When Good People Do Nothing
Warning Signs Ignored in California
Before 15-year-old Charles Andrew Williams allegedly opened fire in a southern California high school in March, 2001, killing 2 and wounding 13, he shared fragments of his plans with other students and at least one adult. In fact, just a couple before the shootings, Williams told the boyfriend of a friend's mother about his plans to bring a gun to Santana High School in Santee, CA.
"I said, 'I swear I hope you're not even thinking of doing this because I'll have your (expletive) locked up,'" Chris Reynolds told a reporter, recalling his conversation with the young suspected gunman. Later Reynolds admitted to another reporter: "I'm upset with myself for not doing anything. I made a bad choice."
According to the Los Angeles Times, Reynolds did try to call William's father, but gave up after getting no answer and then a busy signal.
Reynolds was not alone in failing to take Williams seriously. A school friend, 15-year-old Neil O'Grady admitted, "He told us he was going to bring a gun to school...but we thought he was joking."
A Culture of Denial
School shootings have become sickeningly routine. While school officials wrangle with security issues and psychologists offer up "profiles" to identify would-be killers, a few observers suggest a new approach. Instead of asking experts to pinpoint the motives of "kids who kill," why not examine the "culture of denial" that keeps good people from doing something about warnings they've been given by a troubled teen?
"We don't want to hear it," says family therapist Carleton Kendrick. "We want to put this in the same category as some kid saying, 'I'm really ticked off at my teacher or 'I could just kill that kid who made fun of me.' But there's been a land shift here in terms of kids and guns. I would certainly say to any adult that when any child is talking about taking a gun to school, that's enough of a (sign). That's not something you suffer lightly."
One Teen's Perspective
Josh A., a student at a suburban Boston high school, followed the latest school-shooting tragedy on television. He empathizes with Williams' friends, who thought he was joking.
"If one of my friends said he was going to bring a gun to school, I would most likely think he was kidding," the 16-year-old admits. "It's the sort of thing you think would never happen to you or your high school or your friends. It's stuff that happens on TV at some random high school in some random part of the country."
Still, Josh senses that friends of the suspected killer could have probed more deeply to see what lay behind the vow to bring violence to school.
"Maybe (the friend of Williams) could have asked if he was having any problems and wanted to talk to a school counselor, like maybe he's having problems at home or school or broke up with his girlfriend."
The teen is also critical of the adult, Chris Reynolds, who responded with a threat upon hearing of William's plan to bring a gun to school.
"Better to ask if he's having any problems, not just say, 'If you kill someone we're going to lock you up.'"
Kendrick agrees: "The clue being given isn't 'I want to be a bad boy.' It's 'I'm so hopeless that this is what I'm thinking of doing.' People always want to talk about anger, but underneath the anger is a tremendous sadness and feeling of powerlessness."
The Burden's on the Bystanders
No school metal-detector can sense feelings that may lead to ongoing cycles of violence. But since motives and personalities vary, perhaps the best violence- prevention efforts will focus not on the behavior of killers but on that of bystanders, those who hear or see signs of potential trouble, and must then choose whether or not to act.
"If you have a boy who is this scared, or angry, or bullied, and he's talking about bringing a gun to school, that's enough for you to begin talking with the boy's parents, first, and then possibly the police or school guidance counselors," says Kendrick. "It's called a smoke signal. It's not called smoke."