Targeting girls in school shootings

Gunmen have singled out, terrorized and killed girls at two schools in the past week.

Published October 2, 2006 11:00PM (EDT)

As you probably know, there was another school shooting targeting girls today. Gunman Charles Carl Roberts IV went to a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pa., dismissed all the boys and some of the adults, barred the doors, bound the female students' feet with wire, lined them up against the blackboard and shot at a dozen of them execution style before turning the gun on himself. Three of the victims have died, and at least three more are in critical condition with gunshot wounds to their heads. The school's students range in age from 6 to 13.

The incident may have been prompted by, or intended to mimic, the grimly similar shooting last week at Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, Colo., when another adult male gunman entered a school, barricaded himself in a classroom with six female students and allegedly sexually molested them, then killed one of them and himself before police managed to intercede. Both killers left suicide notes prior to the shootings.

Lancaster County authorities say Roberts staged the killing as revenge for something he experienced -- presumably involving girls -- when he was 12. Police commissioner Jeffrey Miller told reporters Roberts' grudge probably wasn't related to the Amish, to this particular school or to these particular girls. "It seems as though he wanted to attack young female victims, and this is close to his residence. That's the only reason we can figure that he went to [this particular] school," Miller said.

It's hard to know what to say about the shootings other than that they are deeply disturbing tragedies. The circumstances surrounding the killings don't necessarily offer insight into the wider proclivities of killers or sex offenders, or relate to the status of women and girls more broadly. But attacks based on gender, like attacks on the basis of race, religion or sexual orientation, are despicable and horrifying; some would call them acts of terrorism. In the context of our contested, combustible cultural debate about the status of women, violence against women and girls serves as a queasy reminder of what true, deranged misogyny looks like. It's shocking to see two targeted killings within a week of each other -- and to be reminded that a small subset of the population is fixated on terrorizing and killing girls they've never met.

Update: Lancaster County authorities have revealed that Roberts was struggling with the memory of having molested some of his young relatives 20 years ago; before Monday's shootings, Roberts apparently had been dreaming about molesting again. Police commissioner Miller told reporters that, based on the girls' restraints and the presence of KY Jelly in the schoolroom, Roberts may have planned to molest his victims in the schoolhouse, though there's no evidence that any molestation occured: "It's very possible, when he talks about doing the things and having dreams for the last two years about doing things that he did 20 years ago ... he perhaps planned, with the kind of wood and eyebolts 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," Miller said Tuesday. Police believe he targeted the Amish school because of the age range of its female students.

According to the New York Times, schools around the country are reeling from the three school shootings in the past week, and bracing for further copycat crimes.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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