Study eyes school crime

Psychological profile of `classroom avenger' to be distributed

Way to prevent violence

Report also disputes stereotypes after Colorado mass killing

April 29, 1999|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

A state task force decided yesterday to widely distribute a psychological profile of "the classroom avenger" in an attempt to identify students who pose a risk of carrying out attacks such as last week's mass killing in Littleton, Colo.

The profile, devised by two psychologists at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Health System, will be sent to educators and police departments across the state. It is being used by Maryland State Police to evaluate reports of planned student violence.

The psychologists' study confirms theories that have circulated in the wake of the murder-suicide attack that took 15 lives last week at Columbine High School. It also disputes stereotypes about students who kill -- especially that potential attackers can be identified through unusual appearance.

James P. McGee, director of psychology and forensic services at Sheppard Pratt and an author of the study, presented it yesterday at the first meeting of the state's Safe School Interagency Steering Committee.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, co-chair of the panel, said the meeting had been scheduled before the Colorado incident but that "obviously this is an issue that has been very much on our minds."

The study describes the typical "classroom avenger" as a white male student, 11 to 17 years old. He comes from a blue-collar or middle-class rural background, gets average to above-average grades and is fascinated by violence.

Typically, such attackers come from superficially normal but "subtly dysfunctional" families, according to McGee. The shooters are usually familiar with guns and use family-owned weapons to commit the crimes, he said.

McGee said adults often have difficulty identifying such children because they generally appear normal and seldom publicly display unusual or criminal behavior before an attack occurs. But he said fellow students often recognize something wrong and avoid them, sometimes classifying them as "geeks" and "nerds."

"It's different from the captain of the chess club," McGee said. "Other kids sense that this is not benign geek-ism -- that there is more of a sinister quality to it."

He said such attackers, unlike the perpetrators of other forms of school violence, usually telegraph their plans in multiple ways before the attack -- including journal writings and warnings to other students that they intend to do something dramatic.

The researcher said the study, co-written by Caren R. DeBernardo, will be published next month in the journal of the American College of Forensic Examiners. It is based on 12 vengeance-related shootings -- all but one fatal -- on school grounds between 1993 and last year. They include well-publicized incidents in Pearl, Miss.; West Paducah, Ky.; and Jonesboro, Ark.

McGee said the incidents were different from the often drug-related shootings that have occurred in inner-city schools, which he described as "street crime brought inside."

`Alerting us'

Townsend and other officials praised the profile, calling it a useful tool for law enforcement and school officials.

"It can be very useful in terms of alerting us to the kids who make threats in multiple ways and have a history of depression and anti-social behavior," she said. Townsend directed aides to distribute the profile to county school superintendents, mental health officials and local police chiefs.

State police Maj. L. Douglas Ward, commander of the Office of Policy, Strategy and Information Management, said the department has been using the profile for several months.

Ward said that since last spring, police in Maryland have averted two potentially deadly school incidents -- one last year in Carroll County, the other last week in Somerset County. In both cases, he said, the suspects fit the profile.

"I can see where this will be used at the national level -- and should be," Ward said. "It does make a lot of sense in the real world."

Precipitating event

McGee said media attention on "goths" and other school cliques whose members dress in unusual ways is misdirected. Drug abusers, vandals and students who have spiked hair, body-piercings and tattoos do not fit the profile.

"They aren't the ones who are doing this," McGee said.

He said "classroom avengers" usually act after a precipitating incident, such as a run-in with school authorities or rejection by a peer or girlfriend. Faculty, girls and popular students are often targets of their attacks, he said.

McGee expressed pessimism about treating such individuals, even if they go through school without a violent outburst.

"They become the workplace avengers," he said.

Pub Date: 4/29/99

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