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April 20th, 2009
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Wake-Up Call
15 crosses at ColumbineAn unidentified woman looks at 15 crosses posted on a hill above Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. Wednesday, April 28, 1999 in remembrance of the 15 people who died during a shooting rampage at the school. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

According to a federal study, the odds that an American student will die in high school from violence are one in a million – or even less.

While major episodes of school violence are rare, the survey concluded that signs of mental illness in the adolescents who carry out these crimes are not. It found that most school shooters have a history of suicide attempts, suicidal thoughts, depression or anxiety.

In addition, experts say, the majority of these killings are pre-meditated. They are also carried out by kids who harbor severe, specific fantasies of violence.

What causes kids to act out a violent fantasy? According to the experts, two major factors include mental illness, and social isolation.

“You have so-called normal violent fantasies, which are not intended to be realized because there is too much at stake,” says Dr. Frank Robertz, co-founder of the Institute for Violence Prevention and Applied Criminology in Berlin. “If a kid has good social bonds, good attachment to other people, and a good involvement in society– all that stuff that prevents them from realizing such a deed.  But if you do not have these bonds – these protective factors – you are more likely to do a grave deed.”

Students embrace after a memorial serviceStudents embrace after a memorial service on the third anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo., on Saturday, April 20, 2002. Friends and family released balloons in memory of the 13 victims. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

Dr. Robertz studies the kids behind the school shootings so familiar to us now we reference them in shorthand: Columbine, Paducah, Pearl, Jonesboro, Northern Illinois University, Virginia Tech. Overseas, too – in Finland, and in Robertz’s native Germany. In March of this year, a teenager in Winnenden, Germany, went on a shooting spree that began at his former school and ended with 16 dead. The gunman, age 17, shot himself after a confrontation with the police.

“These school shootings destroy the community – not only the people who are left dead after the incident, not only the victims, but also their relatives,” says Robertz. “Also the people who are at school who saw this event, also officials who are responsible for the health of their kids at school.”

Robertz focuses on the fantasies of these shooters, which he says are often aired publicly before the killings are carried out. From private diaries, to home videos, Web pages and school papers – the perpetrators of school shootings have almost always put the word out about their grievances and their plans well in advance of carrying them out.

“I think they want to get in touch with us,” Robertz says. “They send us signals along the way.”

SOME EXAMPLES:

A Northern Illinois University police officer, center, helps a victim after a shooting on the campus in DeKalb, Ill.A Northern Illinois University police officer, center, helps a victim after a shooting on the campus in DeKalb, Ill., in this Feb. 14, 2008, photo. In an interview with the Associated Press, NIU Police Chief Donald Grady said the shootings resulting in the deaths of five students, was the ugliest test of his career. It was a test that would draw on three decades of military and police work. (AP Photo/Northern Star, Jim Killam, File)

Before killing 32 people at Virginia Tech – the single deadliest incident by a lone gunman in U.S. history – Seung-Hui wrote: “Kill yourselves, or you will never know how the dorky kid that you publicly humiliated and spat on will come behind you and slash your throats. Kill yourselves or you will never know the hour the little kid will come in with hundreds of ammunition on his back to shoot you down.”

Before he killed two students and wounded 22 others in Springfield, Oregon, 15-year-old Kip Kinkel wrote this on a Spanish worksheet:

“I will hunt you down and put a hole in your head. With explosives…RIP. You must DIE.”

And Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold made a home movie for school about wanting to kill their classmates, in addition to a “to do” list – including the purchase of bombs and guns – leading up to the massacre.

By studying these warning signs, Robertz and his co-workers have developed strategies they say can help identify students at risk for acts of violence, before it’s too late.

“In my opinion every one occurrence [of school violence] which has happened would have been preventable,” he says.

Robertz, who has interviewed school shooters, adds that his most surprising finding is how often these kids cry for help.

“All of the school shooters actually said– if someone would have approached me with how I’m feeling, what goes on in my mind, I would have told them,” he says. “So if teachers actually approach kids, they have a very high chance that they will talk about what’s going on in their minds, and will talk about their violent fantasies.”

**For more facts on school violence, visit the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center online. The Center, founded in 1999 in response to the massacre at Columbine High School, offers information and statistics on youth violence and prevention, and intervention strategies for the general public.

  • marion tierney

    a general question. is this program posted on bulletin boards, are teachers who notice a student in crisis put someone on notice.i just saw the tail end of a cry for help program on pbs and having 8 grandchildren, all different and one i take a particular interest due to her standoffish, sarcastic and secret way of dealing with things as opposed to discussing it. when asked what is wrong her parents get the classic “nothing” in a very annoyed manner.being an introvert i see a very private middle child struggling.

  • dc

    I am a middle school teacher and am interested in finding materials that Hamilton used for their Character Days. Can you send me information concerning this?

  • cybermom

    “All of the school shooters actually said– if someone would have approached me with how I’m feeling, what goes on in my mind, I would have told them,” he says. “So if teachers actually approach kids, they have a very high chance that they will talk about what’s going on in their minds, and will talk about their violent fantasies.”

    I don’t have faith that the schools will listen. I used to believe that, but I know longer do. A neighbor child gave my 13 year old son a gun. My son had been complaining that his teacher was mean to him and made him so mad he could kill her. So, the neighbor gave him a gun. The stress of that drove my son out of his mind and his behavior became really erratic. He began cutting his forearms and showing people – a definite cry for help. His psychologist, my husband and I were at a loss for his behavior. The school was dragging its feet on a behavioral intervention plan. It all came to a head when we found the gun and I CALLED THE SCHOOL. My son had his Boy Scout knife on him; the neighbor kid had a shot gun shell. The neighbor kid told the school my son wanted to kill his teacher. We put my son in a psychiatric hospital for 6 weeks. They also told the school my son wanted to kill his teacher. My son is now being expelled and faces criminal charges because he said his teacher made him so mad he could kill her. My son wept when he was told by his psychologist that people were saying he was going to kill his teacher. He said he never wanted to kill her. No one is listening.

    The world is black and white now. We did everything right for our son. We’ve been very engaged parents all his life and I spent countless hours in his school over the last 8 years working with teachers to help make my son a successful student despite his learning disabilities. He was a Boy Scout, a wrestler, an outgoing, happy CHILD, in 7th grade taking Honors History and Algebra 1…now, he is a shadow of his former self. All the school wants to do is get rid of him. His teachers, Assistant Principal, Scout leaders and many neighbors wrote letters to the School District on his behalf. None of it mattered. It’s a tragedy from which I wonder if we will ever recover. It doesn’t feel like it.

  • louise colandra

    The school system doesn’t always listen. There was a local boy in middle school a few years back who hung himself because he was being bullied. The mom spent countless hours at the school to try to stop it. She had to work lots of hours as a single parent to make ends meet. When the boy hung himself, the police put the mom in jail, blaming it on her messy house. Who wouldn’t have a messy house who worked so many hours working? But she wasn’t an absent parent, and she was at home enough of the time. Can you imagine that, blaming the parent who was trying to help the child? The mom was let out of jail after a few months, which is ridiculous because she should have never been there in the first place, and the school was never held accountable. I hope she wins a huge lawsuit against the city of Meriden Connecticut school systems, and the police department. The mother was doing her best, and no one was listening. I hope she wins a huge reward and serves as an example so these people take a common sense look at the real issues. I really hate how clueless some professionals can be. And the bullies? I don’t even think they got into any real trouble. I think they should’ve gone to jail for their role in taunting this child. It’s a real shame, and no real justice has been served. Maybe we should handle punishments in a more strict manner as in many other countries. The bullies and the school should’ve been used as examples, rather than make the mom seem at fault. It’s a load of xxxx.

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