from Chuck Tucker (061099)
School violence once again shocks the nation--and the world--this
time in Littleton, Colorado, on Tuesday, April 20. Two disaffected boys
took revenge on schoolmates who had made fun of them. Witnesses stated
that the boys targeted athletes and students of color and giggled after
they fired their deadly shots. When 12 students and a teacher were dead
and scores of others wounded, they apparently killed themselves after
a rampage of about three hours.
Have we finally had enough? Or will we be shocked and repulsed for
a week or so and then write this off as an unfortunate, isolated incident?
Is the reality so horrific that we can only tolerate it for a short time
before we self-protectively turn away? Seeing the survivors of the
Littleton rampage on television is proof enough of the horror of violence.
We can't turn away after the initial shock wears down. If we do,
we leave wide-open spaces in which perpetrators carry on. Perpetrators
want us to turn our backs on them.
Instead, we have to stare violence down, look it in the eyes, force
ourselves to do the horrifically difficult work of understanding violent
persons. Understanding them will lead to effective prevention programs.
Human beings are incredibly smart. When we have the will and the
means, we have accomplished great things. We've been to the moon. We've
explored the depths of the ocean. We've conquered countless diseases. Do
we have the will to do something about violence? We do have the means.
For 20 years, I've done research on violence. For 15 years, I've
done in-depth life history interviews with perpetrators of violence. At
times, the work took a great toll on me emotionally, but I persisted
because I was so tired of perpetrators having a good time while destroying
other people. When they don't kill their victims, perpetrators inflict
soul wounds that despite our human brilliance, we really don't know how to
heal. These spiritual wounds last a lifetime, undermining quality of life
and damaging life chances of millions of people . Violence not only
mutilates the human spirit, but it and mutilates the delicate bonds in
families, communities, and nations, bonds that give meaning to life.
The research I've done has shown me that violence is not what I
thought it was and perpetrators are not who I think they are. Most
perpetrators are hard to detect. How does the average person tell the
difference between a kid who will be violent from the kid who threatens
someone in the heat of the moment but would never do harm?
Violence as Emotional Gratification
Violence means many things to perpetrators. Perhaps most shocking
to me were perpetrators' statements that violence brings immense thrills
and emotional gratification. Thus, the Littleton school murders giggled as
they killed. In 1996, 14 year-old Barry Loukatis, who killed a boy who
he stood over a dying boy who was choking on his own blood.
Countless times perpetrators have talked to me about the thrills
and gratification that violence brings them. Only a few avow that they got
no emotional satisfaction out of their violence--they committed the
violence to achieve some other end, such as teaching a lesson, enforcing
their wills, and getting money for drugs.
Violence as Revenge, Just Desserts
For youth who kill and wound, school violence is a way of
redressing wrongs and giving people their just desserts. They may seek out
the people whom they perceive as hurting them, as well as taking out their
hurt and rage on others. Last year, Kip Kinkel, 15,who killed his parents
and two classmates, and wounded 22 others told a classmate the day before
the killings that he was probably going to do something stupid on the day
of the killings. His reason? He wanted to get back at the people who had
expelled him from school.
Kip had a stockpile of homemade bombs that his parents knew about.
Kip's father bought Kip the rifle Kip used to kill his parents. His
parents paid for shooting lessons. Had his parents had any idea of how
dangerous Kip was, they never would have done that. They could not see the
violence in their son's heart.
One of the two boys who perpetrated the Littleton, CO, murders had
once pulled a gun on schoolmates. A witness, 10th grader Mindy Pollock,
said, "The one with the handgun today pulled a shotgun on my friends once.
He said he was sick of being made fun of," she said. "He said, 'I'll
shoot you. I'll shoot you.'"
Violence and Deserving Victims
Some perpetrators see other people as so terrible that they think
these people deserve to die. These are the deserving victims, in
perpetrators' eyes. Barry Loukaitis wrote a poem about murder and read it
in class. The poem ended this way.
I look at his body on the floor,
Killing a bastard that deserves to die,
Ain't nothing like it in the world,
But he sure did bleed a lot.
Barry read that poem in class, a warning sign that should have been
Luke Woodham 17, was convicted of stabbing his mother to death,
shooting two schoolmates, and wounding seven others in 1998. Luke had good
reason to be angry at his mother. In his own words, "She said I was the
reason my father left. She said I wouldn't amount to anything. She told
me am fat, stupid, and lazy. She was always against me." Though
emotionally abusive, Mrs. Woodham certainly didn't deserve to die.
Racism and sexism can play a part in violence. Racist skinheads
dehumanize and sometimes demonize persons of color to the point where some
women to the point where they are objects of rape and physical violence.
The youth who murdered schoolmates in Littleton were alleged to be
Violence and Restoring Honor
For some perpetrators, violence is a way to restore honor, a way to
restore a sense of self-efficacy or power. Youth--and adults--may get
puffed up thinking about blowing people up, beating them, ramming them with
cars, and bamming them with baseball bats.
Persons who think this way have a supersensitivity to slights,
which can be real or imagined, but real to the affected person. The
following are the words of a schoolyard bully:
"I didn't want to really hurt them bad, but I just wanted them to be
afraid, you know. That's what felt good is them being afraid, like I was
afraid. That was a good feeling I got, is that they were afraid. And
embarrass them in front of other, the other kids around. This one kid,
Peter Mack [not his real name], he used to beat me up. And at, at sixth
grade what I did is I took his shoes and I threw them over this fence, and
I had it planned out, when he was going to go get his shoes I was going
to go over there and beat him up. And all the kids on the playground
playing kickball were there. He went over there. BAM, BAM, BAM, BAM.
Blasted him about three, four times. He was on the ground. He started
crying. I kind of kicked him. And, you know, he was just crying. He
was just embarrassed. And that felt good for me. To have the other
kids see that. And then I started liking it, I think. I, I think I liked
that because then I kind of turned into a bully. Then I started picking on
kids when I went to junior high school. I was tough."
Violence as Proof of Manhood
The overwhelming majority of child killers, including school
murderers, are boys. Teasing, bullying, and emotional abuse might be
particularly difficult for some boys to handle. The feelings of powerless
and emotional pain that result from such abuse are the very definition of
sissy. No boy wants to be a sissy. Luke Woodham attached himself to an
older boy named Grant Boyette, 19, who played on Luke's fears about
himself. Luke said:
"I remember I woke up that morning and I'd seen demons that I
always saw when Grant told me to do something. They said I was nothing
and I would never be anything if I didn't get to that school and kill
those people." He fatally stabbed his mother and killed two students
and wounded seven others in 1998.
Many boys see violence as a way of being cool. Barry Loukatis had
told a friend it would be pretty cool to go on a killing spree just like
the two characters in Natural Born Killers.
Violence and Emotional Disturbance
A very small number of youthful murderers have a mental illness or
own auditory and visual hallucinations. Luke Woodham saw demons when he
thought of the violent acts Grant Boyette urged on him, as discussed above.
Death from Violence as Temporary
Many youthful murders go into shock when they realize what they've
done. Most would be thrilled if the people they'd killed came back to
life. Mary Bell, at age 11, killed two boys, ages 3 and 4. In her
adulthood, she recalled, "I didn't know I had intended for them to be
dead...dead forever. Dead for me then wasn't forever."
Detecting the Potential for Violence
Violence has deep meanings to youthful perpetrators.. How can we
identify other potential youthful murderers before they act?
Kip Kinkel's parents did not recognize their son's potential for
violence. They were not alone. Many of the other school murders had
similar behaviors and made similar statements. Their parents, teachers,
peers, and others didn't realize what they were dealing with, either.
In case after case, horrified parents and acquaintances stated that
they simply glossed over statements of violence that future murderers had
made. "Oh, he was always talking like that" is a usual comment after yet
another horrific crime. How do we identify the potential for violence in
children we may know well and love?
The following is based on my own research and the research of many
others. To detect the potential for violence, parents and professionals
must pay attention to direct statements about violence, indirect
statements, chronic stressors youth may experience and any positive factors
that will offset the potential for violence. No one of the following
negative factor means violence will take place. However, as the negative
factors pile up, and as the list of positive factors stays small, the
potential for violence mounts.
Direct statements about committing violence are red flags. The
likelihood of following through is increased when the youth has made
statements more than once, to several different people, and in different
contexts (e.g., home, schoolyard, classroom, neighborhood). Sometimes
youth are just blowing off steam, do not have a pattern of invoking
violence, and are not at risk, but to know this, the following assessments
must be made.
The following are examples of direct communication that warrants
Verbal statements include talking about harming/killing others,
idolizing violent heroes, and providing specific details of how the
violence will take place, including who the intended victims are, and when
Writing poems and stories about killing people could be a warning
sign in combination with other indicators. The more often youth does this
and the variety of places in which such writings are shared may increase
the likelihood of violence.
Important circumstances to assess
One or more of the following increases the likelihood of acting out
Preoccupation with violence
Youth spends hours a day playing violent videos, listening to
violent music, playing violent games, reading about violence, writing about
violence. Youth collects weapons. Youth cannot see that violence hurts
other people. Youth sees violence as a way of demonstrating manhood and
Means to commit the violence
Youth have access to weapons. Youth have a history of fascination
Patterns of bullying and being bullied
Youth has a history of being bullied and has not handled this well
but instead feels picked on. Youth has a history of bullying others.
Youth feels weak and powerless and fantasizes about lashing out at
others. Youth "attaches" to violent others. Youth wants to please
violent others to the point where own moral compass is lost.
Part of a group of youth who are preoccupied with violence
The group has violent initiation rites. Violence is a means of
showing that you've got guts. Leaders of the group scapegoat and
manipulate one or more members. These members may be at highest risk.
History of violence in the families of origin
This violence includes wife beating and rape, physical, sexual, and
emotional abuse, and witnessing or being the target of such violence.
Many people glorify violence as a mark of manhood. This may happen
in the youth's family and/or in youth's peer group and community. Youth
also may actively seek persons who idealize violence.
Any of the above factors in the lives of youth merit a gentle but
firm conversation. The more factors youth have, the more serious is the
potential for violence.
A sense of entitlement
Some youth believe that are entitled to get what they want when
they want. They push this belief to such an extent that they are willing
to use whatever it takes, including violence, to get what they want.
Indirect Indicators: Signs of Cumulative Stress
Indirect indicators increase the likelihood of youth acting out
violently, but by themselves they are indicators of serious issues that
indicate the youth need intervention. If the direct communication is not
present, the likelihood of violence is diminished. If direct communica-
tion of violence and these signs of cumulative stress are present, then
the likelihood of violence is increased.
Youth shows an inability to share personal and private hurts,
rejections, abandonments, and a sense of failure.
Shame, feeling defective
Youth has a sense of shame, of feeling diminished by feelings of
powerless and unworthiness.
Unshared anger and grief
Youth has unshared anger and grief that leads to a sense of the
self as bad and deserving of bad things. The root meaning of anger is
These behaviors could result from a distorted gender role
socialization--that is, unrealistic expectations of what it means to be a
man--and not be related to psychological vulnerability. Chronic emotional
isolation, however, eventually leads to emotional distress, but a deep-
rooted psychological vulnerability related to psychic wounds are not likely.
These behaviors include vandalism, shoplifting, stealing, and
beating others up. The behaviors could also result from a sense of
entitlement and not be related to psychological stress and vulnerability.
Risk for violence include misuse of alcohol, drug use, use of
inhalants, and sniffing glue. These behaviors could substitute for
emotional expressiveness; that is, emotional expressiveness is a great
release, but if youth refuse to express their emotions appropriately,
they may use chemicals as a way of providing emotional release.
These behaviors include cutting, eating problems, suicide attempts,
talk of suicide.
Signs of Cumulative Stress
There are m any signs of cumulative stress that merit attention,
such as chronic behavioral maladaption, conduct disorders, chronic angry
outbursts, psychosomatic disorders, dissociative reactions, phobias,
depressive/suicidal thinking, social isolation, sleep disorders, night
terrors, and sleep walking.
Many youth have these signs of cumulative stress but are not at
risk to act out violently. Such youth would not make direct and indirect
statements about violence in a patterned way and also have many of the
following indicators of lowered risk for violence.
Indicators That the Youth has a Lowered Risk for Violence
The following factors diminish the likelihood that a youth will act
out a verbal threat. The more negative factors that a youth has, however,
and the fewer positive factors, such as those listed below, the more likely
it is that violence will take place.
This is a very important indicator of emotional health. In
appropriate circumstances, youth at low risk for violence share personal,
painful experiences and express a wide range of emotions.
Empathy for others
Connecting to others on both emotional and cognitive levels and
having respect for the others is an important indicator of emotional
Good interpersonal skills
A person with good interpersonal skills has a lowered risk for
violence. This skills include sharing personal issues with others,
negotiating for what they want, knowing how to admit wrong-doing, taking
responsibility for hurtful behaviors, and making amends for hurtful
Spends time with friends who are pro-social
Admiring and emulating pro-social friends is a hopeful sign that
youth are functioning well. Feeling accepted by pro-social friends with
whom they've shared their most personal secrets is a strong indicator of
Sense of humor
This is very important, indicating abilities to take a "long" view
humor, however, cannot be sadistic, at the expense of others.
Optimistic about the future
Youth with low risk for violence have clear plans for achieving
dreams for the future, have abilities that match plans, learn about
possibilities for the future from successful people, and show persistence
when circumstances seem to block plans for future.
Has a close relationship with at least one parent
Having a pro-social parent, grandparent, sibling, or other family
member to whom youth is close is important. Indicators of closeness
include interest in youth's activities and encouragement in several areas,
such as emotional expressiveness, school work, and planning for the future.
Close relationships with adults other than parents
Sometimes relationships within families are not very good, but
youth can have good relationships with adults outside of the family.
Having good relationships within families and with persons outside of
families is the best possible combination.
Willingness to negotiate
Youth negotiates for what they want. They don't feel entitled.
They don't just take what they want regardless of what affected others
might want. They negotiate and work for what they want.
About the Author
Jane Gilgun is a Professor, School of Social Work, University of
Minnesota, Twin Cities. Phone: 612/925-3569; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her research areas are how persons overcome adversities, the development of
violent behaviors, and the meanings of violence to perpetrators. She
currently is planning a book entitled In Their Own Words: Men Talk About
Their Violence .
She won the Excellence in Research Award from the College of Human
Ecology, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and two awards from the
Silberman Foundation. She co-developed the core courses of the Child Abuse
Prevention Studies Program, University of Minnesota, and was the developer
and faculty director of the Violence and its Prevention series at the
University of Minnesota. This series won an Outstanding program award from
Continuing Education and Conferences, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.
She has a Ph.D. from Syracuse University and other graduate degrees
from the University of Chicago in social service administration and from
the University of Louvain, Belgium, in family studies and sexuality. She
also has a bachelor's and master's degree in English literature.