Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Heading for a Backlash?

One of the things that keeps jumping out about descriptions of Adam Lanza is how familiar they are - loner, socially awkward, wearing black clothing, and obsession of violent video games.  It should sound familiar because that's very similar to the descriptions of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris.  Much of this description also applies to other mass shooters of the twenty years, especially the parts which focus on socially awkward young men.

The reason that this concerns me in much the same way that mental health professionals and many parents worry that early descriptions of Adam Lanza as "mildly autistic" or have Asperger Syndrome might create a backlash against autistic children and teens, is that we've seen this kind of backlash before.  The last time was right after the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999.  At that time, school officials in many locales reacted swiftly and harshly to oppress those they feared shared Klebold and Harris' character traits and interests.  Geeky teens who wore black, favored trench coats, and played video games suffered at the hands of both bullies and the people who were supposed to be protecting them.

One result of this was "Geek profiling".  The most infamous examples were the WAVE program introduced by Pinkerton Services Group and Mosaic 2000, a software-based system designed to identify potentially dangerous students.  WAVE provided a toll free number and a web form asked students to report dangerous and suspicious activities by other students, and provided free email accounts and the chance to win a computer as incentives for kids to participate.  The program created concerns over what would happen with the information gathered on the students involved, alarming both privacy and civil liberties activists.  Mosaic 2000 was similarly problematic with its reliance on subjective observable traits. If Mosaic 2000 was as superficial as the FBI's checklist of potentially violent characteristics that was distributed to educational institutions after Columbine, advocates were right to be concerned.

Here's the checklist from 1999:

  • Usually boys of average or above-average intelligence.
  • Often loners, or have small circle of friend who are outsiders.
  • Experience unstable self-esteem.
  • Often fascinated by cults, Satanism, weapons, themes of violence and death.
  • Experience a decline in schoolwork and marks.
  • Come from dysfunctional homes.
  • Have experience with chronic bullying and drug use.
  • Engage in attention-seeking behavior, and don't accept criticism.
So, the FBI's response in 1999 was to create a profile to identify geeks as potentially dangerous rather than actually finding a way to deal with the issues that might lead them to becoming dangerous - we're harassing the bullied here, not the bullies that create the situation.  What do you think happened in schools when school administrators, teachers, and other students got the checklist and information about Klebold and Harris?  Jon Katz, who used to write about technology, popular culture, and geeks received dozens, if not hundreds, of messages from students in the aftermath of Columbine.  His stories on the subject were collected in the Slashdot "Voices from the Hellmouth" series.

One student correspondent told Katz that in a class discussion led by his teacher, he said, 
"I could never kill anyone or condone anyone who did kill anyone. But that I could, on some level, understand these kids in Colorado, the killers. Because day after day, slight after slight, exclusion after exclusion, you can learn how to hate, and that hatred grows and takes you over sometimes, especially when you come to see that you're hated only because you're smart and different, or sometimes even because you are online a lot, which is still so uncool to many kids?"
The result for the student?  To be sent to the principal's office and forced into counseling or face expulsion as a threat to safety.  A female student in suburban Chicago typically wore a trenchcoat to school.  On arrival post-Columbine, she was was escorted by two guards to the school nurse, who forced her to disrobe to allow the guards to search her belongings.  She was then questioned by her principal about computer games.

Many of the characteristics of the kids that were singled out after Columbine seem like they might also be characteristics that might draw the attention of administrators again - socially awkward loners, who wear black and play video games.  If you had gone back to my generation of high school student, the description would have been socially awkward loners, who wore black, and played Dungeons and Dragons.  For a time period during the 1980s it seemed as if groups like Mothers Against Dungeons and Dragons blamed every murder or suicide by a middle-class teen on D&D (it was "satanic", you know).

I'm concerned that rather than much needed conversations about mental health and gun control, we're going to look for scapegoats among the kids that are awkward or different again.  After all, that sort of response is intellectually easier and looks constructive unless you examine it too closely.  In that regard it is similar to moves this week to train and arm teachers and station more police officers in schools.  These are highly visible responses that I doubt will have significant effect on school security.  After all, who do you think Adam Lanza would have shot first at Sandy Hook Elementary if there had been an armed guard? In the course of normal business of guarding schools, deputies will face the same problem that police officers usually do when confronting armed criminals - the criminals have already decided what they are going to do.  Police officers then have to respond, and in that delay, many are wounded or killed.

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