Thomas J. Scheff

Thomas Scheff Ph.D.

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School Killing Sprees

Emotions and alienation

Posted Sep 23, 2014

Alienation: The 46 reports of multiple killing at schools that we have read indicate that almost all of the killers were white male loners; few were female, black or Hispanic. These latter young people usually have their own group, or at least a single friend. Before their spree, most of the killers have complained about being rejected. Perhaps one basis for this feeling is not having a close friend.

By the 1st grade boys learn that there is a particular trouble they dare not mention except to a real friend: “You hurt my feelings.”  They quickly realize that they would be ridiculed. Telling about hurt feeling to a sympathetic ear might help stave off or at least reduce not only pain but also the desire for vengeance.

Since schools are riddled with the threat of rejection, what are the circumstances such that they lead to murder? Most of the reports on school killers are too brief to provide clues. But a similar kind of killer has been studied in great detail and extensively (211 cases) by Neil Websdale (1997), one parent killing their family members. Websdale made use not only of media reports, but also lengthy interviews with surviving relatives and neighbors.

On the basis of these cases, Websdale argued that killing was caused by humiliation hidden behind anger and violence. He reported that killings took two different forms: livid coercive and civil reputable.  The killers of the first type had a long history of anger and aggression. This type, a majority of the cases, fits the commonsense idea of violence exploding out of rage. What is new, however, is the idea that rage was used to hide humiliation.

The second type, involving killers with no history of violence whatever, makes this point clearly. These killings were quietly premeditated, sometimes over days or weeks. The most common case involved a respectable husband who was proud of being a good provider. When he lost his job, he kept it a secret while he plotted the killings. Little or no anger was reported.

Hidden humiliation may be one cause, but as suggested above, there could be a social component, not mentioned by Websdale, alienation (aloneness). When these two components interact, the stage is set for either withdrawal or violence. Fortunately, withdrawal seems to be by far the most frequent reaction, with killing occurring only with individuals completely cut off from others.

If these ideas are at least partly true, how can they be used to decrease violence, not only murder but also rape and other crimes? One possibility would be to make it easier to find friends. For example, schools could provide meetings for students similar to “speed dating” at the beginning of each school year, starting in the first grade. There could be two meetings, one for same gender, the other, different gender.  “Speed friending” might decrease the sense of being alone in his or her first experience outside the family, throughout the long travail of education and in later life also. In adolescence, the cross-gender meetings could also become dating games, but not necessarily.

Another possibility that is somewhat broader would be to grade teams of two or three students, rather than individuals. Such a program might not only breed friendship, but also not add to the separation and competition caused by individual grades. Perhaps programs like these could be steps toward decreasing the alienation and emotion problems that pervade modern societies, and thereby decrease violence.