Following the recent school shooting in Ohio where 3 students were tragically killed and others injured,I thought this was a timely blog post to write. It is scary for parents (and for everyone for that matter) to think about something this horrific happening at a school which should be a safe place for children. Following events like this, it is normal for there to be a lot of speculation about why this happened, for people to want to know who the shooter was and what they were like and to want to be able to identify what is wrong with them so that we can measure other children up against them and gain some reassurance that this will not happen in our communities. There are always differing opinions about why school shooting occur but one thing we know for sure – they have occurred and have continued to occur which brings about a lot of fear in each of us. I was reading in an article following the incident in Ohio this week that some of the teachers initially thought it might have just been a drill. We certainly did not have these kinds of drills when I was in school so clearly this is sign that times have changed.
So, back to the frequently asked question – “How Does This Happen”? Sorry to say that I do not have a clear answer, however, I do know some things having worked directly with many juveniles who have been accused of and convicted of murder and manslaughter. One thing I know for sure if that there is not a clear profile of a “teen murderer”. The term “Superpredator” was used often in the 90’s to describe teenagers who killed. The term painted a picture of a big, scary, evil, heartless individual to describe who society should be scared of, however, this term has faded since then.
Teenagers are complex and have many layers to them so we cannot put them into boxes labeled dangerous and not dangerous. I have worked with teenagers who have murdered other individuals and who have admitted to this. I have spent time with them and talked with them for countless hours in individual and group therapy sessions, played cards with them while they had free time out of their cells and met with their families in an effort to understand them, help them process their actions and for some, help them understand the severe consequences the will face for their actions including what “life without the possibility of parole” means.
Each individual I worked with had a different story. Each individual I worked with had their own struggles or heart breaking story. Each individual I worked with was a very different person. Each individual I worked with had their own set of strengths despite the crime they committed. Strengths including being very intelligent, amazing writers, poets and artists, outstanding athletes, great comedians, avid readers, great friends and hard workers just to name a few. I remember sitting in a therapy session with a teenager boy accused of murder and talking about the book The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks which he had recently read. He talked about crying while reading about the tremendous love the main character had for his wife and he wrote down quotes and phrases from the book which struck him as he was reading. He wanted to talk about whether life could really be like this and wanted to be connected with someone in the way that the main character was connected with his wife in this book. In other therapy sessions he talked about feeling like at 13 he had no choice but to join a gang because otherwise he was assaulted and robbed while walking to his house after school because of the neighborhood he lived in and how that resulted in his current situation. I also worked with a teen who prayed and cried for his victim each night before going to bed and another who shot a gun while he was robbing someone to get money for his mother who was addicted to crack because he wanted her to stop prostituting herself. He did not have any trustworthy adults he could open up to without fear of being taken away from his mother and did all he could think of doing out of desperation in hopes of keeping his mother safe from the many men who were abusing her and raping her when she put herself out there on the streets. There are so many complicated stories, however, I share these few to exemplify that things are not so black and white in trying to define who will kill and who won’t or to define who is” good” and who is “bad”.
I read an article on CNN.com today by Dr. Frank Ochberg where he talks about why the US leads the world in school shootings. He believes that it is not many of the reasons that often are brought up (bullying, mental health issues, drugs, violent role models) and argues that the US is not worse off than other countries in terms of these issues. What he does see is being different in the US is the access teens have to guns. This got me thinking about a book I read many years ago which was first published in 1995 by Geoffrey Canada called Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun. This book talks about how many years ago, when two individual got into an altercation they would fight with their fists, usually one on one. Then someone may have introduced a stick so in order to keep oneself safe the other person introduced a knife. Then when someone was not feeling safe because their rival or opponent had a knife, they turned to a gun. It was about fear of one’s safety and trying to beat out one’s opponent who may have a weapon. So – in thinking about our times today – a gun is the ultimate weapon and if someone is feeling desperate, threatened or like they will be defeated AND they have access to a gun – they may very well use it. Remember, teenagers brains are not fully developed and they do not necessarily have the ability to think through or understand the consequences of their behavior. They cannot imagine life in prison or the finality of death – they can barely think past what they are going to do on the weekends sometimes.
I am not an expert in knowing how kids can access guns but I do know that I have worked with over 100 who had access to them and many of those individuals used them – some on themselves. I once worked with an individual who was with a group of friends and someone had a gun and they decided to play Russian Roulette “for fun”. This individual held the gun under his chin and pulled the trigger and shot a bullet through his face. He was lucky enough to survive but certainly did not think through the potential, real consequences of engaging in such risky behavior. I am not suggesting that all desperate or troubled teenagers will seek access to a gun and I am not suggesting that some don’t have the ability to think through the real consequences. What I am saying is that teenagers do not have fully developed brains, they can be impulsive, that there are things that put teens at increased risk and that the reality is that this kind of thing is happening and there is no clear formula to know when it will happen. If there was, what happened this week in Chardon, Ohio would not have happened.
I have tried to illustrate the complexity of teenagers who have killed and demonstrate that there is not a clear profile for who will act out in such a violent manner and who will not. I want to be clear that I do not believe that kids are all good or all bad but that I also believe that anyone who behaves in a violent manner should be held accountable for their actions with all circumstances being taken into account. With all of this said, although there is not a clear profile for a “Superpredator” there are certainly risk factors which may predispose someone to act out violently that should not be ignored which I will outline in my next blog post.
My heart goes out to the entire community in Chardon, Ohio as they work to heal from this tragic event.
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