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School shootings: Some Columbine myths resurface

harris and klebold.jpg
There's no coherent explanation yet for seventeen-year-old T.J. Lane's attack on Chardon High School in Ohio on Monday, which killed three students and injured two others -- and the "why" may prove elusive for some time to come. The shootings have been treated as utterly random, although recent reports suggest one of the victims may have been dating Lane's ex-girlfriend.

Actually, a high number of school shootings involve dating issues, failed romances -- or, in a more general sense, loners who feel rejected by their peers and embark on some form of score-settling or murder-suicide mission. By some counts, more than half the fatalities in school violence over the past three decades can be attributed to shooters, predominantly males, who faced some perceived "challenge" to their sexuality, from female rejection to persecution by school bullies.

That's one of the tenets of The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America's Schools, a new book by sociologist Jessie Klein that seeks to find a pattern to the violence. The book is receiving some approving notices in light of the Ohio tragedy, in part because of its impressive compilation of data on nearly 200 school shootings stretching back to 1979.

By Klein's figures, the annual pace of the shootings continues to increase, with 43 in the past three years alone.

But there's reason to be wary of Klein's efforts to fit every incident into her bullying model. Her treatment of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the shooters in the 1999 attack on Columbine, for example, is a curious -- and, to a great extent, discredited -- interpretation of one of the most studied and scrutinized school tragedies of all time.

According to Klein's capsule summary, "Eric and Dylan were made fun of for being smart, and wearing Goth clothing; the kids called jocks at school called them the 'Trench Coat Mafia;' Eric was considered the smartest boy in the class.... Eric's father was an Air Force pilot, and Eric might have tried to emulate the violence endemic to his father's position."

Klein also detects a "gay-bashing" undercurrent in the Columbine attack: "Both were enraged by the ridicule they endured by students...who called them homosexual."

Klein seems to be relying on some of the lurid and ludicrously inaccurate rumor-mongering that passed unfiltered into early press coverage of the shooting. She even quotes a note supposedly from Harris's diary, blaming the massacre on teachers and parents: "You have taught these kids to not accept what is different."

As someone all too familiar with the rantings found in Harris's actual journal, let me point out that Klein is quoting from a bogus "suicide note" that showed up on the Internet shortly after the shootings and was soon debunked. (Her footnoted source, weirdly enough, is a Dan Savage column from May 1999.) Harris didn't write any such thing.

And Klein's other assertions? They didn't dress Goth. The so-called Trenchcoat Mafia was a red herring from day one. There's nothing in the official record that suggests anyone regarded Eric Harris as the smartest boy in school -- other than Eric Harris.

As for other myths -- about the two killers being outcasts, persecuted, more gay-bashed than gay-bashing -- they were all exploded years ago, here and here and here, among other places. Although bullying certainly existed at Columbine, just like at other schools, and Harris and Klebold may have been targets long before they became tolerated albeit not widely popular seniors (and quasi-bullies themselves), it's alarmingly simplistic to make the kind of cause-effect argument Klein presents for what happened at Columbine.

Since that terrible day thirteen years ago, considerable money and labor have been poured into the effort to prevent such tragedies. But each school shooting has its own shocking elements, its own brand of senselessness. That's one of the reasons they're so difficult to stop.


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9 comments
Stan
Stan

Excellent article, Mr. Prendergast. I have long admired your reporting on the massacre, especially the "Doom Rules" article.

Having read and absorbed Eric and Dylan's journals, as well as numerous books and articles on the subject of 4/20, I incline to the idea that Eric Harris was obsessed with attaining the status he felt he deserved.

One author has portrayed Eric as a swaggering, confident ladies' man. I find that characterization ludicrous.Eric might not have been at the absolute bottom of the social structure, but he and Dylan weren't far from it.

He was a scrawny 5'8" computer geek who couldn't get a prom date to save his life. (Most of his male friends, including Dylan, were well over six feet tall.). His macho posturing didn't get him very far at all.

He probably was shoved around a bit - particularly during his junior year (1997-98), when a group of bullies, led by a certain notorious wrestler, felt that they "ruled" the school.

From his own journal:

"Everyone is always making fun of me because of how I look, and how.. weak I am.. Well, I will get you all back: ultimate..revenge here. You people could have shown more respect, treated me better, asked for my knowledge or guidance more, treated me more like senior, and maybe I wouldn't have been as ready to tear your.. heads off...That's where a lot of my hate grows from. The fact that I have practically no self-esteem. Especially concerning girls and looks and such. therefore people make fun of me...constantly...therefore i get no respect and therefore I get..PISSED" and "Whatever I do people make fun of me, and sometimes directly to my face. I'll get revenge soon enough. ...shouldn't have ripped on me so much, huh!"

The basement tapes have not been released (and probably never will be, IMO), but we do have partial transcripts. This is from an article published in The Denver Post (1999-12-14):

"You know who you are. Thanks. You made me feel good. Think about that for a while, f---ing b------." - Harris, after listing five girls "who never even called me back."

Guessed
Guessed

I'm fairly certain they proved these violent video games are to blame.  Back then, video games and now the app's they make like "School Shooting" app from sally pharmaceuticals.  I think they pulled this one from the shelves.

Frank2beans
Frank2beans

Try spelling Chardon right that would be a good first step into writing this article.

Guestt
Guestt

Wow, I 'd forgotten what complete incompetents the Jefferson County Sherriffs Office were. Thanks for the reminder. Bad enough we had to sit and watch 400 police officers crouch beside their cruisers while kids were getting massacred inside the school. In fact, if memory serves, it was the FIREMEN who drove up to the school so Patrick Ireland could jump out of the window. All those roided up studs with their guns and tough talk just stood by, before and after, and watched it go down? And we're supposed to give these pussies respect? Way to go, officers! REAL brave.

Pooba007
Pooba007

Actually the Columbine shooters were targets of gay-bashing, whether they were gay or not (we will probably never know)... You can watch a cafeteria clip on YouTube where a not visible student says to Eric condescendingly, "Eric just got jacked up the ass."  Harris responds by saying, "I don't know about that."  Maybe it takes one to now one, but his response seems an awful lot like a closeted homosexual trying to protect what he thinks is his dark secret.

While Eric and Dylan were not officially part of the Trench Coat Mafia group at their school, they did like to dress is black trench coats / army clothing.

If TJ Lane is gay, the obvious cause and effect is religion.  Religious condemnation --> inferiority complex --> depression --> acting out as violence.

Lizzie Gowers
Lizzie Gowers

 Blaming video games is such a pussy tactic, one employed by people who don't want to admit that they fucked up. As I recall, weren't they trying to pin the blame on Marilyn Manson, too? School shooters generally are very disturbed individuals, and to blame video games and the like is almost saying that they shouldn't be held responsible for what they've done, but what they liked to do in their free time.

AlanPrendergast
AlanPrendergast

Frank2beans,

Correction made. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

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