school shootings

Sue Klebold, the mother of Dylan Klebold, recently published a book, A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy, describing her experience as the mother of a mass murderer. It is heartbreaking to read about her anguish and guilt, but like all tragic incidents, there are lessons to be learned to prevent them from happening in the future. This book is full of them.

In April 1999, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed 12 students and one teacher, wounded 24 others, and then turned their weapons on themselves. It was the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history at that time.

Learning from Columbine

The book is a painful self-examination, replete with warning signs about a student who as a middle schooler was in a program gifted and worked sound equipment for school plays. Sue Klebold said Dylan was their “sunshine boy,” especially in comparison to her other son, who was much more mischievous. In the aftermath of the school shooting, she received much of the blame from the public – how could she have been so unaware of his behavior – the warning signs and the stockpile of weapons?

In a recent Washington Post interview and book review, she repeatedly asserts that Dylan was responsible for his actions, but she highlights multiple factors enabling his descent. “We cannot dedicate ourselves to preventing violence if we do not take into account the role depression and brain dysfunction can play in the decision to commit it,” she wrote. There is also Dylan’s co-conspirator. “For years after the attack, I resisted blaming Eric for Dylan’s participation,” Sue wrote. “Given what I have learned about psychopathy, I now feel differently. I find the violence and hatred seething off the page in Eric’s journals almost unreadably dark… If we had known enough to understand what those signs meant, I believe that we would have been able to prevent Columbine.”

Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program

Shortly after the Columbine massacre, the Department of Education’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program and the U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center found that some school attacks may be preventable. The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States details findings from the Safe School Initiative and includes several key findings relevant to prevention efforts.

  • Incidents of targeted violence in schools were rarely impulsive.
  • The students who perpetrated these attacks usually planned out the attack in advance – with planning behavior that was often observable.
  • Prior to most attacks, other children knew that the attack was to occur.

Taken together, these findings suggest that it may be possible to prevent some future school attacks from occurring – and that efforts can be made to identify, assess and manage students who may have the intent and capacity to launch an attack.

Although this seminal report is almost 14 years old, it is just as relevant today as it was after the shootings. I am proud of the fact that when I was Special Agent in Charge of the Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center, we were able to provide useful advice through the Safe School Initiative Guide to educators, parents and law enforcement throughout the country and in local and national media.

Knowing What to Look For: That’s the Key

Sue Klebold articulately poses the key issue in her book, “How does a concerned parent parse out the difference between garden-variety adolescent behavior from real indicators of depression?” Look for shifting moods and sleep patterns; know that depression in teens may appear less as sadness than anger; implement mental health screenings in schools.

“I loved him while I was holding his pudgy hand on our way to get frozen yogurt after kindergarten;” she wrote, “while reading Dr. Seuss’s exuberant There’s a Wocket in My Pocket! to him for the thousandth time… I loved him while we were sharing a bowl of popcorn and watching Flight of the Phoenix together, a month before he died.”

Another reminder that threat assessment is a multi-disciplinary process that involves all of us.

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