The unfolding tragedy in Ohio feels all too familiar to Katherine Newman, a Johns Hopkins University dean and sociologist, who wrote the 2004 book “Rampage: The Social Roots Of School Shootings,” (Basic Books).
Like the cases she analyzed in her book, Newman told me, “Adults often said that the perpetrator was the least likely person to erupt into a violent attack, that they could have imagined fifty others coming ahead of the one who actually did such terrible things. Kids often had a different picture.
“They heard veiled warnings in advance, knew that the shooter was rejected by their cliques. The Facebook post that the alleged shooter put out for all the world to see, describing his community as depressing, hinting at deaths to come, sounds very much like what we saw in the rampage shootings in the 1990s.”
More of Newman’s insights and her advice for prevention follow in our Q&A below:
Have we as a society learned anything from the previous episodes about catching warning signs, preventing bullying and being attuned to distress? To me, it seems like we haven’t. Am I missing something?
We have learned a great deal, but memories fade in a remarkably short time. Today’s high school students were little kids when the rash of attacks on high school campuses took place in the late 90s and they may not have drawn lessons from the notorious cases on university campuses that are more recent (e.g. Virginia Tech) because they seem too distant. Unfortunately, our best bet for intervention lies in intercepting information that circulates among youth, like this Facebook post, but the lens through which it filters — the knowledge among kids that something dreadful really could happen — needs to be updated so that they understand what they are reading or hearing as a threat and not just an odd fantasy.
What signs might a parent be more aware of to recognize a child’s distress?
Kids are very good at maintaining a dual persona, one for grown-ups and one for their peers, because that is the task we ask of them in adolescence: to navigate that “DMZ” that lies between dependent child and soon-to-be adult. The pain piles up in their peer world and adults may find it very difficult to penetrate that universe. Open communication certainly helps, but it isn’t a panacea. Encouraging a kid who is different, a boy who likes chess more than football, trying to give him opportunities to find niches outside his hometown if there are few inside, can certainly make a difference. Insisting that the school take comprehensive action in the face of bullying and ostracism, often precursors to rampage shootings, can be very helpful as well.
What are signs that your own child is pushing another child into distress?
This too, sadly, can be very hard for adults to witness and few are prepared to think the worst of their own child. In the communities we studied for “Rampage,” there was ample evidence that the shooters were behaving strangely (starving kittens in the backyard, making threatening comments on the bus). Parents drove their kids to school so they didn’t have to sit on that bus. Avoidance, rather than confrontation, can often be the adult response because no one wants to confront a parent with embarrassing news about their kid. But a close look can sometimes reveal the signs. Asking one’s child about the kids who seem to have no friends, talking openly about how it feels to be excluded… these things can make a difference.
How can a parent differentiate between everyday teen drama and signs of true distress?
This is extremely hard. If we locked up every teenager who ever expressed, much less felt, bullied and excluded, our jails would be overflowing. The risk of false positives is very high. But the more specific a threat, the more seriously it must be taken. Vague comments like, “I can’t stand my life,” are less worrying than more detailed ones like, “I will be running from the police next Monday.” The latter is a signal of real distress and possibly the intention to act on it. But the background investigation must be done very quietly and privately because nine times out of 10 it will be a false alarm. But that tenth time is devastating, which is why we cannot afford to ignore the distress signs and warnings.