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  CONFESSIONS OF A THERAPIST, PART THREE: FOUR YEARS AFTER THE COLUMBINE HIGH SCHOOL SHOOTING.  
   
   
 

School is still a dangerous place. Even after the worst school shooting in history rattled the country four years ago in sleepy Littleton, Colo. the problems and the threat of another Columbine still remain. In addition to Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, there were many other things blamed for the tragedy: apathetic parents, violent video games and movies, black trench coats, and, of course, Marilyn Manson. But is this displaced blame rational? According to our therapist it is. And there's plenty more blame to go around.

BT: Do you think there is culpability outside of Klebold and Harris when incidents like Columbine occur? These kids don't seem like the composite sketches of traditional mass murderers.

Absolutely. In my opinion, school systems are most at fault. The social hierarchy in many public and private schools is set up for popular kids. There is such a discrepancy between social classes at the school that a real hatred exists between social levels. The sad thing is that some of the teachers and other staff members perpetuate this. In my encounters, some teachers have issues with their own social standing and crave association and affiliation with the more popular kids -- and the less popular kids see this as clear as day. Schools should mirror work environments. The school's staff has to step in and be an advocate for students who feel victimized. Unlike a work situation, children do not have the luxury or the freedom to leave the environment or change schools at their whim. They are told that this is a developmentally acceptable stage of adolescence, and if the perpetrators are confronted there is no guarantee for protection outside the school environment.

BT: How do you think the educational system has handled
kids post-Columbine? Have they really done anything to
curtail any similar events?

Dealing with different school systems in the area, I am aware of how
improperly they have handled the post-Columbine scare but also aware of their frustration involved in doing so, To be honest with you, the current system has hurt more kids than it has thwarted attempts of violence. Mandatory expulsions and being thrust into the juvenile justice system are inappropriate measures and may not be the right way to treat every case. Not every kid who draws a graphic picture is capable of what Klebold and Harris did. Some kids make threats for attention, and it is their self-esteem and cognitive processes that need to be helped, not being further castigated by society. The real issue is in risk and violence assessment, determining what a kid is capable of by a composite of his past and his current state of mind. For example, I saw a kid who was expelled from his high school for a mandatory involving a weapons possession. A substitute teacher informed the principal that he had a mini Swiss Army knife on his key chain. He was a latch-key kid who brought his keys everywhere. He was also a 3.7 GPA student, a two-sport athlete, and a member of his schools student government. He had a scholarship to a four-year school, had no involvement with police and no prior school disciplinary actions. He was forced to go to an alternative school where the focus was on behavior, not education, and since this was on his permanent record he lost a portion of his scholarship to the university.


BT: So, the punishment sort of backfired?

Yes. This created him to spiral into a depression, fear and distrust authority, and become an outcast as some parents now viewed him as dangerous, a bad seed would not allow their kids to associate with him. Mandatory psychiatric evaluations can help in this risk assessment, and therapy can help reframe the cognitive process,
develop cause and effect, empathy, and get to the root of some issues.

BT: So, mandatory sentencing doesn't necessarily work?

Mandatory anything is not good because it takes the individual out of the equation. Be proactive not reactive. Offer kids choices with their schooling. Alternative schools can be beneficial as the small size helps kids acclimate and gives them a chance to be a part of student council, sports team, literary magazine that they would not be able to participate in a larger school. Force interactions between different types of kids, ones that will develop similarities not differences. From my experience in alternative schools, force conflict resolution, one on one, and take out the posturing associated with the group mentality. All of these things are proactive and can help. But understand this, if there is a will there is a way. When someone wants to commit suicide, they do it, same with homicide. Subtle hints maybe dropped, but if someone wants to follow it through to completion, they will be less boisterous and shy away from the shock value and the attention.

BT: Do you think there are reasons why some kids consider Klebold and Harris heroes? And are those reasons, in your opinion, somewhat justifiable?

I remember watching the fallout from the Columbine incident and being appalled at how some kids viewed this as vindication and an inevitable action that was a long time coming. Later, however, I realized that these kids were completely justified in feeling this way -- not that they were supporting murder, but that their voice was being heard, that there was no longer a silent majority out there and these types of issues extended far past Klebold and Harris. To some kids, Klebold and Harris were heroes and Klebold and Harris spoke out against all the bullies for all the kids enduring the same type of harassment on a daily basis. It was similar to how members of the black community reacted after the O.J. Simpson verdict was handed down. The fact that there was a murder was a moot point; there was an overwhelming sense of vindication that a black defendant and a black lawyer beat a white system in front of the whole world. Both Columbine's murderers and the O.J. trial let the country recognize the frustration of some groups toward an "unjust" system.

BT: Instead of metal detectors and handing out suspensions when students half-heartedly threaten some kind of violence, isn't the best solution for people just to be
nicer to one another?

If we all could be nicer many problems may be mitigated or just go
away. However, I am a realist and recognize that this is an impossibility for Americans, specifically teenagers. Like I said earlier, schools do not foster this type of congenial environment. It should not be overlooked that the whole family interactional (sic) system would have to be overhauled in order for this to happen. While I do believe in internal control and free will, some kids are programmed by family interactions and experiences to not "be nice."

Prejudices and hatred are taught from generation to generation and in some ways parents foster a dysfunctional model for an interactional (sic) pattern. Most of the time, kids mimic the way they are treated and many of their ethics come from parents. Individual differences between people are not embraced and the increasing schism between the popular and unpopular kids creates more anger and oppositional feelings. An alert teacher and metal detectors stop some incidents, but do not address the root of the problem.

BT: Do people like Klebold and Harris even necessarily
show up on the clinical radar screen? All cases are different in their own way, obviously, but are there *any* credible signs that certain kids are going to start shooting?

Usually kids like Klebold and Harris touch the clinical radar screen
as depressed and withdrawn patients. They might engage in some petty crimes or vandalism. A lot of what goes on today are attention-getting mechanisms. Kids will make "hit lists" of those they hate, or make threats to let people know they are angry and upset, but with no real intention to follow through. An interesting phenomenon has risen since Columbine, and that is threat making and "acting crazy" may be enough of a deterrent for others to believe that they are capable of something Columbine-like, and this may be enough to instill fear in others and be left alone.

BT: Have you had any experience with these types of kids?

With my experience working with probation and alternative schools, many of them are too egocentric and overt to pull-off something like Columbine. They are criminals and that is a different breed. Their reasoning is not revenge, but more a manifestation of an endearing lifestyle or a perpetuation of previous family dynamics. Many of them are leaders within their own social strata and do not lack the feelings of impotence with their environment. Also, in alternative schools, the size is so small that the staff usually hears about everything before hand and puts an end to it real quickly. What separates Klebold and Harris from most of my kids is what they were entrenched in their own view of their life. They focused their whole life on this mission, were consumed by their anger and retribution, in addition to the fact that they saw no other aspect of their life as valuable. If they thought their life was worth living I'm confident they would have changed their plans and objectives. But remember, pre-Columbine, did anyone really think two high school kids were capable of doing such a thing?

Want more "Confessions of a Therapist?" Read Part One. And then check out Part Two, about families.

 

*BT*

The Black Table's therapist is licensed in Pennsylvania, has a private practice working with children and adults, and provides therapy to adjudicated youth.