When kids kill
crying   What causes school killings?
The Why Files asked people who are paid to understand these crimes to take us inside the heads of juvenile mass murderers. Here's what we learned.

gun The recent bunch of accused killers are "very self-centered, very self-absorbed, angry youngsters who derive extraordinary pleasure from savage vengeance they wreak on one another," says Shawn Johnston, a psychologist in private practice in California. These descriptions, he adds, "are pretty consistent with what I've seen" during more than 5,000 interviews with juvenile and adult offenders in almost 20 years of forensic psychology.

The mental world of these young killers is "all about 'me'" Johnston says. "They're frustrated, angry, in some pain, not getting everything they want. They feel like victims. They have no concern about others -- they don't think about others. It's all about who they are and what they want."

Dorothy Lewis, professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine, told a PBS Frontline documentary that pathological aggressiveness is rooted in abuse and pain. "Probably the most powerful generator of aggression in living beings is pain... Animals that have been tortured and children who have been severely and repeatedly abused often become extremely aggressive. Animals and humans being raised in the company of violent adults is associated with the development of aggressive behavior patterns." (More on how early abuse affects the brain.)

Johnston agrees, saying that aggression has been called the "default" setting for human behavior. People turn aggressive, he says, "when you don't have the problem-solving means of talking, negotiating, when you can't get what you want."

Almost 11,000 attacks or fights with a weapon occurred in American schools during the 1996-97 school year.
Source: National Center for Education Statistics.
  kids will be kids

  Yet aggression with fists -- the traditional approach -- makes no headlines in an era of armed aggression. Johnston says it's "self-evident" that guns are a "power symbol," adding "There's not anything unusual with a boy being fascinated with guns and knives. It's clear that even the sweetest, nicest little boy loves to shoot 'em up." Such behavior does not start to become dangerous, he says, until "other people start to be hurt." The spate of recent murders does not reflect the old male fascination with guns so much as "a lot of new factors, the easy availability of guns, the mass-media factor."

Society's role
If people everywhere feel pain and frustration, why are school killings happening in the United States? David Silber, who teaches the psychology of crime and violence at George Washington University, says the trend reflects a culture which "suffers from two violence-enhancing traditions. The first is "the frontier -- even though it's been over for 100 years -- and the notion that your home is your castle and you've got to protect it." The second, he says, is a tradition that requires "an immediate response to any stain on your honor."

Silber says the media play a role in enhancing the typical feeling of immortality among kids and adolescents. "Kids grow up with a lack of understanding that life is transient. They get a steady diet of cartoons, movies and TV shows where someone who's killed in one episode shows up in another." Interested in the link between violence and violent video games?

Did The Why Files locate any bright ideas for keepin' em alive down at the school-house?

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