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Spate of Shootings Raises School Safety Concerns

October 3, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: The attack on children in a Pennsylvania school. We begin with some background.

A spike in fatal shootings at schools has left seven victims dead in as many days. The latest incident happened yesterday in a quiet town in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. This time, the shooter, identified at 32-year-old Charles Carl Roberts, took over an Amish schoolhouse.

Heavily armed, Roberts released 15 boys and several adults and then lined up the 10 remaining girls and bound them with wire and plastic ties. He shot 10 girls, all between the ages of 6 and 13. Five have died; five others were wounded.

In a cell phone call before he opened fire at the schoolhouse, Roberts told his wife he molested two minor relatives decades ago. Today, State Police Commissioner Jeffrey Miller updated reporters on the investigation.

COL. JEFFREY MILLER, Police Commissioner, Pennsylvania: Both sides of Roberts’ family were interviewed. His parents, his wife, they had no knowledge of any molestation by Roberts affecting any family member or anyone else. This was a complete surprise to them.

There were two minor family members of Roberts that are alleged to have been molested as of this time, but this is solely based on the statement from Roberts. We have no other confirmation of that at this time.

And we believe these minor relatives of Roberts — and this is alleged to have occurred 20 years ago — were between 3 and 5 years old. It’s unknown what type of molestation, whether it was fondling or inappropriate touching, or sexual assault, or if anything occurred. We don’t know.

We tried to confirm whether there was ever a report made of such a crime, and we were not able to confirm that a report was ever made. And we have not been able to confirm that something actually occurred, but we know that he is making reference to this.

Mr. Roberts was home-schooled his whole life. Mr. Roberts was somebody who was very handy with carpentry tools. He was very good at that, from what we understand.

As far as his motives, it’s pretty clear to us, based on the actions that he took, again, that he intended to go into this school — we believe it had nothing to do with the Amish, but it had to do with this victim range, which was this young, female students, ages 6 to 13. And we believe that he did not intend to come out alive.

But we’re also concerned that he may have had an extended plan to be in there for a lengthy period of time. And it’s very possible — we don’t know for sure — but it’s very possible that, when he talks about doing the things and having dreams for the last two years about doing things that he did 20 years ago — if, in fact, it’s true that he did this molestation — that he perhaps planned with the kind of wood, and I-bolts, and flex cuffs, and KY jelly and other things, it’s very possible that he intended to victimize these children in many ways prior to executing them and killing himself.

RAY SUAREZ: The governor of Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell, said little could have prevented Roberts from attacking the school.

GOV. ED RENDELL (D), Pennsylvania: No proposed law, none that I would think of or none that I’ve seen, could have ruled out this situation. This individual, as the colonel said, has never had a criminal record, has no evidence on record of mental instability that would have barred him from going into a gun shop and buying a handgun.

Information obtained by the police

Jon Hurdle
Reuters News
Commissioner Miller seemed very satisfied with the response of his troopers and stated several times that the gunman opened fire almost immediately after warning them that he was going to start shooting unless they withdrew.

RAY SUAREZ: The Pennsylvania shooting follows another in a high school in Bailey, Colorado, last week. A 53-year-old homeless man sexually assaulted six female student hostages before killing one girl and himself.

And last Friday, the principal at Weston High School in Cazenovia, Wisconsin, was killed by a 15-year-old student after the principal issued him a warning for having tobacco on school grounds.

Now, for the latest, I'm joined by Jon Hurdle who has been covering the story for Reuters. He joins us now from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

And, Jon, let's begin with the girls who did survive the attack. Has there been any announced change in their condition today?

JON HURDLE, Reuters: Not to my knowledge. There are five girls as we know who are dead and another five who are in hospital. And according to my latest information, four of those are in critical condition in hospitals in Philadelphia and in Hershey.

RAY SUAREZ: Today, the police seem to have a lot of information at hand. They were able to figure out some of the facts in this crime rather quickly. It seems Charles Carl Roberts did not see this as a rash, sudden or convulsive act, but it was meticulously planned?

JON HURDLE: Yes. Commissioner Miller, in his press conference today, as in his previous statements, went to some lengths to say how very carefully planned these attacks were, and he produced a long list of equipment that Roberts accumulated in order to carry out these attacks.

And Commissioner Miller said that it gave every indication that Roberts was planning for a long siege in which he may have mounted some kind of sexual assault on the girls in the school, and then killed them, and then kill himself. Now, as we know, fortunately, not all of that came true.

RAY SUAREZ: Are investigators noting any change in behavior, any triggering event that might have sent Roberts on his killing spree?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, there are a number of possible motivations that emerged from Mr. Miller's statements today. The first really emerged in a suicide note that Roberts left with his wife, in which he said -- he made reference to his molestation of two younger, female relatives about 20 years ago, when, of course, he would have been 12 years old.

And he said that he had recently been having dreams that he was going to do this again. And this evidently had troubled him greatly. Now, Commissioner Miller went to some length to say that the police had not found any evidence up until the time that he made this statement that such molestation had actually occurred, but it obviously was a major issue for Roberts, so that he mentioned this in the suicide note to his wife.

Another serious issue for him apparently was that he was very traumatized by the death of his daughter, Elise, who was born prematurely and died after living only about 20 minutes. And she was buried in a local churchyard. And Commissioner Miller said that his wife, Roberts' wife, was reminded in this note about how traumatized and how deeply affected Roberts was.

RAY SUAREZ: In their discussion today with reporters, did the authorities talk about their tactics, their response, and whether there would have been any way to enter that building that might have ended with a different result?

JON HURDLE: Well, no. Commissioner Miller seemed very satisfied with the response of his troopers and stated several times that the gunman opened fire almost immediately after warning them that he was going to start shooting unless they withdrew. So there was really no warning there, and Commissioner Miller seemed very satisfied with the way that his troopers handled this terrible situation.

RAY SUAREZ: Jon Hurdle of Reuters joining us from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Thanks a lot for being with us.

JON HURDLE: Thank you.

Ensuring school safety

Jon Hurdle
Reuters News
What many of these shootings do have in common, including the one that recently occurred, is that these are planned acts and these are individuals who contemplated carrying out these kinds of acts well in advance.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, here to examine how safe schools really are, in the aftermath of this recent spate of shootings, is Dewey Cornell, professor of education and director of the Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia. He's the author of the book, "School Violence: Fear Versus Facts."

Professor Cornell, welcome.

DEWEY CORNELL, Director, Youth Violence Project: Welcome. Good to be here.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, one of the interesting things that's emerged from this most recent shooting is the lack of any personal connection to this school. Charles Carl Roberts had no child there, hadn't attended there himself. It wasn't contiguous to his house. Does this present a different kind of profile compared to many of these shootings that take place at schools?

DEWEY CORNELL: Yes, it does. There are different types of school shootings. And we certainly can't come up with a single solution or a single way to prevent all of them.

But what many of these shootings do have in common, including the one that recently occurred, is that these are planned acts and these are individuals who contemplated carrying out these kinds of acts well in advance. And so what this means is, there is an opportunity to prevent them from taking place.

That is, when individuals communicate threats, they discuss their intentions -- and this often happens prior to these types of rampage shootings -- what we need is people that are alert to individuals who seem to have undergone a change in their mental state, who seem distressed, resentful, and who actually talk about violent intentions.

So, in that respect, these acts can be prevented and often are prevented, but you're right that they are very different than the school shootings motivated by students maybe who feel like they've been victims and want to strike back at school.

RAY SUAREZ: Are their security protocols that you can put in place? We heard Governor Rendell a little earlier in the program suggest that he couldn't imagine there was anything he could do to stop an attack like this.

DEWEY CORNELL: Well, we can't turn our schools into fortresses. It won't help to arm them to the teeth with security guards. But when the FBI studied school shootings and the Secret Service studied school shootings, they concluded that a law enforcement procedure known as threat assessment can be effective.

And threat assessment involves identifying individuals who've made threats and investigating to find out how serious those threats are. This is particularly important in schools, because students make lots of foolish statements, threatening statements.

After Columbine, students across the country called in bomb threats. They made angry statements. And rather than treat all of these kids as would-be killers, we need to thoughtfully, carefully investigate their threats and distinguish the threats that are really serious from the majority of threats that aren't serious. And we've done...

The attackers' mindset

Dewey Cornell
University of Virginia
The key is really to be listening, to have bond of communication with students so that they will come forward and tell us when they hear that their friends are upset or distressed or talking about committing some type of violent act.

RAY SUAREZ: I'm sorry, Professor. Do we know anything about what gets someone from fantasizing, to planning, to actually carrying out an attack? It's one thing to make, as you say, silly threats, another to perhaps harbor terrible grudges or have fantasies of killing others. But then it's quite a different matter when you actually acquire the means to do so and then go one step further and actually do it.

DEWEY CORNELL: And this is a process that takes time, that develops, and that's where we have our opportunity to identify these individuals and intervene, when we see that they're not just making a threat but that they're on a pathway toward violence.

And very often what we see is accompanying symptoms of depression, suicidal thinking, nihilism, pessimism. We also see a preoccupation with violence and with revenge fantasies.

So these things are often very evident. Most of the young men who committed school shootings made it very clear. They put it on the Web. They wrote essays in their English class. They told their friends and colleagues what their intentions were.

So it's often not a secret, these events, and the key is really to be listening, to have bond of communication with students so that they will come forward and tell us when they hear that their friends are upset or distressed or talking about committing some type of violent act.

More shootings than usual

Dewey Cornell
University of Virginia
What we have to keep in mind is that school violence actually has been declining for over 10 years, OK? Even before Columbine, school violence was going down. And through Columbine and since Columbine, violence in schools has continued to go down.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, in the last couple of days -- it's been called a spike, a spate -- there have been several of these crimes, indeed, some 25 since the beginning of the school year. Is this anything to be concerned about? Is it more than a normal year?

DEWEY CORNELL: Well, I think we need to be very careful about assuming that there is a trend based on the last two cases. And when you say there's been 25, 25 shootings, 25 killings? Were they in schools? Were they outside of schools? The statistics dance around on this.

What we have to keep in mind is that we have 119,000 public schools. We have over 50 million students in those schools, so there will inevitably be some crimes of violence across schools, just like we have shootings in restaurants, and office buildings, and churches, and every other place.

We tend to focus specifically on violence in schools, and we've created a special category of violence called, you know, "school shootings." If we gave equal attention to shootings in restaurants, for example, people would start to think that maybe restaurants weren't safe, or we would talk about restaurant violence or restaurant shootings.

We have to be very careful not to have a self-fulfilling prophecy that we draw so much attention to violence in schools that we lose perspective and that we stimulate individuals who are maybe depressed, angry, resentful, deranged -- maybe only one in a million.

But, again, we have 300 million individuals in this country; we have 200 million guns in circulation. And so there's a possibility for disaster, not specifically in schools, but really throughout our society.

What we have to keep in mind is that school violence actually has been declining for over 10 years, OK? Even before Columbine, school violence was going down. And through Columbine and since Columbine, violence in schools has continued to go down.

RAY SUAREZ: I'm sorry. Professor Dewey Cornell joining us there. Thank you very much, sir.

DEWEY CORNELL: Sure.