Beyond Virginia Tech: Violence and Schools

The numbers are small, measured against the national student population or the number of educational institutions, and schools remain clearly safer than many other environments. But the list of shootings in American schools is sobering, nonetheless. ACIA’s discussions explored several recent violent incidents, focusing on different management and aftermath issues. One in particular resonated at Virginia Tech:

Columbine: Analysts reconstructing Seung Hui Cho’s emotional life found one thread leading back from the murders at Virginia Tech to a mass killing on another campus eight years earlier: the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Cho, an eighth-grader at the time, appears to have been strongly affected by the Columbine shooting and by the motivations and actions of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the shooters. Cho may even have chosen the date of his attack because of its proximity to the anniversary of the Columbine event. In its review of Cho’s past, the Virginia Tech Review Panel reported that “after the Columbine shootings, Cho’s middle school teachers observed suicidal and homicidal ideations in his writings and recommended psychiatric counseling.” And a “theoretical profile” written for the panel by forensic behavioral scientist Roger L. Depue suggested that Harris and Klebold may have been models for Cho’s attack — and for his suicide, which, like theirs, put him out of reach of arrest and punishment for his acts.

If there were parallels between Cho and the Columbine killers, there were also contrasts. The aftermath stories, for instance, differed sharply. In the Virginia Tech community, even though tensions existed, the story was largely one of coming together, finding unity and a determination to prevail over sorrow. The story after Columbine was a far sadder one. In a dinner talk at ACIA’s Blacksburg meeting, Dave Cullen, author of the book Columbine, explained some of the differences:

In the beginning, everyone assumed Columbine was a conspiracy. It seemed like an orchestrated terrorist attack. Everyone assumed two high school boys could not have done it alone. So there was a conspiracy still on the loose. And it had a name: the Trenchcoat Mafia. Then there was a string of threats and a fake “it’s not over” note, and people didn’t know if they were safe yet. At Virginia Tech, everyone felt extreme pain and loss once it was over, but a fraction of the fear. At Columbine, people did not feel safe for much longer. Also, at Columbine, you had fewer killed, but in much tighter proximity. You had nearly 2,000 kids in the building, all fleeing, and nearly half trapped inside for several hours, so you actually had a much larger group who felt they’d been personally attacked. Their families all lived in the neighborhoods nearby. This happened in the heart of their community, not in a college town a long way from home. At Virginia Tech you have a much larger community, but it’s much more diffuse.

Another factor was the myth that the shootings happened because of a feud between the jocks and the Trenchcoat Mafia. That story was well established in the first four hours, and “fact” by that night. So immediately a large social group was blamed, and the high school community had to pick sides. Was the jocks’ bullying the cause, or were the killers to blame? You had to pick a side. The feud story turned out to be completely wrong, but it quickly became the central Columbine narrative, which led directly to the idea that Columbine’s students had brought the tragedy on themselves: that it was created by a culture of bullying and arrogant jocks harassing nonconformist weirdos. The blame narrative placed the Columbine murders in a nightmare of American high school life — a high school hell where the school caused it, the jocks caused it, the bullies caused it. Even though it was false,  its effects were devastating. Victims were made out to be villains, and when victims are being disparaged that horribly, there is a lot of anger that has to go somewhere.

What to do with the library, where ten of the 13 victims and the killers died, became an issue that pitted victim groups against each other. The victims’ parents wanted no one to ever set foot again on the spot where their children died. The student body overwhelmingly felt the opposite. They felt the killers took library away from them, and they wanted it back. It became a very ugly fight, victim against victim, survivor against survivor. The students thought they’d win the library fight, but they lost. They had no idea of the power of a grieving parent. The parents won, but at great cost. They alienated most of their community.

Another example was the anger and bitterness that surrounded memorial markers for those who died in the shooting. When someone erected 15 crosses on a nearby hill, including two for Harris and Klebold as well as those for the 12 students and one teacher they killed, a war of graffiti ensued, with some leaving messages of forgiveness on the shooters’ crosses while others left notes seething with bitterness and a thirst for revenge. Three days after the crosses went up, the father of one of the dead students ripped down Harris’s and Klebold’s crosses and hauled them away, filmed by a CNN television crew he had summoned to the scene. In a reprise some months later, the same father chopped down two of 15 trees that had been planted as a memorial garden at a local church.

(Whether to include the shooter in memorial symbols was also an issue at Virginia Tech. After students spontaneously laid out a circle of 32 blocks of stone in memory of the victims, a senior named Katelynn Johnson added one more, for Cho. The 33rd stone disappeared and was replaced several times during the following weeks, while plans for a permanent memorial were developed. The design committee decided not to include a marker for Cho in the final plan. But while there was disagreement, the issue never generated the fury that arose at Columbine.)

There was so much anger and blame at Columbine, starting with anger at the killers’ parents. That makes sense, because these were high school kids living at home, rather than a 23-year-old senior who’d presumably been away from home for four years. They had an arsenal, so it must have been stored in their parents’ homes, so how the hell did the parents not know? That was demanded instantly and widely. So it was felt from the start that there was someone alive responsible. At Virginia Tech, the killer was dead, he was apparently alone and a loner. Anger and blame seemed too late and pointless, so maybe it didn’t simmer and boil up.

At Virginia Tech, there were significant questions about the administration’s decision not to notify students after the first homicides, and the failure to identify Cho as a threat prior to the event. But these paled in comparison to actual and perceived bungling by the Jeffco Sheriff’s Department at Columbine. This was exacerbated terribly by a refusal to release evidence and a true coverup. The fury over this was huge. Between anger at the cops and anger at the parents, and anger at the feud, this community was seething. The coverup really undermined faith in authority. And if evidence of what drove the killers is suppressed, the question of why the killings happened remains unanswered — and if you don’t have that why, it’s explosive.

A historical overview: Laura Agnich combed newspaper archives, published interviews, television news transcripts, Census Bureau reports and material from the National Center for Education Statistics to compile a comprehensive list of shootings and other attacks that claimed multiple victims in schools. Her research found that more than 250 people were killed in 73 such incidents dating back over more than eight decades. Three-fifths of the deaths occurred in just the past 19 years.

Agnich: Schools are among the safest places in America, still. They’re the site of less than 1 percent of youth homicides. Homicide in general has been dropping since the early 1990s. But at the same time these mass murder events like what happened here and at Columbine are seemingly on the rise.

The very first incident was in 1927. A man named Andrew Kehoe bombed an elementary school in Bath, Michigan. It was the deadliest school mass murder (37 students and two teachers died in the school) though not the deadliest shooting because he used explosives. Overwhelmingly these incidents have involved the use of firearms. U.S. school shootings have usually occurred in rural and suburban areas. Geographically, most were in the South and West. The 1990s had the most mass murders in middle and high schools; incidents in colleges and universities were highest in the 2000s. In middle and high schools, the perpetrators were overwhelmingly students at the school where they committed the murders; in elementary school incidents, perpetrators were typically adults. There were five female perpetrators and 76 males. Elementary and middle school perpetrators were all white, middle and high school shooters were mostly white, but only eight of 20 college shooters were white, which is 40 percent. Four were Asian, or 20 percent. That group is only represented among college shooters.

What are some commonalities in these incidents? First of all, perpetrators who seem to have a desire for notoriety or to terrorize people through mass media. That’s something that Cho and the Columbine killers shared. “Leaks” before a shooting:  Cho, Harris and Klebold all wrote papers full of violence. As far as media framing, the same myths come out about loners and bullying. There are a lot of misconceptions about that. Community reactions to the media’s portrayal of the killings and division over how to portray the shooters are commonalities that all school shootings seem to share. For example, after 4-16 would it re-traumatize our community at Virginia Tech to see pictures of Cho aiming his gun at the audience?

Dave Cullen: The desire for notoriety, is that just a handful of cases or a lot of the cases?

Agnich: A lot of the cases, it seems to me. They leave trails behind. Videos, journals, blogs, all that.

Columbia University: It was not a shooting, nor did it happen on campus, but an incident that occurred at Columbia almost simultaneously with the Virginia Tech shootings raised some of the same issues about informing the community and maintaining public trust. James McShane, Columbia’s vice president of public safety and a 24-year veteran of the New York City Police Department, recalled:

At Columbia we had a horrific rape the weekend before April 16. A grad student in journalism was a victim of probably the most brutal rape I had ever seen. She was raped, they threw acid in her face, tied her up, burned her. Miraculously she survived and escaped. This didn’t happen on campus, it happened at a place called Hamilton Heights a little further up in Manhattan. The media was all over this, it was a big story all weekend.

Then April 16 happened and obviously that was in all the media throughout the country and New York was no exception. So by Tuesday our campus was in an uproar, for all of those reasons. And even though there was so much public information available, there was a demand for us, the administration at Columbia, to put out our own information. That’s something I learned that week. That we need to be putting out information. People want to hear it from us. We put out a series of messages from me, from the president, messages about what we do, how we keep you safe, what our resources are. We did that on a regular basis. We also disseminated updates about the investigation into the sexual assault and finally we put out a wanted poster for the suspect because he was identified but not apprehended for a couple of days.

McShane also commented on threat assessment processes and the need for systems and procedures that will allow administrators, health services and security officers to share information and respond to possible dangers before a violent event takes place. As he pointed out, that was an important theme in many post-Virginia Tech reflections, among them a June, 2007, report to President Bush from three of his cabinet officers, the attorney general and the secretaries of education and of health and human services:

In the report to President Bush, three of the five key findings relate to greater communication and information sharing among all persons involved in making the community safe. Another key finding was the need to provide appropriate mental health services, and another recommendation involved greater information on firearms restrictions. Most of these key findings were also found in the Virginia Tech Review Panel when it was released two months later. So those issues resonate.

Information sharing has been consistently complicated by “the FERPA and HIPAA conundrum,” as McShane called it, referring to the often murky and confusing legal restrictions imposed by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and privacy rules contained in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. After the Virginia Tech shooting, authorities sought to clarify those rules, so that university officials can more easily understand when they can exchange information about troubled and possibly dangerous students. As a public safety official, McShane welcomed that effort:

Both the review panel report and the report to the president highlighted the confusion surrounding the scope and application of the FERPA and HIPAA statutes. In November, 2007, the federal department of education issued two brochures which clarified the responsibilities and who was entitled to what. Of particular interest to me in public safety was that the brochures made clear that university public safety officials are “school officials” with a “legitimate educational interest” and are, therefore, able to be given access to personally identifiable information from students’ education records. That was a big step forward because it allows us to work with deans, counselors and everybody else. That put us at the table. A teacher might refer a student to the dean’s office, because of troubling writings or pictures with a knife in the heart and that kind of thing. We all need to collaborate on those. The guidelines also made clear that public safety records were not subject to FERPA. This, too, facilitated greater communication among university stakeholders.

We have a threat assessment team. Members include health services, public safety, student affairs, deans of students, and the general counsel. Psychological services is in the room, they’re part of our group. In the past, we would have referrals, we’d respond to incidents in the residence where students were clearly problematic and we’d identify them, we’d refer them to the dean and they wouldn’t tell us the outcome. We can’t tell you, it’s FERPA. Well, if you want us to respond when the guy is threatening to burn down the building, you’re going to have to tell us. Because we’re putting my guys at risk. If you get some kind of a warning, an early sign, you want to stay with that. Explore every avenue, reaching out to the high school if that is part of it. At the end of the day everybody needs to own safety, to own prevention.

At Columbia 25 full-time-equivalent counselors are available. We have a counseling office in the student center and we also have satellite offices in four residence halls and in our law school. If you’re living in a residence hall and you’re not feeling so well there’s a counselor and you can pop in when you go to do your laundry. So we make it easier. We destigmatize it and bring it to the students. We believe this has been successful in addressing potential threats before they become actual ones.

One of the concerns we have found is kids who were on medication and then, when they leave home for the first time and come to college, they stop taking their meds. Predictably, with a lot of these cases, you get some warning signal. You intervene, you go to them, you find out they’re not on their meds, and for the most part you get them back on their meds and things work out. In the last two years we’ve implemented an involuntary leave of absence policy including for people who have mental health problems. The lesson is, if you have somebody you think is acting out, stay with it. Stay on top of it. Do a mandatory leave. Reach out to his family. The ounce of prevention is worth a whole lot more than a pound of cure. The three most significant elements of prevention are a systematic threat assessment procedure, making counseling available, and relentless follow-up on any warning signals.