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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence
vacations. Michael Carneal’s parents were heavily involved in the school and its extracurricular activities. Almost all of the people we talked with had nothing but positive things to say about Carneal’s parents and sister.6 There is no indication that the Carneals were abusive, either physically or emotionally.
Because we were not able to interview either Michael or his parents, our understanding of their internal family life relies exclusively on information gleaned from civil depositions, psychiatric and psychological reports, and our own interview with Kelly Carneal. Our portrait therefore cannot be considered definitive but is suggestive of some of the problems Carneal may have been experiencing as he moved down the pathway toward the shooting. In many respects, John and Ann Carneal were a model of concerned and involved parents who were highly supportive and involved in their children’s lives. However, there is also evidence to suggest that there were tensions caused by differences between the siblings, parental expectations for academic performance that Carneal was not fulfilling (particularly relative to his very successful sister), and a general sense (from his perspective) that all the attention went to Kelly. Carneal’s minor infractions and slumping grades had indeed generated concern from his parents, since this pattern of behavior was not in keeping with their expectations or family reputation. Perhaps for this reason, Carneal felt that he could not go to his parents for help with the social problems he was having at school or about his fears of imminent harm (described below).
The Carneals were sometimes defensive on their son’s behalf or perhaps disbelieving when their son began to misbehave in school. When he was disciplined for looking at inappropriate material on the Internet using a computer in the school library, school officials reported that his mother did not believe that he was guilty. Carneal was also engaging in many behaviors in the home of which his parents were unaware. Evidence from the family computer seized by police showed that he had been up in the middle of the night using the Internet. The computer hard drive contained pornographic and violent materials, and Carneal had printed out this material on the family computer in the living room and sold it or gave it away at school. He had stolen his father’s guns and stored them and other stolen guns in his bedroom. Carneal had some of the family’s kitchen knives under his mattress and reported stealing $100 bills from his father’s wallet.
Critics might argue that John and Ann Carneal were losing touch with their son and that their lack of awareness of his activities was indicative of too much distance between them. It is important to note, however, that part of the adolescent experience involves growing autonomy and privacy. Parents who know absolutely everything about their teenagers’