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Hearts of Darkness: The Propensity for School-based Violence

Hearts of Darkness

An Inquiry into Nature, Nurture and the Propensity for School Violence

Keighan M. Chapman

 The increase of school-based violence over the last 20 years has prompted psychologists, criminologists, sociologist and educators to question the motivations behind these acts. Many studies have peered into the lives of the perpetrators and have uncovered a history of anti-social behavior. Many acts were committed by young men who had a history of being bullied. These young men also characteristically had an aptitude for computer and technological proficiency. Many also experienced displacement from their homes as young boys. This study examines the roles of nature and nurture and the propensity for violence in males ages 16-20 who committed violent acts within school zones. This study focuses on the modifiers in place during the pre-pubescent years of each young man’s life. The end goal of this inquiry is to provide a deeper understanding of the developmental psychology such that more can be done at an earlier stage to prevent later acts of violence.

To conduct this inquiry effectively, a framework for study had to be established. The foundational understanding for this essay include a specific time frame, focused locations, identified perpetrators, a defined act of violence, and unintended/anonymous targets. The period for this study spans from 1997 to 2012, with evidence suggesting 1982 as a turning point year. The focus of this inquiry is constrained to North American, rural and suburban school settings These places include Columbine, CO, Bethel, AK, Red Lake, MN, Blacksburg, VA, and Newtown, CT. The identified culprits were Caucasian males between 15 and 25. The central figures of this study are Evan Ramsey, Dillon Klebold, Eric Harris, Adam Lanza, Seung-Hui Cho, and Jeffery Weise. In an effort to provide a total portrait of these young men, this inquiry will also include family histories and home life experience data.
The school violence examined were violent acts committed on ‘school grounds’ with broad, ‘unintended’ targets. The acts were committed by young (less than 25 years old) males. The weapons include multiple high caliber or high velocity automatic rifles and shotguns.

This study seeks to offer observations about the violent nature of these events. The aim of this inquiry is to offer explanation such that steps can be taken to avoid future acts of violence. If we are able to identify common characteristic among these events, I believe we can use the information as benchmarks for interventions. I believe we use these modifiers as flags that can signal educators, psychologists and social welfare advocate when a child is likely to exhibit such violent tendencies.
I suggested the following observations; each perpetrator had ‘social modifiers’ that led to teenage-social ostracism. Each was ‘bulled’ or the target of harassment by peers. Each had a marked propensity for success in math, science and computer technology. Perhaps, they had a terminal inability to adjust in to a social network thereby leading to a lack of empathy and anti-social behavior. This essay followed a standard plan of review. I read, evaluated, and reflected upon scholarly articles that highlight the role of violence in the development of adolescent males, articles that suggest probable explanations for acts of violence in school zones, review of court and news transcripts to serve as primary source evidence of the acts, scholarly articles that identify common modifiers among ‘this sort’ of violent offender, and other primary source evidence that presents ‘other sides’ of the offenders.

I was a sophomore in high school when news of the Columbine massacre was broadcast on the local news channel. I remember feeling so confused and sad for everyone involved in the incident too. I knew what it was like to experience the woes of high school, but it never occurred to me that this level of school violence was actually possible. I was in my final semester at SUNY Adirondack when the massacre at Virginia Tech happened. In 2007, I was completing my degree in Criminal Justice, and many of my courses had prepared me to be more analytical of this event that the one from my high school years. On December 14, 2012 I was teaching at Green Mountain High School when the scenes from Sandy Hook Elementary began live streaming in the classroom. Again, I was completely awestruck, only now I was thinking about the event not from a student perspective, or that of a criminal investigator, but as a teacher. At this time, more than at any other, I found myself asking, really asking, what caused this to happen? What could have been done to prevent this act, and the acts of the previous 10 years? It is from this venue that this research stems from. As a new educator, and educational researcher, I hope to identify the modifiers present in these cases that led to the ultimate act of apathy and despondency. It is my belief that through the identification of these modifiers, interventions may be employed effectively at an early age such that later acts of violence can be prevented.

Bethal Regional, Columbine High, Red Lake, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook, all schools, all places that, at one time, were noted for their learning environments and positive contributions to society. These schools were part of positive memories, first days of schools, first friendships, Homecoming dances, junior proms, graduations, and college acceptance letters, Bachelor Degrees, Masters and dorm life experiences. All of these positive memories were quickly overshadowed when a young man made a decision that changed the lives of students, faculty and families forever. The fabric of the American education system has been torn, and as social scientists, we have an obligation to understand the why’s of these acts so that we will be able to prevent future acts of violence in our schools.

These acts of violence were committed by sons. Evan Ramsey grew up in Alaska. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris lived in Colorado. Jeffery Weise lived on the Red Lake reservation. Adam Lanza grew up in Connecticut and Seung-Hui Cho moved to the United States when he was 8 years old. At one time, these young men were little boys under the care of their parents or parent figures. They attended American elementary, middle and high schools. They each had a demonstrated aptitude in computer and technology applications, and some excelled in math and science. They had the surface potential to be positive forces in their communities…but something happened. Each young man faced challenges as children. Each had unstable home lives. Each moved multiple times before their 10th birthday, each was bullied and each exhibited introverted and withdrawn behaviors. The focus of this study seeks to answer the questions, “what led to the anti-social behavior?” and “what can be done for students early on to prevent later acts of ferocity?”
The historian in me suggests that this research could begin with the analysis of scholarly articles that have examined the relationship between social development and violent tendencies. Through the analysis of each perpetrators school experience, home life patterns, and self-image during different phases of their life, I hope to address these questions. The phases of inquiry will look examine the young man’s life between ages 0-5, 5-10, 10-15 and 15-20. Research will be acquired through public records, scholarly articles, and primary sources.
Before I focused on the offenders in the aforementioned cases, I examined the historical nature of violence within school zones and the development of violence among adolescent males. Jo-Anne Stoltz of the University of Victoria wrote “Masculinity and School Violence: Addressing the Role of Male Gender Socialization” for the Canadian Journal of Counseling in 2005. In it, Stoltz presents a compelling argument advocating for school-based violence prevention and programs that address the changing social expectations of young men. She references studies based on the Gender Role Conflict Scale and the Masculine Gender Role Stress Scale. Stoltz also identifies differing responses to violence prevention interventions stating that boys and girls respond differently in schools.
Stoltz recognized a drop in “violent youth crime in 2002, but remained higher than the rates reported in 1991” (Stoltz, 52). She also recognized an increase in the number homicides on school grounds in both Canada and the United States. She attributes the “proliferation of school-based violence prevention program” as one response to the problem of school violence (Stoltz, 52). As one might expect, these programs have not been 100% effective in ending school violence. In fact, in 1999, R.V. Acker wrote “The School Context and Risk for Aggression: Implications for school based Prevention and Intervention Efforts,” in Acker claims that “even when these programs demonstrate improved outcomes for participating students, often these students display a relapse shortly after the termination of the intervention program” (Aker, 1).
Stoltz references literature that does acknowledge the increase in violence among female youth, however, “male youth are still responsible for far more violent acts than females” (Stoltz, 53). Stoltz goes on to reference the historical prevalence and cultural association between violent behavior and perceived masculinity.
Whilst reviewing the case studies following the shooting at Columbine High School, it became known that Klebold and Harris, while lacking social acceptance and large scale popularity, they did have a history of violent behavior. Police files indicated that the two had made home movies in which they act out violent scenes from a video game adapted to their perceived reality. They also paint themselves as heroes in these films, portraying themselves to be the avenger for those victimized by perceived bullies. Their masculinity was manifested through their violent behavior. It seems that Stoltz would have advocated the implementation of violence prevention program in this case, but I wonder if these programs would have been staved off this truly sad event.
In December of 2010, Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel added their voice to this conversation when they published “Suicide by Mass Murder: Masculinity, Aggrieved entitlement, and Rampage School Shootings” in Health Sociology Review. This article identified a key element of violent school shootings that had been reported but not explored in an in-depth manner. Kalish states that “school shootings have become more common in the United States in recent year…yet, the characterization of this violence obscures an important point: many of these crimes culminate in suicide…” (Kalish & Kimmel, 451). While it seems to be understood that the perpetrators in these “rampages” were mental unstable and disaffected, the suicidal component cannot be overstated. Beyond being social outcasts, misfits, and facing abandonment issues, at their core, these young men were sad, depressed boys.
Kalish and Kimmel base their research and arguments on the shift in style of school based violence prior to 1982 and post 1982. According to their article the school shootings before 1982 were most often carried out by a young black male, in an urban setting with a handgun. The violence was usually a response to a specific event with an intended target. In the years following 1982, the setting has shifted to rural and suburban settings, where a white boy (or boys) brought semi-automatic rifles or other automatic weapons to a school with seemingly random targets and culminate in the suicide of the perpetrator.
Just as the police and media seek to identify the who, what, where, and when these acts take place, so too do parents, school faculty, students and families seek to know the “how.” The social scientists, psychologists, and others have sought the definitive “why.” Why did it happen? What could have been done to prevent it? Could it have been prevented? What happen prior to the event that it was viewed as a reasonable response to other events? This is where I will add my voice to this broader conversation. To date, most sociologists, psychologists and behaviorists have attempted to answer these very complex questions and as an observer and practitioner, I wonder how this degree of anger can manifest itself.
Molly Edmonds, a writer from Emory College, suggests that in order to understand the violent acts, understanding how anger works is a crucial component. In her article How Anger Works, she writes that “Anger is an emotion that encompasses everything from mild irritation to intense rage…anger is a natural emotion that alerts us when something has violated the natural order of how we think things should be. The bodily effects of anger are meant to motivate us to take charge and restore the balance of right and wrong; for this to occur, one have to get angry for the right reason and express anger appropriately.” (
In her article she referenced Helen Fisher, an anthropologist with Rutgers University, who specializes in gender differences and the evolution of human emotions. After watching the TED talk referred to by Edmonds and it turns out that Fisher believes that the evolution of human emotion is rooted in our capacity to love. To love. What does love have to do with violence and violent tendencies when the offender has no known intentional target? To simply say that violence is part of our evolutionary process seems too simple.
Beyond the social relevance, there are psychological implications as well. The central focus of this study is the analysis and review of individual cases that led to these violent outbursts in school zones. It is more than recognition of student feelings of ostracism, anger and rage and more than an analysis of socioeconomic backgrounds from which the perpetrators came. It is rather an analysis of the totality of these young men’s development and growing up experiences. Uri Bronfenbrenner, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Michigan at Cornell defines the social context for human growth and development. Noting the importance of context, Anita Woolfolk summarizes Bronfenbrenner interpretation saying that “Context is the total situation that surrounds and interacts with an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and actions to shape development and learning. Through the lens of context, we can presume that the ‘totality’ of these boys’ circumstances suggests that there was a catastrophic failing and modifiers that lead to these young men having violent outbursts.
Within the sphere of context, understandings about challenges faced by children as they develop can be made. Woolfolk identifies characteristics of students likely to be rejected by their social sphere and peer groups. She asserts that children who are “withdrawn and solitary (83)” are likely to be ostracized because they are outside of the accepted social construct. The young men noted in this research who for the most part loners. They were not popular by any means or stretch of the definition. They were unable to find their niche within the social constructs of school and therefore were unable to foster healthy, meaningful connections with their school communities.
In addition to being rejected by their peers, these young men also exhibited disciplinary problems well before their violent rampages. William Glasser believes that all people are driven by basic needs. All of a person’s choices and behaviors are based on their perceived urgency for belonging, personal recognition, responsibility and enjoyments. The more a person feels love, belonging, freedom, fun, and survival, the more happy that person is. If the person feels like they belong, believes they are having fun, feels free, and is cared for, the more connected that person feels to their social group and surroundings. On the other hand, if a person does not feel accepted, does not feel loved, does not know fun, is not in control and struggles daily to survive, the more unhappy that person will become. Unhappiness manifests into to anti-social behavior, disassociated tendencies, and at the very least cases of anxiety and depression. Glasser asserts that 95% of all discipline problems are misguided attempts to achieve power. Clearly these young men were not accepted by their peer groups and school, they lacked a sense of recognition and therefore sought identify through violent acts. They appeared to also lack basic life enjoyments; otherwise they would have made better behavioral choices.
While these acts were committed by young men between the ages of 16 and 20, roots of their anti-social disconnected behavior can be observed in their younger years. If we can understand the roles of nature and nurture and the violent antecedents over the course of their developing years, we might be able to provide effective interventions that will lead to the prevention of future acts of violence. While it is true that not all tragedies can be prevented altogether, I do believe that we owe it to future students and their peers to provide the added supports necessary to curb these violent tendencies. To this end I assert that student profiling ought to be considered when seeking to support and offer interventions to aid struggling students. If it is known that a student has moved multiple times, struggles to ‘fit in’ with social groups, is gifted or displays a degree of academic aptitude, has experienced multiple transitions at home, is subjected to bullying or teasing, and has a general display of depression or disassociation, he should be identified as an at-risk student. He should be offered support from school and community resources and every effort should be made to draw him back into the social fabric of his community. Perhaps if he is able to find happiness and know love, care, fun, belonging, and security, he will be less likely to commit acts of indiscriminate violence.
While researching this topic, another violent public display of carnage took place in Boston, Massachusettes. While the bombing did not take place on ‘school grounds,’ it did take place in a public sphere, with unintended targets. It was the result of two young men’s actions, one was 19 and the other, his brother, was 26. Both had moved multiple times before they were 15 years old. They when the moved from western Europe to the United States, the family arrived under the protection of political asylum. This information may allow us to believe that that their home life prior to the US move was unsafe and the family was struggling to survive. Due to the nature of asylum, we can also deduce that the Tsarneav family lacked power and a sense of control. Considering also that this sort of trans-continental move was not fun, I would assert that the Tsarneav sons were egregiously unhappy. They were disconnected from their social groups due to culture and language differences. They were both adept at math and science. The older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was a boxer, a sport that by its very nature disassociates acts of violence from violent acts. The younger brother, Dzhokhar, enrolled in UMass Dartmouth when he was 17 and majored in Biology. In the months leading up to the bombings, his grades in school had plummeted. Although the investigation is still ongoing, I do wonder if these events were preventable. If they were more connected to their community, to their peer and social groups, would this event still have happened?

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