Philadelphia Inquirer – Experts Search for Answers in Wave of School Shootings


by ANGIE CANNON, May 22, 1998

The list is long and troubling: West Paducah, Ky. Jonesboro, Ark. Edinboro, Pa.

And now, Springfield, Ore.

Yesterday’s bloody shooting at Thurston High School appears to be the eighth school shooting by a teenager in the last 15 months.

That disturbing trend has left experts on youth violence searching for explanations to make some sense of the madness: easy access to guns, inability to manage anger, disconnected families, and a copycat mentality.

“If a crime like this had happened 20 years ago, we would look for a middle-aged man who had lost his job and his family and who had led a life of frustration,” said Jack Levin, a sociologist at Northeastern University in Boston. “It would have been unheard of that a . . . boy would commit this kind of crime. What used to be the crime of the century is now the crime of the week.”

Levin and others believe that a copycat syndrome is at work as teens in one rural area emulate the behavior of youths hundreds of miles away.

“There is a fad that has swept the country, and it goes beyond sneakers or leather jackets,” Levin said. “It is now murder. Maybe 20 years ago, teenagers would have imitated other teenagers down the block. But now, they imitate other kids in other towns, thanks to television.”

Alfred Blumstein, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and director of the National Consortium on Violence Research, agreed.

“As they read about other kids doing this, that certainly can contribute to them doing it,” he said. “As they hear about other cases, they think: `Hey, me too.’ ”

The first of the recent series of multiple school shootings occurred Feb. 19, 1997, when a 16-year-old opened fire with a shotgun in a common area at a Bethel, Alaska, high school, killing the principal and a student. Just Tuesday, an 18-year-old honor student allegedly opened fire in a high school parking lot in Fayetteville, Tenn., killing a classmate who was dating his ex-girlfriend.

While experts can understand how one violent incident might lead to another, they struggle to explain the roots of the recent violence.

After two boys in Jonesboro, Ark., were arrested in the shooting deaths of four girls and a teacher in March, President Clinton asked Attorney General Janet Reno to find experts to analyze similarities among the shootings and advise on how to prevent the attacks. Officials said they had met with both Reno and Clinton.

Yitzhak Bakal, director of the Boston-based North American Family Institute, which works with hundreds of violent youths, said teens involved in such shootings typically are loners who feel wronged, who feel they need to take revenge, and who are not able to deal with their feelings openly. Often, he said, they come from families that are not sensitive enough to see what is happening with the youngsters.

Jeff Butts, an expert on youth violence at the Urban Institute, does not buy the notion that today’s stressed-out youths are less able to cope with life’s difficulties than those of a previous generation. To him and others, the problem is guns.

“There have always been kids who were willing to lose control and be impulsive and to be hurtful and cruel,” he said. “That is the nature of adolescence. You don’t think about other people’s feelings. The difference is, when we were kids, it was harder to find a weapon.”

Criminologists and mental health professionals say that the spate of shootings underscores the need to restrict teens’ access to guns. The 15-year-old suspect in Springfield, Ore., reportedly had a .22-caliber rifle and two handguns.

“It can’t be up to kids to stay away from guns,” said Katherine Kaufer Christoffel, medical director of Handgun Epidemic Lowering Plan (HELP), a Chicago-based network of medical groups trying to reduce firearms injuries. “Asking children to stay away from guns that are around is like asking them to be adults. It’s up to parents to be the ones responsible for securing the environment. And that means eliminating guns from the environment.”

Copyright (c) 1998 Philadelphia Inquirer