Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

School Killers

What the Kids Say

Dr. Helen Smith is a forensic psychologist in Knoxville, Tennessee. She has evaluated over five thousand mentally-disturbed children and adults, and has become an expert on kids who kill. She did a national survey of violent and nonviolent kids, which means she had the opportunity to hear what kids themselves had to say. In her book, The Scarred Heart, she discusses what she believes is behind the recent spate of school violence. While school nerds who were bullied once chose the course of suicide as the way out, she notes, now they see another way to take action and get attention: strike out. Using guns and being violent toward others moves them from powerlessness to power, from nobodies to media celebrities.

On one of the survey forms, for example, she received the following response from a white, 18-year-old senior in New York. When asked what he did when he was feeling bad, he said, "Listen to Metallica because I like the angry lyrics. I enjoy reading and listening to things that talk about the destruction of the standing social order. Sometimes when I am angry or lonely, I look at pornography and fantasize about raping the popular girls at my school. Other times I think about building bombs and lighting shit on fire."

Later in the survey he said, "Given the current social structures in American schools, serious violence and terrorism by youths is inevitable. Even if a student who is constantly degraded doesn't commit a serious crime at school, the chances for him or her becoming a violent offender later in life are increased. I use myself as an example. I am already active in the right-wing, and its only a matter of time before I will be willing to follow the example set by Tim McVeigh. I plan to join the military to get the skills I need to take out my rage on others. I am probably a potential serial killer as well. Soon, fantasies about rape and murder of teenage girls will no longer be sufficient. My interest in arson and explosives would also be troubling to anyone who knew of my inner thoughts. Currently, I am planning to torch an abandoned barn and then listen to the fire department on my scanner just to see what it would be like."

This is a boy who has not yet revealed his violence in action, but it simmers beneath the surface. He may be in the minority, but he's not alone in feeling anger and the need to lash out.

Smith objects to the way many experts blame violent television, mental disturbance (the "bad seed"), or some rock group's edgy lyrics for the school killings. Those experts, she contends, aren't listening to the kids. She believes that violence comes from the accumulation of many distorted thoughts and stressors that finally send a child over the edge. In short, it's the way he or she processes what they see, hear, and experience. Kids who use violence to solve a problem have already had a number of violent thoughts. They perceive their environment and their situation in such a way that violence seems the best mode of action. That is, children who kill are predisposed to kill. They don't just snap. They have a restricted view of other people's rights and they feel they must bring their situation to some dramatic conclusion.

Smith compares the process of understanding these kids to research on cancer: Researchers found that cells become cancerous after a sequence of failures strips away layers of defenses and disease-fighting strategies. Violence in kids is similarly a complex process that builds over time. Some of these kids who appear to be normal may just be going through the motions in order to fit in; they aren't necessarily feeling normal or good about anything. If a kid gives off any signals, or even warns someone that he might explode, people tend to look the other way—-as many people have admitted in the aftermath of some of the school killings. It's also true that people just don't pay attention: While adults who knew school killer Andrew Golden from Jonesboro as a nice kid, those who played with him realized that he could be quite vicious.

School killers stand out from other types of kids who resort to violence; they're not like gang members, young drug dealers, kids from violent homes, or fledgling psychopaths. They possess different motives and different traits.

"There are a number of characteristics that one can spot in a potentially violent kid," says Smith. "Some are obvious, such as talking constantly about harming others and making direct threats such as 'I want to kill my principal.' Direct threats are more likely to be acted out on than indirect ones such as 'I feel like killing someone.' Other recognizable traits are high self-esteem. Suburban kids who kill often are narcissistic and talk about how great they are. They tend to believe others have no rights. They are easily offended if they believe they are being judged. These violent kids may also do other things such as torture animals or siblings, talk about death and have a fascination with guns beyond what is normal for adolescent boys."

Another conspicuous trait is the feeling of entitlement. "School killers feel entitled to be treated well and they react angrily when they are rejected. A majority of violent kids at school admit that 'school feels like a jail sentence.' They feel the rules are unfair—there is one set of rules for the popular kids and another set of rules for the unpopular or the rejected. They almost exclusively feel that other students—and teachers—pick on them or bully them."

Kids who kill usually are at their wit's end. "They want the world to know how angry they are and how unjust it has been to them," Smith explains. "Often they have obsessive thoughts and turn these thoughts over and over in their heads. If some intervention occurs such as therapy or a peer or adult who can neutralize such thoughts, the child may not act on his impulses. But if a kid who already has a predisposition to become violent starts to have distorted thinking and a sense that society owes him happiness, and no one intervenes, the child is likely to do something destructive."

Susan Smith mugshot (AP)
Susan Smith mugshot (AP)

There's also a problem of more girls getting violent, although Smith finds that violent girls are different from violent boys. "Violent girls tend to be less direct about their feelings of anger because it is less socially acceptable. A girl who is depressed might talk about harming herself whereas an angry boy will often talk about harming others. A girl might hire a hitman or have her boyfriend commit a killing for her and then feign innocence. Or as Susan Smith did, a female might say that she was trying to kill herself but was actually attempting to kill someone else (in Smith's case, her children).


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