Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

School Killers

The Young Rampage Killer

In April 2000, marking the first anniversary of the Columbine tragedy, The New York Times published a series about violence that was based on one hundred cases of American rampage killers from the past fifty years. They noted that the incident in Littleton, Colorado was one of thirteen for the year 1999.

Rampage killers tend to be better educated than typical murderers, are likely to have military experience, and are more likely to kill themselves. The most significant influence on their outbursts appears to have been some form of mental illness. One-third had histories of violence and half had made threats. Most attacks were the result of a build-up over time of rage and the effects of depression, and more than half were able to purchase guns easily. "These are not impulsive acts," says J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist and expert on sociopathic behavior. "There's a planning and a purpose, and an emotional detachment that's very long-term."

Of the 100 cases, nineteen were teenagers, and they showed a pattern that set them apart from the adults:

  • While adults tended to act alone, kids often acted with the support of their peers. In some instances, those kids were helped by other kids who drove them to school, showed them how to use a gun, helped them get a firearm, or simply came to watch. There were times when these students were actually goaded into doing it. Quite often the killers boasted about what they were planning and even encouraged friends to be a witness. By contrast, adults acted alone.
  • Kids may try to collaborate and get others involved, and some of them kill together, as was the case in Jonesboro and Littleton.
  • They will often boast of their plans.
  • While mental health problems are common, fewer kids than adults commit suicide.
  • The youngest killers are less emotionally detached than older ones.

In forty cases of school violence in the past twenty years, the Secret Service's National Threat Assessment found that teenagers often told someone before they did the deed. Most of these kids were white and they preferred (and somehow acquired) semiautomatics. Almost half had shown some evidence of mental disturbance, including delusions and hallucinations.

School officials want to know if there are any clear signs to watch for and to tell parents about. They know they must be especially careful because any action they take has the potential of landing them in court. The problem is that few school psychologists have received training on this issue, so they're not sure what to do or what to look for. As with all dangerousness assessments, the most telling factor in what a child might do is what a child has already done. In other words, a history of violent actions or words is the best indicator of future violence potential.

Any pattern of behavior that persists over time tends to intensify. This does not necessarily mean that a bully will become a school killer, but it means that kids who develop an obsession with weapons or violent games, and who tend to threaten violence are more likely to eventually act out than those who don't. Some of the behaviors to be especially concerned about include an increase in:

  • lying
  • blaming others
  • avoiding responsibility
  • avoiding effort to achieve goals
  • using deception, force or intimidation to control others
  • showing lack of empathy for others
  • exploiting others' weaknesses
  • engaging in petty crimes like theft or damage to property
  • getting involved in gang behavior
  • having a pattern of overreacting
  • having a history of criminal acts without a motive
  • experiencing continual family discord
  • having a history of criminality in the family
  • having a history of running away from home
  • showing a pattern of anger
  • being depressed or withdrawn
  • Showing inconsistencies, such as a sudden uncharacteristic interest in guns
  • Developing an intense dislike of school
  • Complaining about classmates treating him or her badly
  • Having excessive television or videogame habits—three or more hours a day
  • Carrying weapons like a knife
  • Complaining of feeling lonely
  • Showing intense resentment

 

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