Friday, October 13, 2006

Montreal Gazette on Copycats

Reporter Catherine Solyom has forwarded her permission to reprint the following on this blog. I am happy to see, despite many lockdowns and foiled plots, there were no fatal school shootings this week. There were plenty of "incidents," including the most severe, perhaps, being the Joplin, Missouri, AK-47 firing on October 9th, but no deaths in schools from October 9-13, as far as I have heard. Good.

Why madmen set their sights on schools
Some blame media. Theories include bullying, convenience and the copycat effect
by Catherine Solyom - Montreal, Canada The Gazette

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Beware of Oct. 13 - one month after the Dawson college shooting, something bad is bound to happen.

So predicts Loren Coleman, author of The Copycat Effect, who has tracked school shootings for three decades.

Over and over again, Coleman says, whenever a school shooting is given blanket coverage across the continent, it triggers others to seek notoriety exactly one week, one month, or one year later - often using the same method and leaving similar victims.

"When I turned on my television the morning of Sept. 13 and saw MSNBC, Fox and CNN doing wall-to-wall coverage and saying it's like Columbine, with the helicopters overhead, I knew it would get worse," Coleman said. "And of course then we had Wisconsin, Colorado and Pennsylvania ...

"I know it's eerie to put dates down, but Oct. 11th or 13th will be the end of a month-long cycle since Dawson and that will be a dangerous time. People let their guard down, then one month later pop pop pop we have these school shootings."

Not everyone, however, is so quick to make the link between media over-coverage and clusters of school shootings.

Princeton University professor Katherine Newman says it's difficult to know the true motivation - or inspiration - behind the killings when the shooter almost invariably commits suicide.

"To know a copycat pattern is developing we have to know that shooters are aware of previous incidents and have them in mind while planning their own terrible deeds," said Newman, whose recent book Rampage chronicles 21 school shootings since the 1970s. "We can't ask them when they shoot themselves."

Indeed, while school shootings tend to garner the media's attention longer than shootings in malls or workplaces, instant fame is not the only motivation.

Schools can be locations of opportunity: unprotected, in small towns they are among the few places where large numbers of people can be found in confined places.

In the Colorado and Pennsylvania incidents, the perpetrators were specifically looking for young girls.

James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston, says schools are preferred targets for those wanting to vent their rage at society in general.

"If you want to hurt society in the most profound way, you kill its children," said Fox, author of The Will to Kill: Explaining Senseless Murder. "And where do you find a lot of children all conveniently together? A school."

Finally, a shooter's life history may include traumatic experiences at schools, with bullies and/or teachers, which leads them back to a school to commit their crimes.

A U.S. government study, which examined all major school shootings from 1974 to 2000, found few factors in common other than that many of the perpetrators felt they had been bullied at school.

But despite Newman's caution, there is often evidence that a copycat or contagion effect, spread by the media, is at hand.

In some cases, the perpetrators make reference to previous incidents broadcast by media.

Kimveer Gill, who shot and killed 18-year-old Anastasia De Sousa and injured 20 others at Dawson College, is believed to have made several postings on a blogsite called the Trenchcoat Chronicles, revealing a fascination with school shootings.

Two weeks before the Dawson shooting, a 19-year-old in Hillsborough, N.C., when asked by police why he killed his father and wounded two students at school, said: "Columbine. Remember Columbine," referring to the 1999 massacre of 12 students and a teacher in Colorado.

Then there is evidence gleaned from the lack of media coverage at certain times. The period immediately following 9/11, spanning to November 2002, was one such time.

"What happened was a grand experiment in media blackout," says Coleman. "The media had turned their cameras on terrorism, the coming war in Iraq and the invasion of Afghanistan. It's remarkable that we began to see large body count school shootings in foreign countries, but not in North America."

"If there is no reporting on it, it doesn't happen," Coleman says. "There is no possibility of a copycat because there's nothing to be copycatting."

The clearest evidence of copycatting, however, might lie in the events themselves, in the setting, time and modus operandi of the shooters.


Much has been made of differences among recent incidents to counter the copycat thesis. Unlike in the 1990s, the latest school shootings have involved primarily outsiders: people, like Gill, with no attachment to the schools they chose as the setting for their crimes.

Of the 400-plus deaths in school violence in North America since 1994, only a handful were at the hands of outsiders. The past month has seen seven more.

But experts point out that before the 1990s, many school shootings were perpetrated by adults, including a string of nine schoolyard snipers.

The most famous, says Fox, was Laurie Dann, who killed one second grader and wounded five others in 1988.

She subsequently made the cover of People Magazine, just as Charles Roberts has made this week's cover after killing five Amish schoolgirls. Four months later, James Wilson, in whose apartment police later found pictures of Dann, went on a similar rampage and killed two 8-year-olds in a school cafeteria.

The other major difference pointed out in some of the recent shootings is the sexual nature of the assaults.

The commissioner of the Pennsylvania State Police told reporters he didn't believe the killing of Amish girls was a copycat crime in part because of Roberts's intention to molest the girls.

Both Fox and Coleman dispute that finding, however, pointing out the striking similarities with the sexual assaults of girls and murder in Bailey, Colo., and Roberts's actions a week later in Pennsylvania.

Of course the copycat effect does not explain everything. A well-adjusted individual will not turn into a mass murderer no matter how many times he sees a school shooting on television, Fox said. All other factors, including life circumstances and personality, must be there.

"But in the case of Roberts, had it not been for the Colorado shooting, he would probably have not killed on Monday in a school," Fox said. "It might have been in a shopping mall, city hall or church sometime. So copycatting and contagion tends to influence the form and timing, but not the motivation for murder."


So how does the copycat effect work - and how can it be interrupted?

It takes a vulnerable, disturbed, suicidal and homicidal individual to want to mimic a previous school shooting.

But beyond that, several factors are at play.

Abe Worenklein, a professor at both Concordia University and Dawson College, tells forensic psychology students about the "mean world syndrome": when news reports devote so much attention to extremely rare events like school shootings, they begin to appear normal and common to fragile minds, breaking down the cognitive barriers that would normally stop them from committing such acts themselves.

"Fifty per cent of the news on a given day can be about the Dawson or the Amish shooting," Worenklein said. "The media sends a message that this is what a lot of people do, even though it's the rare exception."

Meanwhile, detailed reports of a shooter's motivation, personality and grudges humanize a shooter and can turn him into a role model for others, said Fox.

"For the copycat effect to be most pronounced, a copier has to identify with the role model. When a 14-year-old white kid from a small town in California learns about a 15-year-old white kid from Jonesboro, he says, 'I understand what he's going through.' A black kid from the Bronx doesn't. It's not his world," Fox said.

He is particularly concerned with the effect of all the continuing retrospectives of Columbine, with their images of fleeing, panicked students.

"While 99 per cent of people will identify with the pain and suffering of the victims and pray it will not happen in their community, there are a few who would very much like to see it so long as they are on the right end of the gun ... They think not only did they have the nerve or guts to get even with bullies or teachers, but they got famous for it."

There is also a practical side to sensationalistic news reports, says Coleman: they often provide too much tactical information on how to do the same thing, but better, including how police got into the building. And school shooters increasingly compete with others to up the body count, he said.

"Why do we want to give them this information?" Coleman asked, comparing the situation to how sportscasters ignore fans who run onto a baseball field so as not to encourage others.

If there is a positive side to media coverage, however, it is that students are made aware of the potential gravity of threats.

Princeton's Katherine Newman believes the hiatus in school shootings around 9/11 is attributable to students reporting threats and foiling plots.

Unfortunately, this is just the beginning of the school year.

"(Shootings) used to happen in the spring, when kids' ability to cope with whatever was happening at school was wearing thin," Fox said. "The end of the school year came mercifully and whatever contagion there was would dissipate over the summer. In the fall, students would be thinking of making the football team or who to take to the prom, not who to kill in the cafeteria. Now they're happening in the fall and there are many more months to go."

Recent school shootings in North America

Aug. 24, 2006 - Essex, Vt. - Christopher Williams, 26, attempted to kill his ex-girlfriend, Grade One schoolteacher Andrea Lambesis. Dead are Lambesis's mother, Linda, 57, and Grade Two teacher Alicia Shanks, 56, slain in her classroom.

Aug. 29, 2006 - Hillsborough, N.C. - One dead (father of teenage shooter) - two wounded students - shooter showed up in a trench coat with guns and pipe bombs in a copycat of Columbine. Asked why he went to Orange High School, Alvaro Rafael Castillo, 19, said: "Columbine. Remember Columbine."

Sept. 13, 2006 - Montreal - Kimveer Gill, the 25-year-old shooter, came to Dawson College fully armed. He opened fire, killing Anastasia De Sousa, 18, and wounded 11 other students. Police fired on him. Then Gill turned the gun on himself.

Sept. 27, 2006 - Bailey, Colo. - (near Columbine) - Duane Morrison, 54, walked into a classroom at Platte Canyon High School and took six female students hostage. After releasing four hostages, the students told police sexual assaults were occurring.

As the situation neared a 4 p.m. deadline and discussions broke down, a police SWAT team blew open the door to Room 206 with explosives. Morrison fired a handgun at SWAT officers, and then at 16-year-old Emily Keyes, killing her. The gunman then killed himself. The last hostage was saved.

(A suicide note from the shooter was found on Sept. 28th.)

Sept. 29, 2006 - Cazenovia, Wis. - A recently expelled student, Eric Hainstock, 15, arrived at school at 8 a.m. with a shotgun. A custodian, teacher and students wrestled the shotgun away, but the student broke free and pulled out a revolver. Principal John Klang, 49, was shot with a handgun three times, once in the head. Klang later died at the hospital. The shooter was arrested.

Oct. 2, 2006 - Nickel Mines, Pa. - Charles Roberts, a 32-year-old milkman, entered a one-room Amish school at the beginning of the school day. He brought into the school three guns, a stun gun, two knives and 600 rounds of ammunition - as well as restraints, boards, and other items to molest or sexually abuse the children.

He told the boys and adult females to leave. He took 10 hostages, all young females. Then, after the police arrived, he began shooting all of the girls, killing five. Roberts is died when he shot himself.

© The Gazette (Montreal) 2006 Permission to reprint granted.

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