On Monday, February 27, 2012, T.J. Lane walked into his his high school cafeteria and shot three of his fellow students dead and seriously wounded two others. Shortly afterwards, he quietly surrendered to police. The community of Chardon, Ohio was stunned. It seemed impossible to believe that Lane could perpetrate such a vicious, cold blooded act. In fact, some neighbors and classmates, interviewed after the shootings, remembered him as “fun” and “easygoing.”
Even though school shootings have been in the news many times over the past decade, it seems we never get over being shocked when children murder other children. The town of Chardon has come together to remember the victims and try to find its way forward after the tragedy. But questions remain: Why didn’t we see this coming? Were there early warning signs that were missed? How can we identify and help troubled youth like T.J. Lane to prevent such killings in the future?
There are many misconceptions about school shootings. Some of the most common are detailed in an article by Bill Dedman of MSNBC. As Dedman points out, there is no handy profile or set of personality characteristics that can be relied upon in these cases. But usually there are warning signs. Certainly in the case of T.J. Lane there were several.
First was his troubled family life. For T.J. Lane, violence and abuse in his family life may have set the stage for the episode at Chardon High School. According to Christopher Johnston’s article on Time.com, there was a long history of abuse and physical assault between his mother and father. Later, after he went to live with his grandparents, the trouble continued, and both he and his brother were charged with assaulting their uncle during an argument. The incident that investigators believe might have triggered the shooting rampage was the breakup with his girlfriend. Within the context of his rough and turbulent early life, he may have come to believe that violence was a way to express his feelings and resolve emotional difficulties.
Then there was the poem he had written on his Facebook page which ended with the lines,
“Feel death, not just mocking you. Not just stalking you, but inside of you. Wriggle and writhe. Feel smaller beneath my might. Seizure in the Pestilence that is my scythe. Die, all of you.”
Finally, there was the relatively easy access to guns. T.J. Lane apparently used a gun which he stole from a family member. The Christian Science Monitor noted: “It is not yet certain whether the handgun was properly stored, had its ammunition removed, or was secured with locks preventing its use — all factors that that gun safety advocates say are critical in preventing gun access by children. According to a 2000 study by the US Secret Service, 65 percent of school shootings up to that point involved a gun obtained from the juvenile shooter’s home or that of a close relative.”
Elizabeth Flock of the Washington Post reports that, ironically, the Ohio state legislature has been considering passage of legislation which would make it easier for individuals to take concealed weapons into,among other places, government buildings, private and public colleges, daycare centers and churches. (The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence rated Ohio only a 7 out of a possible score of 100 in terms of strong gun laws).
Thankfully, homicide statistics show that school shootings have declined by almost half over the past decade. Yet, the horrific nature of these crimes should motivate us to probe more fully the link between prolonged exposure to violence as a child and future violent behavior as a teen or young adult. It is within our power to avert these crimes if we can learn to be more careful observers of our children’s behavior and act on any warning signs we see, no matter how small.