Friday, April 29, 2005

Freeway Sniper Incidents, Compared to Beltway Attacks

While information is relatively quiet in the American national media, data on some recent LA freeway sniper incidents have hit the London papers. Four deaths on the highways around Los Angeles have been recorded during March and April 2005, but other than in southern California, it has not jumped to broader attention before now.

The Times of London (UK) observed:

"So far detectives have no suspects in any of the shootings. Although they are not ruling out the kind of 'Beltway sniper attacks' that terrorised the East Coast in 2002, they are more concerned that the shootings are simply copycat incidents."

Monday, April 18, 2005

Black Smoke, White Smoke, Gun Smoke

I am off to Atlanta, to spend three days with the folks from the CDC, reviewing applicants' grant proposals on suicide prevention. I'm not certain what's going to happen while I'm away, but I am prepared for the coming days to be eventful. This next week will hold promises of some hopeful news and yet, too, of some events that hopefully will not occur, despite my sense of what might be.

The election of a new pope will be signaled with puffs of white smoke and ringing of bells, but this may be proceeded by days of black smoke as a divided conclave reflects the disputatious days in which we live. Who will be the twilight language's 111th Pope - "The Glory of the Olives" - Pope Gloria Olivæ?

Meanwhile, will April 18, Patriots' Day, technically exactly four weeks since the Red Lake school shooting, greet us with wondering for whom the bells will toll, as gun smoke drifts over a school campus? Or will April 19 (Waco and Oklahoma City bombing) or April 20 (Columbine and Hitler's birthday) be marked with violence again? Then comes April 21, the numerical and reflective "one month" from Red Lake's March 21. That might mirror what happened with Columbine's April 20, "anniversary" syndrome six years ago when a link to the symbolic month, not the technical one, occurred. It was on May 20, when six students in a Conyers, Georgia high school were wounded by a 15 year old shooter who put the gun in his mouth but didn't fire. No one died in the incident, thankfully.

People are taking seriously the whole idea that a copycat school shooting could occur. Already we are seeing the active intervention of people searching for signs as they surf the web to stop school shootings. The end of last week, a Cleveland salesman was credited by police in Asheville, North Carolina with foiling a possible rampage there. He authorities about the following message at a forum:
"I'm planning a Columbine on my dumb hippie school on the last day of school so everybody will be there to enjoy the Massacre," wrote the student with the screen name "Py." Later, he added, "I know where my dad's 12-gauge is along with his .45, .38 and his .22."

Meanwhile today, a San Diego County woman told law enforcerment of how she discovered through her granddaughter's Internet communications of messages mentioning the date of a threatened shooting being April 20th. Because of the date's link to Columbine, authorities took the threat seriously.

Everyone has their guard up for the coming smoke next week. I hope I return to Maine and only write of white smoke, not of gun smoke. The copycat effect's negativity does not have to happen if we use our awareness of it to prevent violence.

Friday, April 15, 2005

"F-Factor" to Stephen King's Rage - Deciphering School Schoolings

The D.C. newspaper, the Washington Blade, raises the notion that there's a hidden, in their words, "fag factor" behind school violence from Red Lake to Moses Lake, in their April 15, 2005 article, "'Boy-code’ a factor in fatal school shootings?."

Writer Ryan Lee makes several good points about the shameful abuse gay and lesbian students endure, and the homophobia in school. But as with articles that only consider the one-note arguments of medications or guns in America or bullying being the sole risk factor behind school shootings, we have to be careful about blaming everything on this newly promoted "boy-code."

Lee's examples are hand-picked, slanted, and focus only on the homophobia found in a few, only six, of the 45 school violence events since 1996, noted in my book. For example, his retelling of the Moses Lake incident is incomplete, if not downright incorrect.

The Blade's Lee writes that the February 2, 1996 school shooting at Frontier High School, in Moses Lake, Washington, involving Barry Loukaitis, resulted in one person being killed. Lee writes of Loukaitis' "anti-gay history": "Classmates testified during Loukaitis’ trial that he pledged to kill classmate Manuel Vela after Vela repeatedly taunted him as a 'faggot' a month before."

Homophobia is Everywhere

The horrible but true fact is that homophobic labels are in widespread use in America, across all demographic groups, between racial, ethnic, and speciality cliches that have developed in our extremely divided schools. The cultural war is alive and well in the new "no child left behind" focus on tests results, while the hearts and minds of our youth are being split into diverse groups. The f-label is the latest fad moniker to be employed in this new landscape. Students and other young people do not have to be outcasts, bullied, or "different" to have a demeaning slang form used against them, seemingly jokingly or with hostility. The reality of life in schools, in the last part of the 20th century into this one, is that this specific f-word has replaced the n-word for "normal" conversation. I was recently discussing this issue with a local high school student who told me that his teammates use the f-label (rendered as "feg" so they won't get in trouble with school officials) with each other all the time - painting the good, the bad, and the uncoordinated sports players with the anti-gay term.

Should we attempt to decipher a deeper meaning as linked to school shootings from this high level of usage? In most school shooting situations, I wage, if you interviewed the entire school body, you probably could hear about someone who had thrown the f-word in the direction of the future shooter, sometime, someplace. The label is overused, unfortunately these days, but it is used - in conjunction with all kinds of youth.

Furthermore, during my reading of the Lee article online his morning, it is clear that at least one factual error seems to make it seem as if the target was a direct result of Ryan Lee's homophobic "factor."

Moses Lake to Red Lake

Lee's article ignores the broader context in which the Moses Lake incident happened, and, indeed, misstates that one person was killed. There were three individuals shot dead. The pattern of death was a deliberate one, as I note in The Copycat Effect. Here's a summary of what I wrote in my book: On Groundhog’s Day, 1996, Barry Loukaitis, 14, dressed all in black, with boots and a long black tenchcoat that hid his father’s hunting rifle and two handguns, walked into his fifth-period algebra class at Moses Lake and started shooting. Loukaitis killed two classmates (Arnold Fritz and Manuel Vela) and then severely wounded another (Natalie Hintz). Next, Loukaitis aimed at the back of his algebra teacher, Leona Caires, and killed her as she was writing an equation on the chalkboard. With the carnage around him and 15 students in the room crying hysterically, Loukaitis calmly turned, smiled and said: “This sure beats algebra, doesn't it?” The line was an exact quote from the Stephen King novel, Rage. Physical education teacher Jon M. Lane then rushed into the room, knocked the rifle away from Loukaitis, and wrestled him to the floor to end the shooting.

Loukaitis had planned the shootings carefully, getting ideas, he said, from the Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman) book Rage (1977). In it, a troubled high school boy takes a gun to fictional Placerville High School, kills his algebra teacher “Mrs. Underwood,” another school adult “Mr. Vance,” and takes the algebra class hostage. Police would find a collection of Stephen King's books in Loukaitis' bedroom, including his well-worn copy of Rage.

Also a copy of Rage was found in the locker of Michael Carneal, a high school shooter who also killed three, on December 1, 1997, in West Paducah, Kentucky. Carneal is likewise on Ryan Lee's unfortunately labeled "fag factor" list. What Lee avoids mentioning is that all of Carneal's victims were girls, and they were in a prayer circle. Carneal was as anti-Christian as Jeff Weise in Red Lake or the shooters in Columbine. Yes, homophobia is there in some cases, as are several multivariables. Adolecents are not simple. School shootings are too complex for us to consider just one "factor."

A multifaceted view that various vulnerable young people are being triggered by the copycat effect is ignored, yet again, in Ryan Lee's otherwise thoughtful treatment of the topic. Just as a match can set off a fire of gasoline, wood, or paper, so too can the school shooters, coming from many backgrounds, be ignited to kill from many points of origin. A reaction to homophobic abuse is surely one risk factor, but it is certainly not the only one, another more than if "blame" totally is placed on Stephen King's Rage. To say so only furthers the media not looking more deeply at their role in these "copycat rampages."

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

April's Initial Copycat Trends

As expected, there has been a rash of copycat school shooting threats and "death lists" discovered around the country since the Red Lake shooting. ABC News overviews a good summary, here. Look for more.

Meanwhile, the spillover between "rampages" was in evidence the middle of the first week of April.

Beginning at 8 a.m., on Thursday, April 7, a man went on a widely broadcast shooting spree through two states. Two people were killed and four others were wounded during the 45-minute shooting events that began in Delaware and ended in Maryland. Allison Lamont Norman, the 22-year-old alleged male shooter, like Jeff Weise in Red Lake, was wearing a bulletproof vest.

Also on April 7, Jeffrey Doyle Robertson, 45, reportedly went to the Canton, Texas (near Waco) high school just after classes started Thursday and shot football coach Gary Joe Kinne, apparently with a .45-caliber pistol. The story received widespread media attention, for a few days nationwide, such as in this article in the Baltimore Sun. After the shooting, Jeff Robertson went into the woods near the high school and attempted to kill himself by slashing his arms and stabbing his leg.

This homicidal-suicidal shooting of the football coach in Texas could be repeated in a disturbing outburst at the end of the month. With my sense that April 18-April 26 will be the next window of real danger for school shootings, I don't like the copycat effect of what this coach shooting might trigger in others. Needless to say, coaches should be careful. Unfortunately, it is a time for heightened awareness, not just for educators in the next few weeks, but especially, now for teacher-coaches in this country. The vulnerable and unstable may be triggered by this Texas incident.

Schools are already preparing for next week. Columbine High School will be closed on April 20, 2005.

THE FUTURIST, May-June: "Combating Copycat Violence"

Just placed online, THE FUTURIST, May-June 2005 Vol. 39, No. 3, has published Lane Jennings' article, "Combating Copycat Violence," which tackles an important issue. I appreciate their acknowledgement of my attention to this subject in my new book.

THE FUTURIST has even been very responsive to my bit of feedback about their article. At the end of the commentary by Jennings, the journal has this final paragraph:

"Instead of suppressing the media, as Coleman seems to recommend, we could try harder to balance violent content with more positive stories that are dramatic and worthy of potential copycats' attention."

I wrote the editor to note that as opposed to wishing to restrain the media, in the final chapter of my book I agree exactly with Jennings through my seven recommendations and supporting text. My final recommendation, number seven, in fact, is as follows:

"(7) And finally, the media should reflect more on their role in creating our increasingly perceived violent society. Honest reporting on the positive nature of being alive in the twenty-first century may actually decrease the negative outcomes of the copycat effect, and create a wave of self-awareness that this life is rather good after all. Most of our lives are mundane, safe, and uneventful. This is something that an alien watching television news from outer space, as they say, would never know. The media should 'get real,' and try to use their influence and the copycat effect to spread a little peace rather than mayhem."

Managing Editor Cindy Wagner quickly sent me this email on April 11th: "We will post your response on our Website and include it in the Feedback section in the next issue of The Futurist magazine."

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Rebutting Neil Steinberg's Column on NYU

Dear Editor, New York Daily News:

Neil Steinberg's column in the Sunday, April 3, 2005, issue of the New York Daily News, has a negative comment on the NYU decision to close balconies to prevent suicides.

I have read similar comments in one student newspaper. But this view is an unfortunate one. And tragically uninformed, as well.

Steinberg notes that NYU's resolution is "well-intentioned but wrong in trying to curb student suicides," and then repeats this old incorrect chestnut: "People who want to kill themselves find a way." Recalling a deeply personal experience (which is how most people relate to suicide), Steinberg remembers when he was a student how another used a knife as the way to kill himself. Steinberg is talking about different methods. He is not discussing going from one method to another in his example, and certainly not giving insights into the copycat effect we see occurring at NYU, in which students there are dying by jumping, a very rare means of suicide.

Several components of what we know about suicide must be taken into account here. In general, in the majority of situations, when a person decides to take his or her own life, they stick to their plan, even an impulsive one, and in the majority of cases, do not drift from their chosen method, to die by suicide. Yes, there are exceptions to this, but people do not usually move from method to method to kill themselves. That's a myth that allows potential helpers the opportunity to feel helpless, and serves any of us in avoiding doing anything to prevent suicides. The rigidity of the tunnelvision of suicidal thinking often is inflexible to going to another method if the chosen one becomes unavailable. Actually interrupting the method often sidetracks the crisis into a helping period in which the suicidal person may put everything in perspective - and live beyond the crisis. In 2004, I wrote a book (The Copycat Effect) that details the decades of research supporting exactly what NYU has done to actively prevent suicides.

Steinberg then paradoxically goes on to say "removing the knives" doesn't work as well as "programs and campaigns designed to discourage suicide." If he believes this, what is wrong with trying as many programs as possible to save lives? And does he not see that "removing lethal means" is merely another one of these "programs"? In the midst of a suicide cluster or crisis, in the midst of a wave of behavior contagion as exhibited when the copycat effect sweeps through a campus or a high school, attention to the
specific method that is being modeled from one vulnerable individual to another must occur. Limiting access to that "copycatted" method keeps people safe and alive.

New York University officials are saving lives by closing balconies, and giving students a second chance to overcome the pain that they are trying to escape through their leaps of death. Student editorials and columnists aside, NYU has done the right thing!

Loren Coleman, MSW
Suicidologist, Author