Learning from Littleton

Experts discuss the right lessons -- and the wrong ones.

Published April 27, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

A week after the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., parents, police and a stunned nation are still trying to understand why teenagers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 students, one teacher and then themselves. As the town buries its slain children, psychiatrists and media critics have engaged in a kind of psychological autopsy, trying to pinpoint how teen alienation could have led to so horrific a deed. Many are looking for connections between the boys' outcast status (rumors have circulated that the pair were gay), their Internet use, their keen interest in violent video games and an ominous fascination with Adolf Hitler.

Among the most painful stories in the massacre is the death of Isaiah Shoels, a popular athlete and one of only six African-American students at the school of nearly 2,000. Harris and Klebold reportedly chased Shoels and called him "nigger" before shooting him. At first, many were confused by the assassins' apparently contradictory intentions to kill both jocks and
minorities (there is even new evidence suggesting that the boys targeted Jewish students, although
one is a descendant of a Jewish philanthropist). Yet experts in criminology and teenage behavior say that the outcast boys were searching for power, and that there is no contradiction in their targets.

While their motives remain complex, their bloody revenge was carried out with weapons that, in America, are easy to obtain: semiautomatic weapons and homemade bombs. The magnitude of their arsenal has prompted a cry for stronger gun-control laws, in particular laws that would prevent concealed weapons and the sale of guns on the black market. In a 1993 Justice Department survey of juvenile inmates in maximum security prisons, more than half of those polled said they obtained guns on the black market, while 17 percent said they stole the guns from houses or apartments.

In the wake of the attack, the National Rifle Association has kept a relatively low profile, though Charlton Heston, the president of the NRA, told reporters that he blamed the parents of the shooters, and that "every school is going to have to have armed security guards." (The NRA declined comment for this story.) Another alternative offered by the Sunday New York Times suggested a "dramatic expansion in the use of metal detectors" in American schools. But will making schools more like prisons really prevent children from acting like criminals? After all, there was an armed security guard at Columbine High, and he was unable to stop the attack. Still another proposed solution is to crack down on teenagers who act out, and to treat cliques of alienated teenagers who dress in black or unusual clothing as gangs. Harris and Klebold's group, the Trench Coat Mafia, has even been connected to the Goth subculture, although Goths across the country deny any similarities between the two.

Salon asked several experts on teenage behavior and psychology to address the question: What lessons can we learn from Littleton?

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Vincent Schiraldi, director of the Justice Policy Institute, a research and public policy organization in Washington

It's nuts to think that kids are any crazier today than they ever were
before; I think they're just better armed. I was on MSNBC the day after the shooting with Pat Buchanan, and he was going on a diatribe against America's youth, calling them "godless" and "an immoral generation adrift." I know he's running for president, but running on the back of this tragedy is outrageous. Our kids are not schoolhouse assassins. They're the kids on the other side of the yellow tape, weeping over the deaths of their classmates just like the rest of us did. There are 20 million high school and junior high school kids in America. It's no more right to depict all students as killers than it would be to depict all adults as Timothy McVeigh.

Since 1994, there has been a 45 percent decline in juvenile homicides in
America. It's not a godless society. It's a society that's replete with
guns. Twenty-five percent of all homicides by kids occurred in just four cities -- New York, Chicago, L.A. and Detroit. Suburban and rural crime
gets a lot of publicity because of the fact that it's unusual. A lot of people want to make it seem as though it's a trend. It simply is not a trend. There are no more school shootings today than there were in 1992; in fact there are slightly less. [And] 99.4 percent of the times a kid is killed in America, they're killed outside of a school.

In Colorado today, the remaining members of the Trench Coat Mafia could carry shotguns and rifles and the police would be powerless to do anything about it, because it's legal for kids under the age of 18 to have them. California passed a one-gun-a-month law last week, and I think
that's great. Why does anybody need to buy more than one gun a month? The only people [who lose] are people who want to sell guns on the black market and gun manufacturers.

There is a way to help kids teach themselves how to mediate disputes without violence, without shredding the Constitution and unnecessarily searching our kids. If we're going to start letting police randomly search people, we should let them randomly search adults on the street, because that's where most of the killings occur. But nobody would say we should do that, because we would never want to give the police power to randomly search us. Nor would it be a good use of police time. The same exact thing is true in our schools.

Dan Savage, sex columnist and author of "Savage Love: Straight Answers From America's Most Popular Sex Columnist"

Kids (from Columbine) calling [Harris and Klebold] "freaks" and "fags" is part of the story that is not being told in this rush to make martyrs out of the victims and demons out of the perpetrators. "Fag" is the first thing that somebody who doesn't fit in is called, and in most high schools in this country, it is still acceptable to hurl that word around in a way that it isn't acceptable to hurl anything else around. Teachers and administrators don't do anything about it because everyone seems to be in perfect agreement, in a lot of rural high schools and even big city high schools, that fags are bad.

I sincerely doubt that these kids were gay, but I don't doubt that they were called gay constantly. I know that when I was in high school there were kids who weren't gay but were called gay who would then hold hands, as these boys allegedly did, to annoy the people who were torturing them. Clearly these guys were willing to offend and antagonize and ultimately murder their tormentors.

These two aren't heroes; they're a couple of racist know-nothing thugs. But they didn't go in with guns blazing into a vacuum. This is the lesson that's not being learned. There are social dynamics in high schools that are every bit as murderous as what these kids did, except they're stretched out over years and years. I'd be interested to know how many ostracized kids there have committed suicide over time.

They kept saying on the news, "How could this happen, in a place where children feel safe?" Did you go to high school in this country? Even to some extent the kids who engage in the worst social ostracism and sadism are also acting out of their insecurity and the lack of physical safety. Every day I was in school it was like a fucking nightmare. I'm surprised it didn't happen then -- I'm surprised I didn't do it.

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Michael Thompson, Ph.D., co-author of "Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys"

As a psychologist, I've had boys who've carved swastikas into their shoulders. To me, it's always a warning -- how could it not be? They [Harris and Klebold] were saying, "Nobody noticed. Everybody disrespected us. Nobody comforted us. But we're going to prove we're strong. We'll make the people who teased us pay."

All boys are teased between the ages of 11 and 15. Boys are very, very
tough on each other. I call it the culture of cruelty. The main insults are "gay" and "faggot." There is a process of sorting through who's in and who's out. Kids who are really cast out are at risk. Most American boys are not given enough practice in articulating their inner lives. They're emotionally illiterate. They feel they have to express everything in ways that are strong. By the age of 8 or 9 a boy is measuring everything he does on one measurement, strong to weak. That's why boys seem to fall silent. You get some boys who are more gripped by violence in the media, and then if they also get too severely alienated or depressed, or their only company is another boy who is also depressed and alienated, then they can just spiral downward. These were two suicidal boys. I think they had a suicidal pact when they went in there. They knew they were going to be dead at the end, and they were going to take a lot of people with them. We know boys are vastly more at risk for suicide.

It's terrifying that they had so little adult presence in their lives that nobody checked on them, that nobody knew what they were up to. Kids need to be known. My wish is that every child in school would have to say hello to an adult, shake his or her hand, look her in the eye every day, so that the same adult would see a child every day, right up until the end of high school. At least the advisor would know whether they weren't able to make contact with the kids.

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Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and professor of sociology at Northeastern University in Boston.

What people are confused about is, how can it be a hate crime when most of the victims were white? There's no contradiction at all. Hate mongers don't specialize. They go hunting for a black to kill, but if they don't find him, they'll take someone who's gay or target a woman or maybe someone with a disability. The largest number of hate crimes are committed by teenagers who are marginalized and alienated. They're not members of organized hate groups, but they go out on a Saturday night looking for "the enemy." The more they bash and assault and attack, the more important they feel, the greater their sense of belonging.

All of the symbols that these two youngsters were enamored of were symbols of power, the power that they lacked and wanted so desperately. Targeting athletes -- the most powerful, the most popular, the most prestigious members of the school. The attack against the one black student is a hate crime, and I think it does qualify legally. (Isaiah Shoels) embodied everything that they wanted. He was strong, athletic, popular -- and he was black. The last things that these assailants wanted to see was a member of the "inferior race" have a position at the top of the class, the people who are supposed to be the weakest actually being the strongest. That infuriated them.

We can reduce hate crimes and reduce these attacks at schools if we provide our young people with healthy alternatives to hatred and violence, so they can feel important and special and a sense of belonging without hurting anyone. That's a tough thing for people to understand, because it's a long-term preventive solution. It's not as easy as putting metal detectors in schools and stationing guards around the hallways. What we tend to do is go toward short-term solutions that don't work because they're politically expedient and because they make people feel better. Adults have to get back into the lives of youngsters so that they no longer raise themselves, as they have been for 20 or 30 years. They haven't been doing a very good job of it, and sometimes, they explode.

Andrew Vachss,attorney who represents only juveniles

There are two kinds of school killings. One is attachment disorder, a sole individual with an inability to bond, and the other is folie ` deux. Here it's probably a form of folie ` deux, a situation where none of
the parties acting alone would have done it. The more isolated the players feel and perceive themselves to be, the more they look toward one another. One element of this is cluster suicide. These kids who clearly entered the school with the intention of dying, I think in some way were motivated by the attention and focus that others got for similar acts, but lacking the perception to see what it would cost in real terms.

Any expressed interest in an extermination philosophy such as Nazism is enough of a warning sign for anybody. Nazism has always appealed to inadequates and defectives, because it always explains all their problems. It wasn't a Jewish school, it wasn't heavily populated with people of color, so they did what a lot of disturbed people do with Nazism, morph it a little bit. "We're superior, the rest of these people are defectives. They're oppressing us because of our superiority. They need to be exterminated."

I'm not convinced that any new get-tough measures would have had any effect at all at Littleton. Here's a paraphrase of a quote: "Juvenile criminals are a new breed today. They're monstrous. They seem to care nothing about human life. They represent almost a feral, predatory creature for which we need new interventions." That's from 1948. None of those waves of get-tough juvenile legislation, which began in the '50s, have ever had crime-cutting effects. Once you're at a point where your own life is part of what you're anteing up, I don't believe get-tough does much. What you need to talk about is preventing that deadly flower from reaching full bloom. When you come across the extermination philosphy, I think you have to step in right then. It would be a confrontative intervention. Although there's a First Amendment and people can say whatever they want, it's not difficult to engage young people to the point where they're going past speech.

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Lynn Ponton, M.D., author of "The Romance of Risk" and professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco

Teenagers are really pissed off now, because they feel like Goths have been
mischaracterized. For the past two days, every single one has said it in
my office, including my own daughter. I have worked with hundreds of
Goths. This is not a Goth splinter group. The fact that kids wear black
and maybe listen to Marilyn Manson doesn't identity them as Goths. Goths
for the most part are isolated or independents; if they direct
violence, it's usually toward themselves, self-mutilation type of behavior.
This is more of a fascist group, if we're going to characterize them at
all. Because we really don't understand the teenage groups very well and it's easy to look at somebody and say, because they look like them, they're from that group. This does damage to our communication with them.

This cycle of exchanging insults between this group and the jocks should have been interrupted early by the school. Schools can have intervention when they see violence. They can have consulation around gangs in the school. They can survey their students and try to find out what the problems are. They can have open days to discuss cultural and ethnic differences. They can use the tribe model where they divide kids, despite racial and ethnic groups, into tribes and try to make them feel an affiliation in that particular way.

By Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is an associate editor for Salon News.

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