics of this case.
GERALD TIROZZI: We, I think it sends a lot of clear messages that, you know, regardless of how careful we want to be in our schools across America and in fairness, a youngster has I guess it's one in one millionth of a chance to be killed in a school building but it points out this can happen anywhere. I mean, this is a great community, Littleton, Colorado. You would not expect this to happen there. I think it speaks - to me, it speaks loud - it speaks volumes to the image that many of our youngsters - most of our youngsters are bombarded with images of violence in our society, television, movies, more recently even the Internet is becoming a player. And also, candidly, I think it speaks to the need of this country to come to grips with the issue of gun control. And I think what the President has put forth is an ambitious agenda and I think Congress has to take that very, very seriously and expand the braid eye bill.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Zimring, how do you see this event in relation to the other events in Arkansas, and Oregon and elsewhere?
FRANKLIN ZIMRING: Well, this one involves, first of all, much older shooters. It does take place in the school and they're still students but they're 18 and 17.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The others were as young as 11.
FRANKLIN ZIMRING: As young as 11. And 13 and 11-year-olds have homicide risks and rates which are 1/20th those of 17-year-olds and 18-year-olds. It's also an extraordinarily premeditated thing. These are troubled kids and grandiose and all the rest of this, but they're also premeditated and armed in ways which are a real contrast with the episodic school shootings that we saw last year. This is almost a mix between Oklahoma City and the school shootings. And I think there's another very important contrast. When you listen to the state's attorney, what the system knew of those kids just doesn't predict serious violence. Their juvenile justice involvement was for property crime; it was the kind of thing typically kids get involved in; they did well in diversion. Everything that the school and system knew about them doesn't point a finger to particular danger. My guess is, however, that unless these are incredibly closed-mouthed kids, what other kids knew in the immediate foreground to this kind of behavior probably was more indicative that there were trouble brewing. And I think that one of the techniques that schools have got to work on when they're talking about these problems, is opening up so that friends and significant peer structures when something like this is brewing will feel trusting enough and threatened enough by this kind of talk so that there is a little bit of specific intervention. I think that everything that every adult knew in Littleton, when you combine it all, wouldn't have given us any indication that this was happening.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Mr. Tirozzi, isn't that something that has been recommended, in fact sent out by the Department of Justice and Education to all high schools to have some kind of a procedure whereby students can warn if they're hearing this from fellow students, that they may be violent?
GERALD TIROZZI: Yes. That did go out. It was an excellent guide, and it was distributed across the country but, in fairness, it takes leadership at the local school level on the part of the superintendent and the principal to make certain those guidelines are being used wisely. But there are two very important guidelines in that brochure. One states do no harm, which means, you know, you have to be very careful that you don't stereotype students or children because certain characteristics are coming to the forefront. In fairness, having been a principal, teacher and school superintendent myself, you know, what a youngster displays in one day doesn't tell you automatically that he or she is going to commit a violent act the next. And so w have to really do this on balance in schools, and it's very difficult for schools to do alone. I would hope parent can see some of these signs, that communities should see these signs. And, to me, it speaks to the issues of communities and schools really, really working closely together with families. We have to do this together. It's no one's unique responsibility.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Garbarino, there are some elements in common among these shootings, though, are there not -- even those these boys were older young boys, obsession in almost all cases with some aspect of popular culture which was violent, whether films, or video games or music and other things in common -- do you think that that's true?
JAMES GARBARINO: Well, I think it is. You know, no one case has all the elements but there certainly are a lot of very common elements, as I say, the preoccupation with the dark side, this disconnection, and the righteousness of their rage. I think the comparison to Oklahoma City is a very good one that this is more like a terrorist attack. But when you look closely and inside at the other cases, you can see that element as well, that attack on the most important psychological structures that they feel are oppressing them, what they feel subjectively. I should also point out that - you know -- we only hear about the cases that break apart like this. But just a month and a half ago in a small town in Pennsylvania, a 15-year-old boy was making these kind of threats; three students told the principal that night and the next day when the boy showed up, he was detained and it turned out he had a rifle in the bushes and was planning one of these assaults. So let's understand that people are responding, albeit imperfectly.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Mr. Garbarino, if I were to say why, ask the question that the President posed and I think most of our viewers are posing, what would your answer be? We've gotten into this a little already, but tell me.
JAMES GARBARINO: Well, I would say that, you know, there is a sort of epidemic abroad in the land. It has its roots in various elements of American culture. But some kids are more susceptible than others. It's as if they were talking about air pollution in a big city. We know that everyone is affected, but some kids are more affected than others. The asthmatic kids are more affected. I tend to view these kids as being kind of psychological asthmatics; that they're the ones who succumb to all the poisons in our culture because of their individual experience, because they get involved in peer groups where they reinforce each other. You know, remember Truman Capote's book "In Cold Blood" about two men who killed a whole family. Capote concluded neither man by himself would have committed those crimes but put together there was a kind of evil chemistry between them. And that, I think, is an important element in at least some of these cases.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dr. Kinlan, how would you answer the question why, beyond what you said earlier?
DR. JOAN KINLAN: I think that it's been talked about a little bit more. I think that there's been a real difference in our society right now. It's a culture of more violence - American -- it has the highest number of homicides per person and highest number of guns than any other industrialized place. In addition, I think there's been a real change in the family. The family is not really there as much for kids. Often we have both parents working, there's not as much supervision. And we certainly know that with poor supervision that there's a greater degree of crimes. The American Academy of Pediatrics has pointed out that 1.2 million latchkey kids go home unsupervised to homes where there are guns. And that's of concern. And kids who then may have difficulty with controlling their impulses then have an aggressive vehicle to use.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Mr. Zimring, how would you answer that question?
FRANKLIN ZIMRING: Well, I think that to the extent that adolescence is an epidemic of poor impulse control there's nothing in recent generations that isolates or explains that. I think that's a characteristic of 20th Century adolescence. So I think we don't want to look there. To a certain extent, I guess I'm terribly skeptical of looking to the broadest possible explanations for this particular shooting in Littleton, Colorado. There are obviously dangerous elements in American culture, but I think very much like Oklahoma City, which is now five years old and hasn't been repeated, I think that my own tendency is to look more sort of to ways in which we can prevent loss, prevent harm, get wind of these things, if possible, when they are brewing and intervene in a non-harmful way, and not immediately jump to the conclusion that we have to look -- to say that in essence the entire of a society is implicated every time that something very tragic happens amongst us.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Tirozzi, what has been learned from the experience of the other high schools who have been coping, the schools that have had killings in other places like Arkansas and Mississippi, what have they learned about what happens next?
GERALD TIROZZI: Well, it has varied from community to community, but essentially they've worked very hard to pick up the pieces. It's a very hard and difficult memory to overcome. But based on conversations I've actually had with the individual principals, I think with the help of mental health specialists who have gone in and really worked with students and faculty, they've begun to build a solid foundation. And some have really tried to make the effort as business as usual so the youngsters get a sense that school can go on. It's been very difficult but my sense based on my conversations with them, it's really beginning to move along.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what about the safety aspects? What did they change?
GERALD TIROZZI: Well, in several of the schools they have police officers or they've advanced security guards. And that's very, very important. But do I want to remind folks across the country, you look at your average middle or senior high school, you're probably talking 75 to 150 exterior doors on these buildings. And it's almost impossible - I mean -- to protect every door and put enough guards in buildings. I think the real answer - as one of your commentators said a moment ago - I think is really looking at the whole issue of prevention, front loading the process instead of always back loading the process. We put a lot of dollars into security and metal detectors; we put very little into prevention. And that's where society has to get its act together.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And just statistically for the parents who are wondering when they send their child to schools tomorrow, schools are still, in general, a pretty safe place for kids?
GERALD TIROZZI: Absolutely. As I said earlier, an expert just reported the other day the chances of a youngster being murdered in school are one in one million, you know, which -- schools are safe places but, in fairness, these incidents can happen anywhere at any time.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. Well, thank you all four very much.