School Shooters Among Us

School violence has always been synonymous with inner-city public schools, gangs, and racial tensions. But there is a new violence erupting on schools all across the nation and it is a terrifying prospect for the middle and upper classes. It is the violence within the safe, rich, white cul-de-sacs of suburbia and rural America. With the events that are transpiring around us like the massacres at Columbine High in Littleton, CO, and Virginia Tech we feel that it’s about time to stop these school shootings.

They cry out for responsibility but have they heard of the school shootings at Thurston High, Springfield OR, or Santana High, Santee CA, or Red Lake High, Red Lake MN, or Rocori High, Cold Spring MN, how about Lew Wallace High, Gary IN, maybe the Caro Learning Center, Caro MI, or John McDonogh High, New Orleans LA, how about Campbell County High, Jacksonboro TN, or Beach High, Savannah GA, or Red Lion Junior High, Red Lion PA, or maybe Martin Luther King Jr. High, New York NY? Not many. The truth is that many of today’s youth are going on suicidal rampages. After these falling stars have exploded and racked havoc on an entire nation. But in our quest to find ways to prevent these catastrophes, we find it easier to blame individuals who failed to act.

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But they are just turning a blind eye to the real problem. That school systems as an institution are to blame for these shootings. They allow the individual to fall to cracks and rarely provide the assistance that these children require, they cannot transfer important data to different faculty and schools, they become accustomed to the warning flags that so many children wave before choosing an easier way to end their suffering, and they frown upon the attire, behaviors, and activities of kids that are trying to define themselves as individuals, often targeting those that refuse to conform to society as a danger to themselves and others. So because of the operation of schools it is impossible to stop school shootings without denying children’s right to individuality. On the first day of December in 1997 in West Paducah, Kentucky; three people would die and five wounded.

This happened because a 14-year-old freshman, named Michael Carneal, pulled a handgun from his backpack and fired eight shots into a group of students in the school lobby. Three months later, in Jonesboro, Arkansas, at the Westside Middle School a fire alarm was pulled. The student that pulled it was Andrew Golden, an 11-year-old sixth grader. And when the 87 students and 9 teachers exited the Westside of the building, he joined Mitchell Johnson, a 13-year-old seventh grader, on a wooded hill overlooking the school. They opened fire on their classmates and teachers killing four students and one teacher and wounding ten others. Two years later in a small town called, aptly, Littleton, in Jefferson County, Colorado it would happen again.

About 2,000 students attended Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. Two of those students were Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Eric, a Junior, and Dylan, a Senior, had been planning an attack on their high school for over a year. They arrived at the school that day in different cars and they had amassed semiautomatic weapons and shotguns with ammunition as well as Molotov Cocktails and pipe bombs in their trunks. Their plan was to attack the first lunch wave, which was expected to contain upward of 500 students.

As the two walked into the lunchroom they placed down two blue duffel bags and promptly left. Inside the bags were two, 20-pound homemade propane tank bombs. Outside the lunchroom Harris and Klebold strapped on their ammunition, put on their black trench coats, and waited. They waited for the timed explosion of 11:17 AM and for students to come running out, where the two of them would gun down the survivors. But the bombs never went off.

They waited only minutes before putting a different plan into action. At 11:19 AM Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold charged through Columbine High School tossing pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails and opening fire on his fellow classmates. What happened is nothing short of pure, horrific carnage. They ran around the school for 12 minutes killing two and injuring nine before entering the library. Then it took a sicker turn. At 11:29 Harris and Klebold entered the library where students were hidden under tables and yelled “Get Up! Everyone with a white cap or baseball cap, stand up.

All jocks stand up. We’ll get the guys in the white hats.” But no one moved. “Fine, I’ll start shooting.” The two of them then proceeded to taunt the students trapped in the library before executing them.

Twelve people died in that library, nine were injured. It was 11:35. The pair wandered around school lighting pipe bombs and exchanged gunfire with Law Enforcement Officers, SWAT, and Paramedics for thirty minutes. It was 12:05 when Eric and Dylan would turn their guns on themselves and commit suicide. By the time that SWAT searched the building and found the two attackers dead 15 had died or were mortally wounded. 17 others were injured but survived to bear their scars for the rest of their lives.

People were outraged how could this have happened? How could these attacks in Kentucky, Arkansas, and Colorado even take place? A school is supposed to be a safe haven for learning and growing. Not a place of death and tragedy. Fingers were pointed in every direction, at the students, their peers, the teachers, guidance counselors, and the principal. But no one looked at the big picture. The school system as a whole is the reason. The school operates in a term called a loosely coupled system.

As opposed to a tightly coupled system, in which “parts of a system are highly dependent on one another”, loosely coupled systems are “systems where component parts are loosely linked and minimally dependent on one another for functioning.” You might say that the better system is the loosely coupled system because even if some function or action of a specific part fails, then the system can still operate to a relatively high efficiency. But if the function of the school system is to provide a productive, creative, and constructive atmosphere in which students can learn, then some students may fall behind, become ostracized and hazed. “A small problem in one part quickly spreads, multiplying problems as more and more components fail.” They try to speak out, but can’t.

Their drop in grades and trouble with authority become more and more pronounced. But the school is a loosely coupled system, so if some students fall below the normal standards the school system will still perform on a default setting. “Loosely coupled systems, whether for good or ill, can incorporate shocks and failure and pressures for change without destabilization. Tightly coupled systems will respond more quickly to these perturbations, but the response may be disastrous.” They say that hindsight is 20/20. And it’s completely true.

When past is dug up on the teenage killers we find a lengthy list of troubling behavior and emotional tendencies. At Heath High School in Kentucky Michael Carneal’s grades had slipped in middle school, he submitted violent and other disturbing writings to his English teacher, he was caught downloading pornography from the Internet on a computer in the school library, and that he was publicly humiliated by the publication of a rumor in the middle school newspaper that he was gay. At Westside Middle School in Arkansas the student Mitchell Johnson had written a veiled threat targeting a teacher, had a bad temper and had three visits to in school suspension, he was recently kicked off of the basketball team for self-mutilation, and he and his younger brother were possibly being neglected at home. The other shooter at Westside was Andrew Golden who had recently made a threat, had an unusual fixation with guns and hunting even compared to the other boys in the area, and ‘mistreated’ domestic and animals. And all suffered from extreme public humiliation and bullying. So why then wasn’t something done? Why didn’t these kids get help? It’s because of the loosely coupled systems that our schools are run by, as well as a school policy known as The Clean Slate.

Teachers of the three school shootings in Kentucky, Arkansas, and Colorado are quoted as saying “I could think of a hundred different names before I would pick him as being a school shooter. The purpose of The Clean Slate is to prevent any preexisting prejudices from the teachers onto upcoming students. It gives the kids a fresh start. It’s a chance to change. But the problem is that all this important information that is collected from teachers cannot be transferred to others. Faculty don’t talk to one another about disciplinary problems with their students for fear it will cause a bias among the staff.

A Heath administrator explained it this way “If you expect behavior problems, you’re gonna find behavior problems.”