Is school violence the fault of outcasts or their tormentors?

by Dr. Helen Smith

(April 21, 1999 6:39 p.m. EDT Nando Times

A 13-year-old is tortured, teased and ridiculed by classmates. Boys spit at him and push him, knowing that he will not fight back. Cheerleaders gift-wrap used tampons and give them to this "nerd" as mock presents.

This social outcast's only comfort is going with his grandfather to the shooting range for target practice on weekly expeditions.

Wait a minute, you might be saying at this point: This sounds like our next potential school killer, ready to take revenge on his classmates toward the end of a hellish school year. But this year is 1978 and this "nerd" thought of no other plan of action except to commit suicide, fall into deep depression or just go "plain crazy."

He survived, but his even more unpopular friend succumbed to the torture. Unlike the "Trench Coat Mafia," whose members' names will be shouted around the electronic village, no one remembers the name of a boy at that small-town high school in Tennessee in 1978 who was bullied and teased so regularly that he finally doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire. It never made the national news.

Fast forward to 1999. Gone are the days of the long-suffering nerd who turned his feelings of rage inward and committed suicide. Today's kids have obviously learned that as long as they are the only ones in pain, little is done to improve the situation. Taking others with you, on the other hand, gets attention and even inspires emulation. As one survivor of the Springfield, Ore., school shooting said: The only time that society pays attention to 16-year-olds is when they pick up a gun.

The rest of the time, teachers and school administrators mostly want kids to not make waves. In my work as a forensic psychologist, I have talked with many adult patients who tell me that teachers and parents often just told them to ignore the bullies and not to fight back. I have seen how this solution works firsthand.

A few years ago, I was a consulting psychologist at a high school where one of my first patients was a depressed girl. This 14-year-old was a self-described nerd and "social outcast" who informed me she was depressed because a gang of girls at the school were bullying and threatening her on a regular basis. When I informed the school authorities of these findings, their reaction was, unfortunately, typical: Rather than go after this gang of girls, their solution was to send the depressed girl to an "alternative" school to finish out her high school years.

The girl gang, meanwhile, got off scot-free, ready to find another victim. They, along with the school administration, didn't have to change a thing. Only the victim suffered - and, quite obviously, nobody cared about her so long as she represented the path of least resistance. This of course, has been the fate of nerds since time immemorial.

But something has changed.

Nowadays, for whatever reason, these same nerds and social outcasts no longer feel they must suffer through their adolescent years in depression and humiliation and anonymity. They no longer have to feel that they are "nobodies" who desperately want to be "somebodies."

Finally, they can let others know the extent of their feelings by taking an arsenal of guns to school and "blowing their classmates away" in a Stallone-like scene of mayhem and firepower. When a depressed teen commits suicide, it barely makes the local news. But their classmates, the whole town - with the help of the media - the nation will never forget the names of these school killers: Luke Woodham, Kip Kinkel, Michael Carneal, and, now, the "Trench Coat Mafia."

I remember the trial of Woodham, who opened fire at his high school in Pearl, Miss. At his trial, Woodham told jurors he "didn't have much of a home life after his parents separated and was something of an 'outcast' at school." He said the first acceptance he had found was with a classmate, Christina. When they broke up a year before the shootings, he was devastated. He finally became involved with Satanism to gain some control over his feelings of loss. "One second I was some kind of heartbroken idiot and the next second I had power over many things."

From powerlessness to power, from despised outcast to national celebrityhood in a culture where celebrityhood is everything. It's easy to see what these school killers get out of their outrages.

But without suggesting that their actions are justified - because they're absolutely not - it isn't hard to understand their actions.

Tragedy, yes.

Senseless tragedy, no.

As the 13-year-old nerd I mentioned at the beginning - now a successful professional with bad memories of junior high - notes: "What's amazing isn't how many of these shootings there are, but how few."

These high-profile national tragedies mask a much lower profile tragedy of equal or greater proportions: Thousands, maybe millions, of ruined lives and miserable teen years.

As our schools try "zero tolerance" programs to keep out weapons, maybe they should consider zero tolerance for bullying, teasing and ostracism.

Not only would such a program probably do more to prevent school killings than the zero-tolerance program that failed to stop Kip Kinkel and the "Trench Coat Mafia," but also it would also improve the lives of the vast majority of nerds and outcasts who will never be killers.

Surely they deserve some attention too.

Published April 21, 1999 Nando Times