The Social Roots of School Shootings
IN THE LATE 1990S, AMERICANS WATCHED IN HORROR AS A WAVE OF MASS shootings on middle and high school campuses swept across the country. Banner headlines and terrifying photos screamed from the front pages of the nation’s dailies. Round-the-clock television coverage broadcast images of distraught teenagers huddled in the hallways, anguished parents weeping behind police lines, ambulance gurneys wheeling the dead and injured from playgrounds to emergency rooms, and grave stones rising. Columbine High School, in the Denver suburb of Littleton, Colorado, leaped into the public imagination as the nightmare image of the 1990s: children running for cover, police barricaded behind their cars, and a teenage “Trench Coat Mafia” killing themselves after gunning down twelve students and a teacher and wounding two dozen others.
Congress responded to these events as responsible legislators should have: They tried to uncover the source of this unwelcome trend in order to determine what kind of policies might put an end to it. In 1999 the House of Representatives added a provision to the “Missing, Runaway, and Exploited Children’s Act” requiring the U.S. Department of Education to study rampage shootings in schools. Representative James Greenwood, a Republican from eastern Pennsylvania who had previously been a social worker, asked the department for research that would explain why such tragedies were occurring in American communities that appeared to be so safe. Greenwood was not after a raft of numbers. What he wanted was a set of in-depth community studies. The Department of Education in turn contacted the National Academy of Sciences, the most prestigious research organization in the country, which has provided scientific advisers to every administration since Abraham Lincoln’s.
I (KSN) was surprised to get a call from the Academy asking for my help in this effort. As a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and Dean of Social Science at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study, I have authored a number of books on urban poverty and the consequences of economic stress for American families but knew little about the sociological study of crime. However, as the mother of teenagers, and as a social scientist as perplexed as anyone by the sudden eruption of violence in such unlikely places, this study seemed a useful opportunity to put years of training to good use.
I had another reason for answering the congressional call. As director of a new doctoral program in government, sociology, and social policy, I wanted to find ways to demonstrate the program’s commitment to scholarship in the public interest. I approached four doctoral candidates in the program and persuaded them to devote the next two years to the question of rampage shootings. Joining the team were Cybelle Fox, a graduate of the University of California at San Diego who studies race, immigration, and the politics of redistribution; David J. Harding, a Princeton graduate whose research focuses on the consequences of concentrated poverty in the inner city; Jal Mehta, a Harvard College graduate who is studying the relationship between education reform and broader social, economic, and cultural changes in American life; and Wendy Roth, a Yale graduate whose work is devoted to understanding the racial identities of Latino immigrants.
In the summer of 2000, Harding and Mehta moved to Heath, Kentucky, and Fox and Roth to Westside, Arkansas, the two communities we studied at close range about three years after each had gone through the ordeal of a rampage shooting. I spent time in both communities. This book is based on interviews with 163 people in Heath and Westside along with neighboring communities, including families of the victims, students who were in the schools at the time of the shootings as well as current students who were not, teachers, administrators, lawyers, officials of the court, psychologists, newspaper and television reporters, and friends, family members, and fellow congregation members of the shooters.We reviewed the national and local news coverage of these two cases as well as the other rampage school shootings that have taken place in the past thirty years. The five of us used up many yellow legal pads sketching out and then refining the analyses we present here.This volume is the product of a complete team effort, from the early days of planning the research, to collecting and analyzing the data, all the way through the writing and rewriting of numerous drafts. Although I wrote the final draft so that the book would have a single voice, each coauthor contributed chapters, and we discussed them as an ensemble.This kind of partnership is rare in academic settings, and we are privileged to have been able to work together in this fashion.
The topics covered here are sensitive ones for the survivors and the families of victims.We asked people who sent their children off to school one morning only to have to identify their bodies at the morgue in the afternoon to revisit terrible images and painful memories. Heath and Westside are still traumatized by what they endured and are struggling to put the experience behind them. Some people, quite understandably, will never be able to do so. Family members of the shooters carry an unbearable burden of guilt and shame. They still love their boys, and they want them to be able to do some good in this world. Everyone we talked to in our interviews had to relive a tragedy they have been trying to get over.
We would like to have been able to acknowledge them all by name, but we must abide by our promise to protect their anonymity and refrain from naming most of them.As we explained to our interview subjects, this was not possible in all cases. The shooters, their families, and many other key characters were subjected to national media exposure, and because it would have been impossible to disguise their identities, we did not attempt to do so. Likewise, we felt it would dishonor the dead and the wounded to camouflage their identities. Hence we have used the real names of those who died and members of their families; the children and teachers who were wounded; and some of the local government officials, officers of the court, psychiatrists, and school officials whose names were already well known from the media coverage.
In all other instances, however, we have changed the names and minor biographical details of the people we interviewed. In many cases we were the first people other than their immediate family members they had talked to about the shooting. It was an ordeal for them to discuss the event, and confidentiality was essential in making them feel comfortable enough to break their silence. Because civil suits were still on appeal during our research, many people felt they could not participate in this project. Although those close to the scene may be able to figure out who is speaking on these pages, pseudonyms help shield members of these communities from further scrutiny, which made it more comfortable for them to speak their minds.The resulting text will be difficult for many of these people to read, and they will not agree with everything we have written, but we know that they share our desire to get to the bottom of rampage shootings and our hope that something constructive will come of their ordeal.
There are a few people we can thank publicly here. In Heath, we are especially grateful to the families of the victims—Wayne, Sabrina, and Becky Steger; Gwen, Chuck, and Christina Hadley; and Joe and Judith James—as well as the families of the wounded, including Mark, Julie, Shelley, and Becky Schaberg. Although we were never able to speak with Michael Carneal, who is incarcerated for the shooting, he and his parents, John and Ann Carneal, gave us permission to contact his psychologist, Dr. Kathleen O’Connor, and his sister, Kelly Carneal.We learned a great deal from them as well as from the attorneys who handled the criminal and civil cases, and we thank them all for their gracious cooperation. Because the appeals of the civil suits were still in progress during our fieldwork, Michael Carneal’s parents could not be interviewed for this project. Nonetheless, they did what they could to assist us, mainly by assuring others— lawyers, doctors, and family friends—that they were comfortable with the prospect of their cooperation.
Many public officials went out of their way to offer us support and assistance in the Paducah area. Lewis Carr, a resource officer in the McCracken County Public Schools, Judge Jeffrey Hines, Judge-Executive Daniel Orazine, attorneys Daniel Boaz and Tim Kaltenbach, and Paducah mayor Bill Paxton were very generous with their time and expertise.We are greatly indebted to Bill Bond, the former principal of Heath High School, and Barbara McGinty, the current principal, for opening their offices and schools to this study. Their counterparts at Heath Middle School were equally open and helpful. Members of the police department, the county librarians, the Sheriff’s Department, local journalists and academics, members of the Heartland Worship Center, and the Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce helped us learn about the history of the area and the events that unfolded in the course of the shooting.
Above all, we appreciate the welcome we received from the students, teachers, staff, and parents of Heath High School. They permitted us to visit their homes, classrooms, and churches and spoke openly about the difficulties of navigating adolescence. Libby and Alisha Bobo were particularly kind to us.
Many individuals, families, and institutions gave us a helping hand in the towns of Cash, Bono, and Egypt, Arkansas, the communities that together constitute the Westside School District. Similarly, their neighbors in Jonesboro were generous with their time and expertise.We would particularly like to thank Judge Ralph Wilson, who supported this project from the outset and contacted others in the community on our behalf. Brent Davis, the prosecuting attorney in the Westside case, and his deputy, Mike Walden, were invaluable resources. So wereWilliam Howard and Val Price in the office of the public defender. Karen Costello, director of the Victims/Witness Assistance program, and Stacey Worthington, the ombudsman in the Department of Youth Services, have our profound thanks for speaking with us about this very difficult case. Mayor L. M. Duncan in Bono, Mayor Leroy Burdin in Cash, and Mayor Hubert Brodell in Jonesboro went to great lengths to facilitate our research. Diane Holmes, a local counselor, opened many doors for us. Ron Deal, the Family Life Minister from the Southwest Church of Christ, contributed important insights on recovery from tragedy. While in Jonesboro, we were fortunate to make our home in the lovely West Washington Guest House, where Pat and Joe Simpson and Ken Stack not only made us comfortable but shared with us their knowledge of the history of the area and suggested helpful individuals for us to contact.
We are indebted to the Craighead County Sheriff’s Office, the Arkansas Department of Youth Services, the staff of the Alexander Youth Services Center, the Public Defender Commission, and the State Police of Arkansas. A number of health care providers helped us understand the crisis management aspects of the Westside shooting, including the Craighead County Crisis Response Team and Mid-South Health Systems.The Westside community and neighboring Jonesboro are rich in religious institutions, many of which we visited during our stay, both to get a feel for the community and to speak with ministers and members of their congregations.We include here Trinity Church, Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, South West Church of Christ, the Bono Church of Christ, Central Baptist Church, First United Methodist, and the Fullness of Joy Church. The management and staff of the Jonesboro Sun opened their archives to us and contributed personal reflections on the tragedy.
We would like to thank the families of the victims in Westside, although most preferred not to speak with us. Their losses were beyond measure.We respect their desire for privacy and hope that this volume will be of value to them. Similarly, the staff and teachers of Westside Elementary, Middle, and High Schools deserve our gratitude for spending time with us, even though it was exceedingly difficult for them to discuss the shooting. Lynette Thetford, a former Westside teacher who was wounded in the shooting, was particularly helpful. Students and parents at all three schools came forward to provide their recollections, and we thank them for this. Finally, we must mention Gretchen Woodard, the mother of Mitchell Johnson, one of the two shooters in Westside. Ms.Woodard was unfailingly honest and willing to confront the terrible consequences of her son’s actions, knowing all the while that some people place the blame for this tragedy on her shoulders.
Offenders in juvenile facilities are shielded from contact with the outside world. Although we spoke to the staff at the Alexander facility, where Andrew Golden and Mitchell Johnson were incarcerated, we were not permitted to interview the two boys, nor could we talk with Scott Johnson (Mitchell’s father) or anyone in the Golden family.We regret that this volume cannot draw upon these perspectives, which surely would have been informative.
Our work benefited a great deal from the opportunity to exchange ideas with the members of the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council’s Committee on Case Studies of Lethal School Violence, especially the chair of the panel, Mark Moore, and his associates, Anthony Braga and Carol Petrie. Bill Modzeleski, the associate deputy undersecretary in the U.S. Department of Education Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, was a valuable resource. Experts who volunteered their services as the National Research Council (NRC) case studies developed included committee members Phil Cook (Duke University), Tom Dishion (University of Oregon), Denise Gottfredson (University of Maryland), Phillip Heymann (Harvard University), Jim Short (Washington State University), Stephen Small (University of Wisconsin, Madison), Lewis Spence (Department of Social Services, Massachusetts), and Linda Teplin (Northwestern University).
The NRC study, published under the title Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence, contains a set of case studies of rampage shootings to which we contributed two (the Heath and Westside cases).The other four were directed by a distinguished group of senior colleagues whose insights are reflected in our own work.We are particularly grateful to William DeJong (Boston University), Mindy Fullilove (Columbia University), John Hagan (Northwestern University), Mercer Sullivan (Rutgers University), and their collaborators. From the beginning, we realized that we would probably have more to say than could be summarized in the brief case studies we contributed to the National Academy of Sciences effort. The decision to write this book in addition was stimulated by groundbreaking efforts of our fellow case study authors, and we thank them for listening to our ideas and sharing theirs.
In chapter 10 of this book, we discuss our theory of rampage shootings, drawing on the original fieldwork we did in Heath and Westside and testing it against a data set collected by the Violence Prevention Division of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under the able leadership of Drs. Rodney Hammond and Mark Anderson. These two colleagues generously shared their data and their wisdom with us out of a common commitment to understanding lethal violence on campus. We are grateful to them for contributing these materials to our study and underline the fact that we alone are responsible for the interpretations offered here, especially for any mistakes we may have made.
Our colleagues at Harvard University, both faculty and students, have heard us talk about this research for several years now and have given us the benefit of their constructive criticism. Professor Chris Winship, in the Sociology Department, invited us to craft a special issue of the journal Sociological Methods and Research, which was a great opportunity to think through some of the more vexing problems that attended the execution and interpretation of this research.We are grateful to him and to Professor Charles Rangin (University of Arizona), who reviewed our work and gave us extensive, insightful criticism.
At a critical moment in our writing, several colleagues responded to the call to read what was then a monstrously long draft. Harold Boverman, Howie Becker, Mitch Duneier, Kathryn Dudley, and Ziad Munson deserve medals for taking on this task; the resulting book is far better for their critical input. Drs. Steven Schlozman and Jeffrey Bostic, at Massachusetts General Hospital, helped us learn more about mental health policy in schools. Cheri Minton taught us to use the Atlas coding software. Margot Minardi, Ricardo Mora, and Kevin Psonak came to our rescue in the midst of many a logistical and editorial snafu.
A number of Harvard students assisted us with difficult research tasks that proved essential. Martin West synthesized components of the theoretical literature that helped us form our analytical framework. Naomi Calvo and Miguel Salazar summarized media materials on rampage shootings and near-miss cases beyond those we studied firsthand.Audrey Alforque devoted a summer to transcribing interviews, and Victor Chen tracked down most of the photos that appear here, summarized important media materials, and contributed background research that rounded out our understanding of Mitchell Johnson’s past. Special mention must be made of two outstanding Harvard undergraduates,Tory Wob-ber and Vera Makarov, who worked with the team for almost a year, transcribing and coding interviews. Their work, supported by the Radcliffe Research Partners program, was critical in managing the hundreds of pages of transcripts that form the database for this project. Our weekly discussions with Vera and Tory yielded many ideas that found their way into this volume.
The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study provided funding for a national conference to unveil the National Academy of Sciences report, which gave us an opportunity to make some of our ideas public and to hear the reactions of the expert audience. Thanks go to the Linda S.Wilson Fund for helping to underwrite this conference.A generous grant from the National Academy of Sciences (Grant No. S184U000010 from the Department of Education to the National Academy of Sciences) provided the resources we needed to complete this work. We also want to acknowledge the vital financial support of the William T. Grant Foundation and the encouragement of its recently retired President, Dr. Karen Hein, as well as her successor, Dr. Robert Granger. Members of the research team have been supported by the National Science Foundation’s Integrated Research, Education, and Training grant awarded to Harvard University’s program on Inequality and Social Policy (which I chair) as well as individual graduate fellowships from NSF. This national investment in graduate education makes studies of critical social issues possible, and we are grateful for it.
Literary agent Lisa Adams supported this book from its inception and made many insightful contributions to the manuscript. Jo Ann Miller, editor extraordi-naire at Basic Books, saw the book’s potential and pushed us to streamline the account. We are grateful for her patience, skill, and devotion to this project. Ellen Garrison, editorial assistant at Basic, provided key insights of her own.The production and marketing staff at Basic applied their customary high-quality craftsmanship, which all authors appreciate.We all have countless family members and friends to thank for putting up with our preoccupation over the past several years.We hope they will feel the sacrifice was worth it.We certainly do.
Finally, we note that the authors’ royalties from the sale of this volume are being donated to Heath High School and Westside Middle School for the teachers and administrators to use as they see fit.We hope this gift will go some distance toward returning the kindness extended to us during our stay in their communities.
THE MORNING OF DECEMBER 1, 1997, BEGAN AS MOST DAYS DID AT HEATH HIGH School on the outskirts of West Paducah, Kentucky. clusters of students slowly made their way into the school’s entrance, reluctant to return to class after the Thanksgiving break. Cheerleaders compared notes on the season’s games and pep rallies. Members of the prize-winning school band shifted their instruments around to make space for their backpacks, chatting about the Thanksgiving weekend that had just ended. Hanging back in the corner of the lobby, as was their custom, was the small coterie of Heath’s Goths, clad in hard-rock T-shirts and the occasional black trench coat.
Kelly Carneal, a popular senior at Heath, and her brother Michael, a short, slender freshman with dark hair and glasses, pulled into the high school parking lot around 8:00 a.m. The two had been commuting to school together since Kelly got her driver’s license. “We drove to school,” Kelly remembered four years later, “listening to Mariah Carey’s ‘Butterfly.’”
Kelly took her backpack out of the trunk while Michael retrieved a bundle wrapped in blankets. The pair walked off toward the band room. Michael got there first, and Kelly followed after chatting with friends. Mr. Samms, the band teacher, strolled through the room and bumped into Michael. “Mike, what have you got there?” he asked, pointing to the bundle. “This? Oh, it’s just my English project,” Michael replied.
Michael clutched his “English project” and strolled into the main lobby, where he sought out his new friends in the Goth group: Brian Mather, David Maxwell, Cory Giles, and a couple of other boys. Brian heard Michael’s bundle hit the floor and asked what was inside. Before Mike could reply, Brian commented to his friends, “Sounds like guns to me.” Someone in the group changed the subject and no further attention was paid to Michael. A freshman “dweeb,” Michael did not yet “rate” in Goth circles.
Michael opened his backpack and pulled out a pair of bright orange ear plugs, the kind that hunters wear to protect their hearing from the blasts of gunfire. He pulled a pistol from a pouch, reached into his backpack for an ammunition clip, and loaded the gun. Nobody noticed, or even looked in his direction.
Completely unaware of Michael’s lethal preparations, the Heath High School prayer group, an unofficial gathering of twenty or thirty Christian students, joined hands in a circle and waited for their leader, Luke Fallon, to call them to prayer. Athletes, band members, “brainy” students bound for college, and the less academically inclined, bowed their heads to thank the Lord and ask for a good day in the name of Jesus.The last “Amens” echoed around the circle as Michael assumed a firing stance—slightly crouched, with both hands stretched straight out in front of him—released the safety catch, cocked the firing pin, and fired three shots in rapid succession.With a loud boom, the percussion bounced off the walls, stunning the crowd. Five more shots followed, as Michael swung his arms in an arc before the students, who were now falling down inside the worship circle.
Kelly Carneal stood just a few feet away from the prayer group, looking at her brother in complete amazement:
I heard what sounded like firecrackers … They make the little popping sound . . . And then I saw people turn and start to run. It was like a flower: There was a group of people and it just kind of folded away. . . .And my brother was standing there. He had the gun in his hands . . . and was looking straight ahead. His face looked different, and his body posture1 was different. . . .He looked like a completely different person. I would not have recognized him had he not had on the same clothes as he had on that morning.