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More Deadly than Asbestos: Vol. 86


Mitchell Johnson Jonesboro Shooter

More Deadly




Perp or Victim

Two boys, ages 11 and 13, set up a military style ambush and gunned down classmates and teachers at their school in Bono, Arkansas just outside Jonesboro on March of 1998.

This was the culmination of weeks of planning. It included stealing a vehicle from one family and weapons from another. This crime clearly showed more forethought and deliberate actions than most murders. All the elements of evidence for first degree or capital murder were met. The only problem in meting out justice was the juvenile justice code.

jonesboro_bodyThe code did not allow, it mandated that these boys be tried as juveniles. This means that they could not be incarcerated past their 18th birthdays, but a “loop hole” allowed the government to hold them until their 21st birthday. The first met this requirement on August 11, 2005 and was released from custody. The code not only made his release mandatory, it sealed his record as a “juvenile” case. These young men will go free with no record of their crime attached to them. They can return home, register to vote, buy a gun, join the military or hold any elected office for which they are otherwise qualified.

A brief news release on this event and the process was published recently and the writer was taken to task for “labeling” the first man released as a criminal when he was actually the victim of bullying. There may be others who do not understand the role behind titles or labels such as bully, victim, perpetrator, criminal and the term consequences.

Labels are bad. Unless they serve a purpose for the individual concerned or for society. This concept is fully explained in Keys’ programs such as Assessing the Potentially Dangerous Student (PDS) and Bullying Stops When Respect Begins. Schools routinely use the labels “special ed” or “learning delayed” not to stigmatize students but acquire services. Every state and the US government requires public and private businesses to cater to “disabled” people and provides car tags (labels) that are displayed to take advantage of these services.

Society is served by labels such as “sex offender” or “pedophile.”  Most agree that these are essential labels for knowing who to hire for sensitive positions, like watching over your child. Not as widely known is the label “convicted felon” which carries with it a lifetime prohibition against voting,  possessing a firearm or holding political offices.

There are other labels that are a matter of fact and are appropriate only in connection with related events. A person who commits a criminal act is a criminal. A Corrections Officers should use this label when working with their subjects as a constant reminder of who it is with whom they work for their own personal safety. This is a label that should not be used when attempting to rehabilitate the individual. Similarly, the label “bully” has no place in a setting with a goal of changing behavior. The action itself, however, should always be correctly labeled. For example, “You are bullying the other students.”, is an appropriate label of an action for the purpose of informing the individual. “You are a bully!”, is not an appropriate statement for teachers, counselors or other school officials. This is the type of label that sticks and can become a self expectation that will insure the bad behavior will continue.

A label that is over used and misused is “victim.” Anyone can be victimized. Labeling someone as a victim often becomes a self-fulfilling label with individual expecting to be victimized. The expectation results in a demeanor that invites those who tend to take advantage to do so. This label also tends to cause others to excuse actions taken by a “victim” to escape circumstances. At Pearl, Mississippi; Springfield, Oregon; and Santee, California students who were victimized by bullies took final and permanent action. However, they killed students who had nothing to do with bullying as well as the ones who actually did the bullying. Having been victimized should help us explain their actions, but justify not them. Parent, school and society failed to meet their needs, so they  took action to stop the pain on their own. Logical consequences should follow any unacceptable behavior. Since their actions caused devastating and permanent results they should receive permanent and devastating consequences as a logical outcome of those actions.

At Jonesboro, four people were killed. This is permanent and devastating. Ten were wounded. These scars are permanent and  the trauma is devastating. The survivors suffered a permanent, emotionally devastating, life changing ordeal. The consequences for the perpetrators has turned out to be very temporary. This has resulted in a second shock and trauma to the people of Jonesboro and Arkansas. To fail to recognize this societal inflicted trauma would be very callused, yet some find it necessary to focus on the plight of the perpetrator.

The better option for all who read this is to become focused on prevention. First, the bullying and harassment endured by these and almost all school shooters should be eliminated or at least controlled in our schools. The two killers at Columbine suffered bullying that approached torture, yet it was well known, tolerated and allowed to continue. If all school suicides were included with school homicides the numbers who have died because of bullying are staggering. The only difference between homicide and suicide is the direction of the anger. Suicidal students feel trapped and see death as their only way out; homicidal students feel abandoned by the system and see death of their tormentors as the only way out. It should be obvious that every effort should be made to eliminate the torment, the bullying. Far more students have died as a direct or indirect result of bullying than have died as a result of asbestos. But what a difference in the effort and funds expended. Eliminating bullying does not necessarily involve punitive removal of the bullies as if they were a cancer causing material. As humans, they are precious and moldable, just as other students are. Bullies are not born genetically engineered to behave that way. They learn the craft of bullying through modeling and through acting out to meet an internal need they often cannot explain. It therefore follows that the solution should be to model bully free behavior and seek to meet the emotional needs of all students which include those who bully. Easy to say; hard to do. Modeling requires schools to eliminate bullying within the staff (ouch), and to encourage parents to eliminate or control bullying at home. Finding and meeting a student’s emotional needs requires far more than a “zero tolerance” approach to bad behavior. This means more time and attention. As schools continue to grow in population, time and attention become harder to provide. Here is yet another argument for limiting the size of schools.

mitch_drewCan you tell by looking that these boys would soon become killers?

 The second part of prevention is to identify the student who is following a path of destruction, perhaps the same path followed by the school shooters. Once identified, the resources that are available and appropriate should be brought to bear on the student in need. While this may be know as a Potentially Dangerous Student (PDS), he or she is actually a student in need of services. The school is the most likely source of identifying the need and the resource and effecting the coming together of the two. There is a program that can assess the early warning signs in troubled youth. It has been used nationally and internationally for several years with great success, but so schools remain reluctant to obtain it. Excuses have ranged from “It will never happen here,” to “If I learn something, I could be held liable if something happens.” Both of these have been tried as defenses in legal battles and have failed to satisfy the courts. It would be so much better if schools would become proactive in identifying those students who need help before they become destructive, and actually assisting them in obtaining the help they need.

Now, back to the original article: the purpose was to dramatically demonstrate that after seven years there are still strong emotional issues over the 60 seconds of a senseless violent act. And little, other than lip service, has actually been done to prevent such tragedies from happening. Schools, associations and government agencies continue to host conferences with dynamic speakers. At some point in time, the talk must give way to training and action at the school level. The asbestos of today is bullying, harassment and violence. Let us work together with the same zeal we attacked asbestos and get this menace removed from our schools.

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