Readin', writin' and killin'

The author of a new book about school shootings talks about America's pernicious cult of athletics, the dangers of small-town intimacy, and why it's impossible to identify a school shooter in advance.


Carlene Bauer
February 26, 2004 2:03AM (UTC)

Just a few years ago, it seemed that the only sort of terrorist threat Americans had to worry about was disenfranchised young men from small-town America plotting to blow up their schools -- not disenfranchised young men from the Middle East plotting to blow up national landmarks. But elaborate schemes to take revenge against fellow students are still, depressingly, one of our national realities. In recent weeks, two such plots in California and one in Louisiana were foiled. We may be getting better at defusing potential massacres, but according to Katherine Newman, a Harvard sociologist who analyzed the causes and effects of two pre-Columbine shootings in rural communities in Kentucky and Arkansas, the real work lies in preventing kids from viewing mass murder as the answer to their problems in the first place.

In 1999, Congress, baffled by the wave of late '90s shootings, decided to investigate why they were happening in quiet, close-knit communities rather than cities. Newman was asked to contribute two case studies to the effort, and her new book, "Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings," grew out of that research. Newman and a team of four Harvard graduate students conducted more than a hundred interviews with kids, parents, teachers and mental health workers in Heath, Ky., where in 1997, 14-year-old Michael Carneal opened fire on an early morning prayer group at his high school, killing three students and wounding five others, and in Westside, Ark., where in 1998 Andrew Golden, 11, and Mitchell Johnson, 13, fired 30 rounds of ammunition at teachers and students on a school playground, killing four and injuring 10.

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Newman and her colleagues concluded that we can't blame guns or Marilyn Manson for these unthinkable acts of violence. In fact, some of our all-American values may be the poison in the well. The closeness of small towns, she writes, often socializes its residents into silence because they don't want to risk offending their friends and neighbors by bringing up unsettling information. And, she argues, we need to be more understanding of kids that can't or won't be shiny, happy conformists. She reminds us that for teenagers, hell definitely is other people -- especially if you're a boy who isn't a jock.

The school shootings you studied took place in rural communities. How does the structure of these communities make for trouble?

In a small town the kinds of connections people make are highly overlapping -- your teacher may be your Scout leader, who may also be your neighbor. These multiplex ties are really important, and they create a density not just of social relationships but also of information. We argue in the book that this density has many positive features, but also negative ones. It will lead people to worry a lot about the consequences of losing a friendship if they come forward with information that's regarded as damaging or poorly motivated.

There's data in the book showing that out of the 25 school shootings that have occurred in the U.S. since 1974, three-quarters of them have taken place since the early '90s. Why has there been this increase?

I don't think we have a good handle on why these shootings began to increase. But we do know that there's a copycat phenomenon in later shootings. We can see that a kind of script was born for this sort of violence and it began to be taken up by young boys. And by "script" I mean media representation of shootings as a way of establishing manhood -- of becoming a man, of showing that you're physically dominant and powerful. This image of a glorified or notorious shooter is something we see in popular media. But we can see that in action films from the '70s like "Superfly" and "Shaft," so it's not as though [this image] has suddenly increased.

In the Kentucky high school, the kids you talked to said the worst thing they can think of is to be called gay. But with hunting and sports so entrenched, is it possible in these small communities to give boys an alternative definition of masculinity?

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Sports culture has many positive virtues -- I don't want to sound like I think every football player's a horrible person. And in fact sports often do unite the community and provide a way for the generations to speak to each other about the things they care about in common. However, it's more difficult in small communities to have alternative pathways to manhood. But it doesn't seem to me that it's impossible. These boys in these towns actually have many different models in front of them -- they've got fathers who become plumbers or doctors and lawyers and technicians. It's not as though they look at every male that's in their social orbit and think "Oh, he's respected because he's sporting a gun." They aren't. But in the fantastic culture of the media, you don't see the father who becomes a plumber as an image of masculinity. You see these sawed-off shotguns. And these schools have debate teams; they have science programs. There are other activities that young men can participate in. But they are not usually as publicly valued. Kids [in non-sports activities] we interviewed would say, "You didn't see a pep rally for us." Even when the school tries to combat this, by holding a pep rally for the band, everybody knows that it's a conscious effort. But I do think that's something we could change if people recognize just how much potential damage it does to have just a single way of defining success and manliness.

Would you say that this is a particularly American problem, then, our beloved jockocracies?

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This is a problem that doesn't derive so much from the size of these communities as from a general American disdain for intellectual [excellence], a sort of populism that's common in the culture. In Japan, for instance, if you are a failing academic high school student, you are in deep trouble. But you're really not in deep trouble in the United States. It's a curious thing, because we all know that this is damaging to society as a whole, to not value [academic] achievement. Unless you are a glitteringly successful sports star or movie star, most of the rest of us are going to come to the good life through higher education and professions which heavily favor people who are gifted in the mind. But in adolescence we load our status system up with the absolute opposite values. Quite a few kids expressed resentment at this. One Westside girl, complaining about how the football players got out of class on game days to watch "Remember the Titans," said, "We don't get any privileges like that ... We bust our tails and we don't get anything for it." A boy at Heath said even though their football team was terrible, they still got all the attention. "Our choir was really good. We sent the most people to all-state and higher-state. Nobody said a word about it. Smart kids -- they didn't care about the smart kids."

When people get older, of course, they can look more critically on their high school days and come to grips with what they meant or didn't mean. But when you're in the middle of it, it's your whole world. It's everything. And if you're in a small rural community, it might feel like it's your whole world forever, because you don't see many examples of people getting up and leaving. The two schools we studied both sent a majority of their students to college -- but where do they go? They went to the local community college or state colleges. They often don't leave at all --- they live at home if they go to college, and even if they do go away, they come back. In the graduating class at Heath the year of the shooting, only three or four kids actually went away to college.

While many people wring their hands over the nihilistic music and violent video games that the kids who contemplated and carried out these attacks consumed -- for example, Michael Carneal was a fan of "Mortal Kombat" -- you say that the sort of media consumed is really only one part of the equation.

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Usually shooters are marginal kids who are looking for a way to impress their friends. They're not in love with the idea of violence -- they're in love with the idea of respect from their peers. Usually these kids are damaged goods: They have reputations as being nerdy, or they're too young to join status groups that develop in junior year. They're freshman, they're dweebs, they haven't grown yet. Michael Carneal, in his freshman year of high school, was this skinny little kid with glasses, he was socially very awkward, he was developing some serious delusions that no one knew about -- he was afraid to sleep alone because he imagined monsters were coming to get him, he put towels over the bathroom vents because he thought snakes would come through them. But what people could see was that he was a jerk. He would do stupid things, like putting gum in a girl's hair, things he thought people would think were funny, but they didn't. In one photograph in the book, you can see that now he's over 6 feet tall and 200 pounds. If he had looked like that at 15, he wouldn't have been as socially marginal. It's not surprising in some ways that these shooters are often in the early years of adolescence -- there's so much variation in what boys look like at 14 or 15. Some look like the men they're going to be. Some look like little boys.

And yet Mitchell Johnson, from the picture in the book, looked pretty husky and seemed to have more power and status than other shooters. And he seemed to be a really compassionate kid -- he even made his little brother's bed every day for him.

Mitchell is something of a mystery. He was a bigger boy, he was successful at sports, he was a pretty good student, most of his teachers thought he was a sweetheart, he sang for the church choir, he visited old people's homes. There are many, many reasons why people would have never thought of Mitchell as a potential shooter. But they didn't know the other parts of his life. They didn't know that he had been sexually abused as a little boy, or about the verbally violent breakup of his parents' marriage. So there were really two Mitchells. So for all of his success socially, he didn't think of himself as a success. He thought of himself as a failure. And then he got cut from some sports teams. He got dumped by a girlfriend. And in his very sensitive state, expecting the worst, and in a very turbulent relationship with his dad, he was cycling downwards, and nobody around him recognized it.

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Even though the kids who perpetrate these acts do, as you point out in the book, often boast to other kids about what they're planning, or give other clues that they are troubled, what's really frightening is that these acts are springing from a narrative that's unfolding mostly internally, unbeknownst to adults.

Researching the book was scary for that reason. You think the world is an orderly place and that we would be able to pick these kids out, and once we do we'll either give them treatment and lock them away, or somehow prevent them from doing these horrible things. Then you realize you can't pick them out. They come from good families and dysfunctional families. They're good students and terrible students. Some of them look like Mitchell -- they seem to be socially successful on the surface but underneath they're in terrible shape. Others are clearly very troubled, like Kip Kinkel, in Oregon, who was expelled from school. We're not going to be able to cope with this problem by identifying these kids in advance. We can't. Kip Kinkel is the scariest case of all -- this was someone who was identified. The school expelled him, his parents tried to get him help -- they were one day away from voluntary commitment -- and they couldn't stop him. I'm not saying that we're going to get to a point where we can stop every one of these. But we might see more intercepted plots.

One thing that seems to be very helpful are school resource officers -- law enforcement officials in the schools who wear what's called "soft uniform," meaning they don't wear full police regalia and don't carry weapons -- and their great value is that they're disconnected from the school hierarchy. In the schools we looked at, kids do come forward to talk about drug problems or threats they heard, and they seem to see the school resource officer as a safe haven, as someone who's there to catch problems before they spin out of control. And they remove a sort of hall-monitor burden from the teachers, who really don't like having to do all this disciplinary work.

Do you think the government is doing enough to prevent school violence?

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After Sept. 11, there appeared to be quite a lull in the shootings themselves. It may be that people who considered shooting were knocked off course just like everybody else was. The phenomenon may have been interrupted, but not forever. We've had a couple of these incidents in the last month or so, which leads me to think that the pressure that inclines kids toward these acts hasn't disappeared, and the incidents may be poised to make something of a comeback. I'm not sure that this is a problem that government can address, other than to provide resources that make it possible for schools and local communities to address the issue. It's not like a big heavy law enforcement intervention is needed. It certainly is the case that support for things like school resource officers and more mental health counseling in the schools would make a difference. But the problem is so many schools are facing budget crises right now.

When you started the research for the book, did you think that by the end you'd be able to come up with a profile of a school shooter?

Yes and no. As a total outsider to the topic I thought some would emerge, but the Secret Service, whose data we studied, was convinced you would never be able to pick these kids out, and I found their reasoning quite compelling. You looked at the data and you could just see there's too much variation in who these shooters were. But the one thing that we can do is to understand what we're hearing when we hear these threats, because these kids are looking to reverse a status deficit, and they always send out warning signals. Michael Carneal turned in some very troubled essays to teachers. He kept telling classmates that something big was going to happen the week before the shooting. Mitchell and Andrew made announcements to their classmates too, who brushed it off. And so we're not going to be able to tell who they are in advance, but when we hear these warning signals, we need to take these things seriously. Of course there's a downside to that. Of course there will be false positives. There will be kids who say stupid things and won't mean it. And we will overreact -- but I say better to overreact than to underreact.


Carlene Bauer

Carlene Bauer is an editor at Elle magazine.

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