Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

School Killers

Copy Cats

Across the nation after the 1999 Columbine tragedy, other kids called in bomb threats, wore trench coats to school, or used the Internet to praise what Klebold and Harris had done. Only ten days later, on April 30, people feared the eruption of some major event because that day marked Hitler's suicide in 1945. Schools in Arizona, New Jersey, Michigan, North Carolina, and DC closed to investigate potential threats. It wasn't Paducah, or Jonesboro, or Springfield that they wanted to imitate; the mantra was "Columbine."

  • On May 13th, four middle school children plotted to force their principal at gunpoint to call a school assembly, at which time they were going to massacre everyone at the gathering. They were then going to kill themselves. Two of the boys involved were 14 and the other two were 13. Classmates whom they attempted to enlist for help turned them in. A judge ordered them to be tried as adults on charges of conspiracy to commit murder.
  • On May 20th, Anthony Solomon, a sophomore, opened fire on schoolmates at Heritage High School in Conyers, Georgia, injuring six. It was the final day of classes for the year. Witnesses said that he had a rifle and a revolver, and that he'd placed the revolver in his mouth as if to shoot himself, although he didn't pull the trigger.
  • On June 14th, in Sunrise, Florida, a 13-year-old girl was charged with crafting a scheme to kill her classmates and teachers. She had met with friends three days after the Columbine massacre and showed them a map of the school's surveillance system. Then she showed them a hit list that included the names of nine students and school personnel, and described her getaway plan.

Then over a year went by with an apparent lull. Parents and school officials breathed a collective sigh of relief. Yet it wasn't over. Kids hadn't forgotten.

  • In Hoyt, Kansas on February 5th, 2001, three students who admired the Columbine killers were arrested for planning an attack on their high school. In their homes were bomb-making materials, floor plans of the school, ammunition, white supremacist drawings, and a modified assault rifle. They each also possessed a black trench coat. They were charged with conspiracy to commit aggravated arson.

The Santana High bathroom (Mike Blake/Reuters/TIMEPIX)
The Santana High bathroom
(Mike Blake/Reuters/TIMEPIX)

  • Then on March 5, 2001, in Santee, California, 15-year-old Charles Andrew Williams went through with his threat at Santana High School. Tired of being bullied for being small and pale, he had told friends that he was going to go on a shooting spree. Then he assured them he was joking. Nevertheless, he opened fire in a high school bathroom that morning with his father's .22-calibre revolver, killing two students, 14 and 17, and wounding 13 in the nation's deadliest school attack since Columbine. One witness said the boy had a smile on his face as he fired away. From the bathroom, he stepped out into the quad, reloading as many as four times and randomly firing around thirty bullets. Then he retreated back into the bathroom, where he surrendered.
  • Police officers, who removed seven rifles from the home where he lived with his father, said he will be charged as an adult with murder, assault with a deadly weapon and gun possession. While many people believed there was no motive, students who knew him disagreed.
    ''He was picked on all the time,'' said one. ''He was picked on because he was one of the scrawniest guys. People called him freak, dork, nerd, stuff like that.''

Bullying by peers can be brutal, it's true, but what's wrong with these kids? Lots of people get picked on, but don't reach for guns and bombs as the appropriate response. Is there something that makes these kids different?

Some are just angry and may have been influenced by violence in games, movies, or on television shows. However, there does appear to be a group of children that is set apart: those with "rejection sensitivity."

A study published in 1999 indicates that children who expect to be rejected tend to perceive more hostility and rejection in ambiguous comments than those who are not so sensitive. Such children then behave aggressively and experience increased interpersonal difficulties, along with declining social functioning. That makes them get rejected more often, which deepens the psychological damage. They become distressed and then act out.

However it takes more than just feelings of hostility to form a plan to kill someone—particularly if you have a number of people in mind as targets. Psychologists Derek Miller and John Looney studied adolescent killers back in the 1970s and noted that they often showed a significant capacity to dehumanize others, and this was often produced under stress. Those at high risk to kill saw others as objects that thwarted them. This perspective developed because these kids were often themselves dehumanized—abused, called names, or slighted. They did not view themselves as valuable, so they could not easily view others as valuable. In fact, the extent to which they were dehumanized was a good measure of the likelihood that they would do the same to others.

When kids feel less than human and grow up in a social environment that tacitly permits them to act out violently, they may decide that the only way to rehumanize themselves is to eliminate those who have belittled them.

One professional decided to go to the kids themselves and see what they had to say.

 

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