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Monsters among us

Monsters Among Us

Two heavily armed boys wearing camouflage clothing and hiding among trees fired on a

group of their middle school classmates and teachers as they scurried outside during a false fire

alarm. Once the students and staff began to emerge from the school building, they were greeted

with a hail of gunfire. The ambush left four students and a teacher dead and 11 others wounded.

Police apprehended two suspects–ages 11 and 13– just minutes after the midday shooting

outside Westside Middle School in the quiet town of Jonesboro, Ark. Authorities said the boys

were running away and were apprehended a few hundred yards from the shooting scene. It was

unclear whether one of the boys or a third person pulled the alarm. The suspects were armed

with handguns and rifles, some of which appeared to be semi-automatics. Two rifles and other

weapons were seized by police officials.

Police said they arrived within four minutes of being notified of the shootings, which

began shortly after noon. They immediately encountered a bloody, chaotic scene of screaming

students, staff, and stunned victims. Police authorities said that all but one of the shooting

victims–including the five fatalities–were female, none of them were older than the age of 12. A

teacher died later on that night after surgery for wounds to her chest and abdomen. The incident

stunned longtime residents of this town, about 130 miles northeast of Little Rock. "We really

haven’t nailed down the ‘why’ yet. What would encourage 11- and 13-year old boys to grab a

gun and shoot kids they’ve gone to school with all their lives? " said Bob Troutt assistant

publisher of the Jonesboro Sun. Troutt said that guns and hunting are a normal part of growing

up in the region and that "kids here are very much able to shoot weapons." Local schools even

grant a few days’ holiday at the opening of deer season.

Educators called the attack one of the most extreme incidents of violence ever at a school.

The shootings also exposed one of their growing fears: that at an increasingly young age,

students seem to have easy access to deadly weapons and no qualms about using them. Robert

T.M. Phillips, a psychiatrist who serves as medical director of Forensic Consultation Associates

of Annapolis said that he was not familiar with the facts of the Jonesboro case. He did say that

".in general, we’re seeing in our society an ever-increasing outbreak of violence by juveniles and

children."

Were these children acting out a fantasy they had seen or read about or played out in a

video game somewhere? Had somehow become so emotionally disturbed that they could not

distinguish fantasy from reality? While it might be somehow comforting to look for a simple

cause such as mental illness or even an eerily similar scene from a recent movie, the truth is far

more complex and troubling.

In a bloody and disturbingly familiar tragedy, a 15-year old freshman opened fire in a

high school cafeteria, killing one person and injuring two dozen others a day after being expelled

for bringing a gun to school. Ninety minutes after the shootings ended, sheriff deputies found the

bodies of two adults, believed to be the boy’s parents, at his home just outside the blue-collar

suburb of Eugene, OR in the heart of central Oregon’s logging country. Frantic parents raced to

Thurston High School in Springfield as sobbing, dazed students, some of them bloodied during

the rampage, staggered out of the 1350-pupil school. They told a story of sudden carnage that

erupted when the freckled faced youth, identified by police authorities as Kipland P. Kinkel,

leaped onto a table and began randomly firing into a crowd of 400 students. Jerry Smith, a police

captain for the town of Springfield, said Kinkel parked a car outside the school shortly before

8.am. And calmly walked inside carrying a .22-caliber rifle, a .22-caliber handgun and a Glock semi-automatic pistol.

One student, Stephanie Quimby, 16, told reporters that she was sitting one table away

when Kinkel, wearing a cream-colored trench coat and hat, seemed to focus on one table as he

held his rifle at his hip and opened fire. When he ran out of ammunition, witnesses said, he

reached for another of his weapons but was gang-tackled by students and a wrestling coach, who

held him until police arrived.

The shootings, the latest of a series that have killed at least 13 people and wounded more

than 40 in the past year in schools across the nation, left educators and law enforcement officials

more alarmed than ever about the threats that children and their teachers face in institutions of

learning. "These situations are getting more volatile and severe," said Ronald Stephens, director

of the National School Safety Center. "We’re going from single victims in these incidents to

multiple victims, and we seem to be dealing more with youngsters who are more callous and

who have much more rage. It’s changing the landscape of the schools." Oregon, Gov. John

Kitzhaber (D), in a news conference, said it was incomprehensible to him that "such a sick and

tragic event" could occur in such a placid community, and that the shootings raised troubling

questions for parents and educators. "We need to ask ourselves what kind of fear leads people to

do something like this, what kind of lack of opportunity drives them to make this horrible

choice," Kitzhaber said. He said everyone should ask "what it implies for our community and

our future...so this kind of thing doesn’t occur again." Springfield Mayor Bill Morrisette said,

"This is not a Springfield problem, but a problem of society."

On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, arriving in separate cars, park in the

Columbine High School parking lot. Klebold’s and Harris’ cars flank the school’s cafeteria and

the exits and entrances into the lower level. Harris speaks to one student briefly outside the west entrance of the school. He tells him to leave the school because he likes him. This student is the

only person Harris and Klebold direct away from the school grounds before the killing rampage

begins. Carrying two large duffel bags containing enough explosive power to kill the majority of

the students who would soon be arriving for "A" lunch, they enter the school’s cafeteria. They

place the bags on the floor beside two lunch tables and walk out. The ominous bags, conceal two

20-pound propane bombs timed to explode at 11:17 am, the time Harris determined the cafeteria

would contain the most amount of students, blend in with the other backpacks and bags

scattered throughout the cafeteria. Klebold and Harris head back to their respective cars and wait

for the bombs to explode. From their cars, they have a clear view of the cafeteria area. Based on

comments Klebold and Harris made in their homemade videotapes, the two planned to shoot any

surviving students able to escape from the cafeteria after the bombs exploded. They have also

placed bombs with timers in their cars set to go off once they go back into the school.

In a grassy open space three miles southwest of Columbine High School, two backpacks

with pipe bombs explode setting the grass on fire and getting the attention of the Jefferson

County Sheriff’s Office and the Littleton Fire Department. The bombs exploding in the field are

intended to divert the attention of law enforcement away from what is planned to be a much

more devastating scene at the school. At 11:20 am, the cafeteria bombs fail to detonate, and the

two go to investigate. According to witnesses, Harris and Klebold stand together at the top of the

west exterior steps, both wearing black trench coats and carrying a back pack and duffel bag.

This location is the highest point on campus and allows them an elevated vantage point of the

school’s west side, the southwest senior parking lot and portions of the junior lot, the cafeteria

exits and entrances, and the athletic fields to the west. The two then pull their shotguns out of

their bags, they already have 9mm semi-automatic weapons hidden under their coats. From their position at the top of the steps, they begin shooting at students in the area. Thus begins what is

now known as the worst U.S. school shooting in history.

The gunmen’s first shots, fired toward the west doors, kill one student and injure another

as they sat on the grass eating their lunch. Five more students, sitting on the grass to the west of

the stairs, are shot at as they attempt to flee. One student is hit but is able to reach the outdoor

athletic storage shed where he takes cover with students. Another student suffers a debilitating

gunshot wound and falls to the ground, unable to flee with the others and find cover. Klebold

goes down the stairs to the area outside the cafeteria and shoots another student at point-blank

range, killing him instantly. He then rejoins Harris at the top of the stairs. One female student is

shot multiple times by Harris as she stands to run for cover into the cafeteria. At 11:23, 911

receives a call from a Columbine High School student reporting a girl is injured in the lower

paring lot of the high school. "I think she’s paralyzed ," the caller tells the dispatcher. Deputy

Gardner, on his way to investigate an explosion in open field, hears the call and activates his

lights and siren.

Teacher Patricia Nielson is working as a hall monitor when she hears a commotion

outside the west entrance of the school. She looks outside, seeing two male students with what

she thinks are toy guns, and assumes that a school video production is being taped. She is one

her way outside to tell the boys to "knock it off" when one of the gunmen fires into the west

entrance, causing glass and metal fragments to spray into the hallway. Nielson suffers abrasions

to her should, forearm, and knee from the fragments. Despite her injuries, she is able to flee into

the school library while Harris and Klebold are distracted by the arrival of a patrol car. Deputy

Gardner has just pulled up in the lower south parking lot of the school with his car’s lights

flashing and the siren sounding. As the deputy steps out of the car, Harris turns his attention

from shooting into the school to the deputy. Highly visible in the bright yellow shirt of the

community resource officer’s uniform, Deputy Gardner is now the target of Harris’ bullets. He

fires about ten shots at the deputy before his rifle jams. Gardner returns Harris’s fire with four of

his own.

By now students and faculty in the cafeteria realize the activity occurring outside is more

serious than a senior prank. Teachers direct students to safety by having them exit the cafeteria

and telling them to go down the hallway to east side exits of the school. After exchanging

gunfire with a gunman, Deputy Gardner calls on his police radio for additional units. "Shots in

the building. I need someone in the south lot with me." Soon more Jefferson County Deputies

arrive on scene. Harris and Klebold have moved inside the school’s northwest entry doors and

are firing semi-automatic weapons east towards the students in the main hallway and south down

the library hallway. A student in the gym hallway observes the two gunmen walking east down

the north hallway. Both are firing weapons....... and both are laughing. Harris and Klebold walk

up and down the library, randomly shooting but not injuring anyone. Harris and Klebold spend

almost three minutes in the library hallway randomly shooting their weapons and lighting and

throwing pipe bombs. They throw two pipe bombs in the hallway and more over the stairway

railing to the lower level. The two then enter the school’s library. Harris shoots down the length

of the front counter injuring one student crouched behind a paper copier. The gunmen walk

through the library toward the west windows, killing one student along the way. Cassie Bernall,

a junior at Columbine was in the library reading her bible and praying, when Klebold and Harris

entered. Klebold walked up to her, trained his gun on her head and asked if she believed in God.

She said "Yes",when asked why, she was shot before she could answer. The two shot out the

library windows toward law enforcement officials and at fleeing students. Receiving returning

gunfire from the official, they turned their attention back inside the library. They killed four

more students and injured four more before moving back toward the library entrance to the east.

Harris and Klebold reload their weapons and enter the center section of the library. Two more

students are killed and two more injured in the library’s center section before the gunmen leave

the library. In 7 ½ minutes, 10 people are killed and 12 more wounded. There were a total of 56

people in the library.

At 11:33 am, Jefferson County SWAT teams are en route to the high school. At 11:38

am, a pipe bomb explodes, several students run out of the south cafeteria doors towards a

sheriff’s deputy. The deputy directs them to take cover behind several cars, covering them with

his own gun while they position themselves away from the line of fire. The deputy radios to

dispatch that he has students with him, but does not have any safe path to evacuate them from

the parking lot. More students are exiting the school on the west side, and taking cover behind

the patrol cars.

Harris and Klebold walk toward the food serving line in the cafeteria area. Klebold throws

something in the vicinity of the propane bombs planted earlier. A witness hiding in the cafeteria

hears one of the gunmen say, "Today the world’s going to come to an end. Today’s the day we

die." Harris and Klebold are in the cafeteria about 2 ½ minutes. Cafeteria videotape shows that,

as the gunmen are walking away, there is a partial detonation of a bomb and a subsequent fire.

The bomb is attached to smaller containers of flammable liquids that may have been ignited by a

device thrown by Klebold.. That explosion causes the fire in the cafeteria that, in turn, moments

later activate five large sprinklers in the area. The large twenty pound propane tank and the

second complete bomb/duffel bag do not explode.

By shortly after noon, the gunmen had wounded their last victims. They then committed suicide. It was only then that the first SWAT teams entered the battered school building.

Death and carnage on this level are normally reserved for the movies when one sees actors such

as Arnold Schwarzenager dealing death and destruction to terrorists or other hostile forces.

Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado was added to the list of schools that have become

war zones in a disturbing trend that has the nation-and the world-asking "Why?".

What causes kids to commit violent acts? It would be presumptuous to assume that we

have all the answers. Each incident is different, and there are a number of variables that

contribute to each individual act of violence. Meanwhile, we must remember that the vast

majority of kids don’t commit violent acts. It is safe to say, however, that any juvenile violence

is disconcerting, and the recent string of brutal juvenile shootings and murders is especially

heinous. The two killers in Littleton were reportedly laughing and chatting with one another as

they shot and killed their fellow students at point-blank range. What could possibly cause a

young person to come to this place? We have heard literally every possible explanation ranging

from youth access to guns to mental disorders. While every child is different and every situation

is unique, research on violent juveniles has shown that there are at least three characteristics that

emerge repeatedly:

• Spiritual emptiness. One of the shared characteristics of violent juvenile offenders is what researchers refer to as a "crisis of meaninglessness." Because of this spiritual vacuum, kids live with the simple creed, "I am born; I live; I die." At best, the only value that many young boys receive from the culture at large is materialism or the pursuit of physical pleasure. The understood purpose for existence is the accumulation of "things." This is not enough to anchor young people. This lack of meaning leads to despair and plays and important role in the lives of violent juveniles. Without a sense that their lives have some higher purpose, which is predominantly grounded in religious faith, these young people see no point in restraining offensive or violent behavior.

• A toxic social environment. Much like living in a city that has high pollution levels damages one’s physical health, living in a socially toxic environment damages one’s psychological health. What makes the youth culture toxic is the increasing exposure that children have to vivid and explicit scenarios of death and destruction. The spread of violence to small towns and rural areas, at least in part, is attributed to the explicit and vivid imagery of scenes of horror on television, the movie screen, and video games as well as the violent lyrics of certain popular music groups. The more we learn about the Columbine killers, the more we are learning about their immersion in violent movies, music and video games. Their killing spree chillingly resembles the images they exposed themselves to on a regular basis, such as scenes from Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, the film Basketball Diaries, and the video games "Doom" and "Duke Nukem."

• Family instability. Research has shown that in most cases, family stability can trump negative influences that might otherwise lead to a child’s violent behavior. For each individual violent juvenile, any number of influences can contribute to violent behavior; i.e, rejection by peers, failure at school, mental or emotional problems, low self-image, early childhood trauma. A stable family life serves as "buffer" to help shield kids from the forces (biological or social) that contribute to violent behavior. A child’s family is in many ways his first and last line of defense, especially in the socially toxic environment that permeates youth culture. Researches at Columbia University connected the erosion of family life as a primary cause of teen violence. They said that the family is important because it "constrains adolescents within the bounds of community values. The change in the family structure-the rise in single-parent households and the dispersal of the extended family!

-leaves less time, patience, consistency, and flexibility in rearing children."

When these three come together, they form a lethal mixture that is especially harmful to children.

Only a small percentage of young persons react to this combination by committing a violent act,

but a vast number of youth are acting out in other ways as they struggle to come to terms with

what they consider to be an intolerable world.

Dr. James Garbarino, of Cornell University, has conducted numerous interviews with

juvenile murderers over the years. In his book, "Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and

How We Can Save Them," he shows that juveniles who act out violently share some common

characteristics , primarily those mentioned above. What is clear from his research is that the

problem is not primarily youth having access to guns. In fact, it is notable that the Columbine

killers were planning to cause most of their destruction of human life by using a home made

outdoor-grill propane tank. The weapon of choice is not a "root" cause. Until we are ready to

address the deeper issues, youths will continue to act out violently whether they choose to use a

propane tank, a gun, a knife, a baseball bat or their fists.

Bibliography:

A. Huston, Big World, Small Screen: The Role of Television in American Society, (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press) 1992.

George Gerbner, "Television Violence: The Art of Asking the Wrong Question," The World and I, July, pp.385-397

Kevin Merida and Richard Leiby, " When Death Imitates Art," Washington Post, April 22, 1999, p.C01.

Gene Edward Veith, "The Youth Anti-Culture," World, May 8 1999.

Andrew Weaver, "An Analysis of Research on Religious and Spiritual Variables in Three Major Mental Health Nursing Journals," 1991-1995. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 19(3), pp.263-276.

L.S. Wright, "Church Attendance, Meaningfulness of Religion, and Depressive Symptomatology among Adolescents, Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 22(5), pp.559-568.

Matt Labsh, "Do You Believe in God? Yes," The Weekly Standard, (4) 32, p.23.

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