Protecting schools from violence is more than a matter of installing metal detectors and hiring additional security guards. School authorities, law enforcement agencies and journalists covering the issue need to grapple with another question, too: Might not the immense publicity given to troubled youths who kill or wound classmates--and perpetrators of other kinds of mass violence--actually spawn further attacks?
We think the answer is clearly yes. After two disturbed teenagers killed 12 other students, a teacher and themselves in Littleton, Colo., in April, young people across the country who showed signs of potential copycat behavior were brought to hospitals for psychiatric evaluation. Approximately a dozen such youngsters, all but one of them boys and ranging from elementary school age to the late teens, were admitted during the ensuing months to Sheppard Pratt Hospital in Baltimore, where one of us consults. These were children and adolescents who had come to the attention of authorities when they made public threats to bomb a school or talked openly about killing acquaintances who had wronged them. Several had constructed "hit lists." In most cases, they were first reported to the police, then taken to a local emergency room and brought from there, either by police or their parents, to Sheppard Pratt.
Within certain of these patients, the boundary between good and bad was thin, but even more gauze-like was the separation between hurting and playing, between toy pistols and real guns, between cartoon annihilations and real explosions. We speculate that there exists a population of fantasy dwellers who contemplate revenge for past wrongs. Some are children, but many are children in full-grown bodies, and age would appear to make a difference only insofar as the procurement of artillery is concerned.
Further, the more they are exposed to images of wounding and killing, the more legitimacy their violent broodings are given. For those struggling with urges to harm or kill, saturation coverage of violent events--especially on television--becomes a disinhibitor, like alcohol.
We are not talking about robberies or drug trafficking or family violence; ordinarily, people who become involved in these crimes are not affected by the media. The group we describe--and these can be adults prone to erupt in the workplace, as well as kids nursing fantasies of violent attacks in a school--are isolated beings who are already immersed in media images and infected by their immediacy and glamour. These folks can interpret those images as a personal signal to act on their impulses in any setting.
The contagiousness of violence and threats of violence are well known in other settings. When we interviewed police and fire officials concerning the handling of bomb threats, for example, we found that they already knew that certain behaviors follow the rules of infection. If firefighters follow their standard practice of emptying out a school, there will typically be further bomb threats made by those who seek the thrill of forcing an evacuation. In cases where there is no evacuation, because authorities have enough evidence to be satisfied that there is no bomb, there are likely to be fewer copycat threats. Similarly, Federal Aviation Administration officials told us that airlines deal with bomb threats very quietly, on the theory that giving publicity to one threat will bring on more. The Secret Service never reveals threats against public officials for much the same reason.
We learned back in the '60s that riots feed heavily off media attention, and most responsible journalists in that era eventually developed less inflammatory ways of reporting riot stories. In the '80s, when hostage situations were frequently encountered in domestic quarrels or failed robberies, hostage takers were often given the microphones they demanded until negotiators realized that this encouraged more hostage taking, not less.
It is not an exact parallel, but history does offer an example of how a change in news coverage successfully combated a different group of copycat predators.
In the mid-1980s, we were retained by the Grocery Manufacturers of America to study the phenomenon of individuals who engaged in product tampering. Beginning with the poisoning deaths of seven people in the Chicago area when someone laced Tylenol pills with cyanide in 1982--a crime that has never been solved--product tampering became first a sensational news story and then a national problem as a wave of actual or threatened poisonings hit other over-the-counter medications and foodstuffs.
Tamper-proof packaging was not yet in general use, and when callers used food or drug manufacturers' toll-free phone lines claiming to have poisoned a product, or saying that they had found glass shards, metal splinters or some other dangerous material in food or medicine, the manufacturer usually had no choice but to remove the product from certain stores, unless the call could be traced and proven to be a prank. Even a bogus tampering claim could be financially disastrous.
It did not take long for all involved to realize that tamperings and threats came in waves, and appeared to be driven by coverage in the news media. Intense media attention gave a great sense of power to the person who had tampered with a product or phoned in a threat and could then turn on the television and see pictures of store shelves being emptied.
As the dynamic became more evident and a consensus grew that restraint was needed, local media generally cooperated. National media responded more slowly but eventually came around. Some journalists publicly bristled at the notion of censorship while privately acknowledging the reasonableness of restraint.
Slowly, tampering stories drifted to inside pages and the epidemic ended, only to reappear a few years later in England. In 1990, a spate of tainting threats occurred in London. The British tabloids leapt on the story. Tampering episodes made bold front-page headlines: "POISON CHOCS ALERT," or (referring to a popular snack food) "GLASS IN QUAVERS."
The British Food and Drink Federation implored tabloid editors to play down the story. At one meeting we attended, a major European meat producer was on the verge of tears as he begged for less sensational coverage of alleged tampering with chicken, which threatened to wipe out his company. The tabloids resisted, raising the traditional arguments about the public's right to know, but in the end, as U.S. media had done, they toned down their coverage and the crisis subsided.
One of the recurring requests put to us was to pin down a profile of the tamperer or those making false threats. Who were these people? Where did they hide? Were tamperers simply extortionists seeking money from large companies? Was this a quest for a bizarre fame? What kind of discontents drove a person to derive gratification from placing metal filings inside a package of crackers?
There were few answers; indeed, few threateners were caught, let alone psychiatrically examined. Nearly a decade later, similar questions could be asked about youngsters who might be harboring fantasies of killing teachers or bombing classrooms.
The young people who came in for evaluation at Sheppard Pratt after the Littleton bloodbath provided some clues. While diagnoses varied, the patients as a group were angry, helpless and socially immature. Assessing which of them might be truly dangerous was difficult because the nurturing milieu of the hospital typically softened their resentments, but some remained overtly full of rage and were hence seen as greater risks. Others came from (and would return to) chaotic households where domestic violence or emotional trauma could easily cause a child to fall back into anger and violent fantasies. Evaluating these youngsters always left a lingering doubt about what they might have done if a school principal had not seen a hit list, or if a parent had not happened to overhear a homicidal threat.
Most of the threats made by these patients seemed quite obviously to have been unleashed by the publicity surrounding Littleton and the school shootings that preceded it. Some youths seemed not only susceptible to media stories but enchanted by them; a crime that might make a healthy person wince they embraced as empowering.
The potential for media-inspired contagion of school violence is significant enough that editors and news directors need to reconsider how the subject should be covered, and how they can adequately inform their audience about one tragedy without provoking another one somewhere else.
Stories about bomb threats belong on the inside pages of newspapers, if they are published at all. Ideally, bomb scares in a school, particularly repeated threats, should be kept out of the media entirely--not to keep the news from parents, who should be informed by other means, but to deny the perpetrator the thrill of seeing his exploit capture a headline or broadcast time. Those who commit sensational acts of violence should be profiled on inside pages, not given inverted glory by being trumpeted in headlines. If possible, some coverage should show individuals in jail after being convicted of similar crimes.
The breathless sound bites and highly dramatized visual teasers that local television stations use to promote their broadcasts should be eliminated in favor of calm, factual reporting. Particularly pernicious is the tendency of broadcasters to keep replaying tapes of previous acts of violence, thus conveying to the potential copycat a sense of the destructive power and attention he might command.
Visual imagery is, we think, particularly captivating for immature persons. Interviews with experts and commentators and other ancillary reporting should be done without incessantly replaying video scenes of the carnage. Generally speaking, the less graphic the television exposure of the results of violence, the better. The public can be adequately informed without so many shots of bloodstains, casualties on stretchers being rushed from a shooting scene, destroyed furniture or buildings, or other images that only serve to heighten drama rather than provide information.
We recognize that when children are wounded or killed in a school, or when lives are lost in any other violent outbreak, it's more newsworthy than, say, a telephone threat claiming to have tampered with some brand of headache pills. School shootings will be covered, and should be. But in view of the media's clear capacity to spread the contagion of violence, is it so unreasonable to ask for some restraint, some willingness to forgo maximum dramatic effect in reporting the event? This is not incompatible with either the freedoms or the responsibilities of journalists covering these tragic stories.
The start of another school year brought with it another set of images to think about: scenes of children filing past security guards or through metal detectors, or SWAT teams and emergency rescue squads rushing onto campuses in simulated shooting crises, rehearsing for the real outbreaks that, the scene suggests, probably lie ahead. Doesn't this all convey a terribly wrong message of violent expectations?
Some sense of responsibility must eclipse the armed-camp vision that is thrust before us. Weapons screening may become an American way of life, but equipping schools as if in preparation for war--and advertising that war--will only bring out the disturbed souls who are lurking in the shadows nearby.
John Lion is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. Jonas Rappeport, a retired psychiatrist, was chief medical officer for the Circuit Court of Baltimore.