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The Copycat Factor: Mental Illness, Guns, and the Shooting Incident at Heritage High School, Rockdale County, Georgia

Mercer L. Sullivan and Rob T. Guerette

On May 20, 1999, one month to the day following the school shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, Anthony B. Solomon, Jr., known as T.J., entered the commons area of Heritage High School in Rockdale County, Georgia, and opened fire with a .22 caliber rifle. He discharged 12 shots, emptying the rifle, and ran from the building. While doing so, he pulled out a .357 magnum handgun and fired three more shots. He then knelt, put the handgun in his mouth, and hesitated. Shortly thereafter, he surrendered the gun to a school official and was taken into custody by law enforcement officials. He had not killed anyone, but he had wounded six students, one of them seriously. He was subsequently convicted as an adult and received a long prison sentence, with a minimum of 18 years before possible parole.

Although the incident at Columbine had provoked a great deal of discussion among youth and adults in Rockdale County, T.J. Solomon’s actions came as a complete surprise to everyone in the area, both because of where it happened and because of who committed the act. Rockdale County is an affluent suburb of the city of Atlanta, known as an area of expensive homes, high-quality schools, and low rates of crime and delinquency. Heritage High School had been rated one of the best public high schools in the state and had never experienced significant problems with youth gangs or other patterns of serious violence. T.J. Solomon had never been arrested, had no reputation for getting into fights or being aggressive, and came from a close, upper-middle-class, churchgoing family in which the parents closely monitored every aspect of their children’s lives.



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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence 2 The Copycat Factor: Mental Illness, Guns, and the Shooting Incident at Heritage High School, Rockdale County, Georgia Mercer L. Sullivan and Rob T. Guerette On May 20, 1999, one month to the day following the school shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, Anthony B. Solomon, Jr., known as T.J., entered the commons area of Heritage High School in Rockdale County, Georgia, and opened fire with a .22 caliber rifle. He discharged 12 shots, emptying the rifle, and ran from the building. While doing so, he pulled out a .357 magnum handgun and fired three more shots. He then knelt, put the handgun in his mouth, and hesitated. Shortly thereafter, he surrendered the gun to a school official and was taken into custody by law enforcement officials. He had not killed anyone, but he had wounded six students, one of them seriously. He was subsequently convicted as an adult and received a long prison sentence, with a minimum of 18 years before possible parole. Although the incident at Columbine had provoked a great deal of discussion among youth and adults in Rockdale County, T.J. Solomon’s actions came as a complete surprise to everyone in the area, both because of where it happened and because of who committed the act. Rockdale County is an affluent suburb of the city of Atlanta, known as an area of expensive homes, high-quality schools, and low rates of crime and delinquency. Heritage High School had been rated one of the best public high schools in the state and had never experienced significant problems with youth gangs or other patterns of serious violence. T.J. Solomon had never been arrested, had no reputation for getting into fights or being aggressive, and came from a close, upper-middle-class, churchgoing family in which the parents closely monitored every aspect of their children’s lives.

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence This case study examines in more detail this community, school, family, and individual in order to trace the antecedents and consequences of the May 20, 1999, incident. As we show, there were antecedent conditions that can be connected, at least in retrospect, to the eventual occurrence of the incident. METHODOLOGY The authors of this case study gathered data during two field visits to Rockdale County over the course of one month, some subsidiary field trips to interview knowledgeable people not present in Rockdale County at the time, many telephone calls, and through collecting a large body of archival material. All interviews were conducted according to procedures for the protection of human subjects approved by Rutgers University and the National Academy of Sciences. Some subjects with uniquely identifiable roles in the event agreed to be interviewed for public attribution, but most subjects spoke under pledges of confidentiality. Data collection yielded an extensive and diverse record. A total of 42 people participated in interviews, including law enforcement, local government, and school officials; some of the victims and their parents; journalists who had worked in the community; and community members, including adult residents and also young people, a number of whom had known T.J. Solomon and his family. Interviews were also conducted with people who had known T.J. and his family before they moved to Rockdale County. Besides the interview data, researchers also had access to an extensive archival record. Census data, Chamber of Commerce reports, and school, police, and health records provided background data on the area. Newspaper and other media accounts provided initial glimpses of the incident and those involved, although many of the facts in the early accounts proved to be erroneous. More directly relevant to the main concerns of the case study, however, were the extensive files provided by law enforcement agencies, including the sheriff’s office and the district attorney’s office of Rockdale County, which had direct jurisdiction over the case. Since T.J. Solomon was eventually transferred out of juvenile court and convicted as an adult in superior court, all of these records are publicly available under Georgia law. They include several hours of videotapes of the young offender, both immediately following the incident and from a psychological interview conducted three months later, investigative reports, psychological assessments, evidence inventories, crime scene photographs, depositions with family members during subsequent civil lawsuits, and voluminous miscellaneous supporting materials. The investigative reports alone pro

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence vided transcripts of interviews by law enforcement officials with dozens of people who had knowledge of the offender, his family, the victims, and the school. While the detail and diversity of this record are notable, it is also true that the largest share of the record, at least in terms of bulk, was obtained from law enforcement sources. While we are fortunate to have this information and personally beholden to the individuals who facilitated this access, we are also aware of the potential pitfalls of relying too extensively on law enforcement sources. Despite overtures to T.J. Solomon, his family, their attorneys, and the Georgia Department of Corrections, we were unable to interview any of them directly. The only response to any of these requests came from a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, who replied that our request had received serious consideration but could not be granted at the time because of concern over the mental health of T.J. Solomon, who had attempted suicide in prison in December 2000, six months prior to the data collection period. Despite possible concern about the extensive reliance on law enforcement sources, it turns out that there is very little disagreement across multiple sources of information, either within the law enforcement data archives or between them and our many other data sources, about the basic facts of the case. The main disputes in the adversarial process that pitted the interests of the offender against those of criminal justice officials had to do with the assessment of T.J. Solomon’s mental health. Even in this matter, the facts bearing on that assessment were little disputed, only their interpretation, and the opposing interpretations are well documented. Extensive psychological assessments were conducted by highly qualified examiners working separately for the district attorney, the juvenile and superior courts, and T.J. Solomon. His family was able to secure prominent legal counsel and reputable psychological consultation. The contending interpretations of his psychological condition, as presented by prosecutors and defense lawyers and decided on by the juvenile court and superior court judges, are matters of public record, available in the transcripts of the transfer hearing from juvenile to superior court and the sentencing hearing in superior court. We turn now to descriptions of the community, the school, the offender and his family, the incident, and the aftermath. THE COMMUNITY Rockdale County lies just southwest of Atlanta, bisected by Interstate Highway 20 and State Highway 138. The opening of Interstate 20 in 1963

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence led to a major transformation of Rockdale from a rural, exurban area surrounding the small town of Conyers, to a rapidly growing suburb of the rapidly expanding city of Atlanta. Although Rockdale ranks as the second smallest of the many counties of the state of Georgia in geographical area, its population tripled in size in a mere three decades. Of the more than 70,000 residents in 2000, only about 10,000 lived in the city of Conyers. Most of the rest lived in a series of recently developed housing subdivisions, ranging from moderate to expensive in price, throughout the rest of the county. Many of these middle-class and upper-middle-class families have moved to Rockdale fairly recently, drawn by the vibrant economy of metropolitan Atlanta and the prospect of a relatively short and direct commute, at least as compared with their competing options for dealing with the notorious traffic difficulties that beset Atlanta. Table 2-1 compares the demographic characteristics of Rockdale County with those of the nation, the state, and its neighboring counties in the metropolitan Atlanta area. Fulton County contains most of the city of Atlanta. DeKalb County lies between Fulton and Rockdale and contains a small portion of the city of Atlanta as well as another large city, Decatur. Rockdale is the outer ring suburb. As the table shows, levels of family income and home ownership rise progressively from Fulton out to Rockdale, while levels of poverty and minority population fall. The old town of Conyers serves as an administrative center for the courts and the county government and is also a kind of inner city where the county’s small population of blacks and lower-income white families with direct ties to the modest circumstances of a rural past are concentrated. A few signs of gentrification are visible in the form of gourmet restaurants and fancy shops developed in the charming old brick buildings beside the railroad track, but many of these old buildings are still untouched. TABLE 2-1 Comparative Demographics—Income, Race, Home Ownership, and Poverty by Area Area Median Household Income % Black % Hispanic % Owning Home % Below Poverty United States $37,005 12 13 66 13 Georgia $36,372 29 5 68 15 Fulton $39,047 45 6 52 18 DeKalb $42,767 54 8 59 13 Rockdale $48,632 18 6 75 9   SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau Figures, 2000. 1997 model-based estimates.

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence Out in the county, a few country roads with modest old houses remain. A trailer park on the edge of the county called Lakeview Estates houses the largest concentration of poor people in the county. The older residents there are white and of rural origins, while the younger families are Mexican immigrants, most very recent arrivals in the area who work in low-wage service jobs in hotels or temporary construction work. An equestrian center on the northeastern side of the county was built for the 1996 Olympics and now functions as a recreational and sporting destination for horseback riders from throughout the metropolitan region and beyond. The commercial as well as geographical spine of Rockdale is the Interstate 20/Georgia 138 corridor, lined on either side with strip malls. One resident noted that the area has grown so rapidly and recently that it is just now making plans to build its first regular mall. The recent transformation of the area is noticeable even to teenagers, like the focus group participant who responded to an open-ended question about what the community is like (“What would you tell an email pen-pal in another place about your community?”) as follows: “Our community right now … it’s big … it’s growing…. It went from a small country [town], where somebody can sit on their front porch on the strip and watch cars go by, to Wal-Mart, K-Marts left and right, to hotel buildings everywhere to kids getting worse, the atmosphere, the population is growing…. people are getting more money.” The connection of community growth and prosperity to increasing youth problems in the above statement is a contentious issue within the community. While many people interviewed agreed that the connection exists to some degree, Rockdale residents also feel that it is overblown and that they have been unfairly singled out as examples of something that is happening all over the United States. Their anxiety stems in part from the notoriety conferred on them by T.J. Solomon’s deed, but their discomfort stems mainly from a public television documentary entitled The Lost Children of Rockdale County that aired on the series Frontline shortly after the Heritage High School shooting incident (Goodman and Goodman, 1999). The documentary is framed, somewhat gratuitously, by film clips of the Heritage High shooting, but its main subject is a syphilis outbreak among teenagers that occurred in 1996. The outbreak, which affected over 200 teenagers, grew out of a pattern of extreme sexual experimentation among one clique of local youth. It centered around one wealthy young man who had the run of his parents’ large house without supervision. He also liked experimenting with violence and had recruited an associate for his violent exploits who was poorer than he, black, and interested in sharing his wealthy lifestyle. The

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence combination of kinky sex, interracial sex, very young participants, and wealth created a sensational impact nationally, but especially in Georgia and Rockdale County. The film also showed other aspects of the varied youth lifestyles in Rockdale, notably the revivalism of a local grass-roots church and the charismatic leadership of its pastors and their son, the lead singer of a popular Christian rock band. There was no direct connection between T.J. Solomon and the events portrayed in the rest of the film. The syphilis outbreak had actually occurred three years before the shooting and had been excavated after the fact by the filmmakers. Local health officials had responded quickly, identifying and effectively medicating those affected. By the time of the Heritage High shooting, the disease was gone, but the local stigma remained. The combination of these two sensational events, both exceedingly rare within Rockdale as well as outside it, one on top of the other, has given Rockdale residents a sense of being under scrutiny for living in a strange and evil place. Most people we interviewed considered this image wildly inaccurate and unjust. In contrast, they point, with much justification, to the excellent quality of their schools, the high level of church membership and participation, and the low crime rates, especially in comparison to the more urbanized counties of the Atlanta area. A frequent point of comparison is to neighboring DeKalb County. The teenage focus group participants also corroborated the importance of churches and religion in the community: “Our town has grown into, there is a church on every corner. It’s Bible, it’s kind of like the Bible Belt, we are in it. It is like you are in the heart of it here…. There are churches everywhere in Rockdale. It’s a real religious based county.” Of course, it is entirely possible for religiosity and deviance to coexist in the same community. In fact, there is something distinctly and traditionally Southern about that combination. The existence of high rates of violence in the Bible Belt, for example, is one of the better known facts in criminological scholarship (Butterfield, 1995; Curtis, 1975). What makes Rockdale County really distinctive is not that its residents are so violent. There is clear evidence that they are not. Rather, the sensational but rare acts of extreme youth deviance that have brought so much unwanted attention as well as the high rates of church membership and investment in high-quality public schools seem to be related in plausible ways to the underlying structural characteristics of the community, namely, rapid change and prosperity. Rockdale County is a place where people with money have been moving in very quickly. They spend their money on building family and community, yet the community is not stable. Institutions have perhaps not had time to take root. Attachment to the community is recent and far from exclusive.

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence Adults work outside the community for long hours and negotiate a lot of the worst traffic in the country. People have lots of cars, including young people, with the result that they can drive to neighboring counties or to entertainment in Atlanta. Under these circumstances, there may be more money than personal time available for building community in this rapidly expanding community. It is clear that there are many young people with time on their hands, money, cars, and little supervision. T.J. Solomon, as will be seen, fit some parts of this profile and not others. He had lots of supervision, for example, much more than others. Still, he lived in this environment and he had to cope with the challenges of adolescent development in this particular context. CRIME AND CRIMINAL JUSTICE IN ROCKDALE COUNTY The Heritage High School shooting incident occurred in a community with low and stable rates of crime, among both juveniles and adults. Figure 2-1 shows that crime rates in Rockdale County bear an inverse relationship to its prosperity, in comparison to its neighbors, the state, and the nation. The statistical evidence of this presented in this figure is further confirmed by interviews with law enforcement and judicial officials and community members. Inquiries about other incidents of serious violence repeatedly elicited descriptions of the same small handful FIGURE 2-1 Overall index crime rate per 100,000 population, 1990–1998. SOURCE: Data compiled from Georgia’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council—Crime Statistics and FBI Uniform Crime reports.

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence of incidents, well known to all in the community by virtue of their rarity. Murders in Rockdale Country occur once or twice a year, almost always involving adults. There had been only two youth homicides in anyone’s memory. One was a sensational thrill-killing incident that occurred in 1992, in which a youth ordered a pizza and killed the delivery woman. The other occurred about two months after the Heritage High School incident and was described as a freak accident that occurred in the midst of an ordinary scuffle. Two males arguing over a female began wrestling. One of them grabbed the other in a headlock and ruptured a blood vessel. To the extent that there is a higher crime area in this low-crime county, that area is the trailer park, Lakeview Estates, which accounts for the most frequent calls for service to the sheriff’s office, the law enforcement agency responsible for the areas where over three-quarters of county residents live. Many of these calls are related to domestic violence incidents and drunken brawls. As is true in most communities, there is thus a connection between geographical concentrations of poverty and violent crime. The residents of this area include white people native to the area and a more recent population of immigrants from Mexico. While both groups are involved in these calls for service, one law enforcement official reported that the area had actually gotten more peaceful since the recent influx of immigrants. The problems had been at their worst in the late 1970s and early 1980s and were caused by the “rednecks.” This “redneck” population was now aging. Young people in the county also occupied the attention of law enforcement, but more in terms of order maintenance than of crime control. Law enforcement officials reported that the main places where they had to deal with juvenile problems were the strip malls along the I-20/Georgia 138 corridor, where crowds of teens often gathered. These areas constitute the bulk of public space in the county. Besides being the location of commercial entertainment, such as movies and the bowling alley, their parking lots were frequently filled with crowds of young people just hanging out. The participants in the youth focus groups confirmed that the law enforcement kept a close eye on their public activities: SPEAKER 2: Yeah, like a couple of years ago we all used to hang out in front of the Kroger’s parking lot and it was like everybody just split and went their separate ways. SPEAKER 3: Yeah, cops put a stop to that…. SPEAKER 1: Now they’re hanging out at Salem Gate…. SPEAKER 3: Yeah, it’s finding drugs, finding alcohol, and finding girls.

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence While not all the young people who participated in the focus groups would have agreed with the statement about finding drugs and alcohol being the center of teen life in the area, clearly these patterns of activity were present and kept law enforcement busy. The same could probably be said for many if not most communities, but it is noteworthy that here both young people and the police agree that the police keep a close watch. Youth gang activity, in contrast to the partying just described, has not been prominent in this area, despite the fact that widespread increases in youth gang prevalence were reported during the 1990s, particularly in suburban areas in which such activity had not been seen previously (Miller, 2001). Everyone mentioned one particular group of young people who had been criminally active in the mid-1990s and at one point styled themselves as a gang in the manner of the Los Angeles-based groups so prominent in the movies and popular music at that time. That group, interracial in composition, had centered around one particular individual and dispersed when he was arrested and incarcerated after the group set fire to a church. This same individual was also implicated in the syphilis epidemic. There were no reports, however, of anything resembling a gang war, presumably because it takes more than one gang to make a war. According to official statistics and interviews, Rockdale County is a low-crime area in which much of the crime that does occur consists of relatively low-level offenses, with very little serious violence. T.J. Solomon’s offenses were utterly unlike the normal patterns of crime in the area, in stark contrast to other patterns of fighting among youth and the few other cases of lethal or potentially lethal violence. Two law enforcement jurisdictions served the area, the Rockdale County sheriff’s department and the city of Conyers police department. During our brief field visits, the representatives of these agencies conveyed an impression of progressive professionalism. They were highly cooperative with us, over and above providing the access to their records required under Georgia law. There have been no scandals in this county, unlike neighboring DeKalb, where the local sheriff was murdered just prior to our visits, allegedly in connection with kickbacks and extortion involving vendors to the county’s correctional system. The juvenile court judge described a breakdown of cases before him that is probably typical of this kind of middle-class area: 35 to 40 percent involving family concerns such as ungovernable youth; 15 to 20 percent involving acting out at school; and about 40 percent involving crimes related to illegal drugs and theft. Rockdale County does not have its own juvenile detention facility and sends those in need of secure confinement to neighboring Lawrenceville, as long as they are under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court.

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence The most significant changes in the local juvenile justice system in recent years occurred as the result of changes at the state level. As in most states, the Georgia legislature has passed legislation making it easier to transfer juveniles accused of serious crimes out of the juvenile court so that they can be tried as adults. The Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 1994 identifies seven categories of criminal charges, known as the “seven deadly sins,” for which juveniles over the age of 13 are automatically transferred to superior court to be tried as adults. The seven charges notably do not include aggravated assault, the most serious charge that could be brought against T.J. Solomon, since he did not kill any of his victims. For that reason, T.J. Solomon was subject to a transfer hearing in juvenile court, which became the primary judicial forum in which evidence related to his deeds, intentions, and mental health was presented. Following the decision to transfer him to superior court, that evidentiary record then became the basis for the sentencing hearing that followed his guilty plea in superior court. This was the only transfer hearing held in Rockdale County in the memory of anyone we interviewed. In 1998, the state parole board also adopted guidelines mandating that those convicted as adults of 20 specific offenses serve 90 percent of their sentences before becoming eligible for parole. This change in policy eventually affected the disposition of T.J.’s case. Another significant change in juvenile justice in this state was the 1998 signing of a memorandum of agreement between the State of Georgia and the U.S. Department of Justice, following a federal investigation of conditions of confinement in juvenile facilities in the state. The results of that investigation revealed severe deficiencies in educational and health services and the monitoring of abuse. FIREARMS As is true throughout most of the South, hunting is a common activity in Rockdale County. Consequently, gun ownership is pervasive. Under Georgia law, the age at which a person becomes an adult with respect to most criminal code violations is 17. In order to possess or have control of a handgun, however, a person must be at least 18, unless the minor is using the handgun at a safety training course, for target shooting, for hunting or fishing, or is in transit to or from any of these activities. A minor is also allowed to have possession of a handgun on his or her own or parents’ own property if there is parental consent to maintain such possession. Anyone in Georgia, regardless of age, is allowed to have possession of a rifle or shotgun and is allowed to carry such weapons as long as they are openly visible and not concealed. Concealed carrying of a handgun is

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence permitted for those 21 years of age or older who have undergone certified firearms training and have obtained a concealed carry permit from the municipality in which they reside. Possession of a firearm within a school safety zone, school property, school functions, or on school-sponsored transportation, however, is a felony. Interviews conducted for this study consistently indicated widespread ownership of firearms across the county. Most of the guns owned were reported to be shotguns and rifles; however, ownership of handguns was also stated to be common. Most people agreed that hunting was the most prominent reason for owning firearms, but also noted that people kept them for secondary purposes of self-protection and conveying authority. Owning firearms was also common among youth. Youths participating in focus group discussions stated that a large portion of the people they knew own some sort of a firearm. Their estimates of the percentage of people they knew who owned firearms ranged from 50 to 75 percent. Under these conditions, obtaining a firearm was seen to be easy, even if one did not own one. Unanimously, all focus group participants, male and female, stated that they could easily obtain a firearm if they wanted, most indicating that it would take between 15 minutes and an hour. One said it would take “two seconds, if I had driven.” Another stated: “Most guys in our community have a gun. It is not like a handgun, like I am going to go shoot up somebody, a lot of guys just have them.” Another said: “Now that it’s summer, a lot of people carry guns in their trucks. Friends carry guns in their cars. In the school year you can’t bring a gun on to school property. Now that it is summer, they have got gun racks behind their heads and show off your guns to people. I mean, I have one right behind my head in my truck. It’s not like a big thing.” Firearms are thus accepted as an everyday part of life for people in this area, including young people. Guns are ubiquitous. YOUTH Of Rockdale County’s estimated 70,111 residents, about 28 percent are under the age of 18. Public education data for Rockdale County indicate that 71 percent of students are white, 22 percent are black, 3.8 percent Hispanic, and the remainder Asian, American Indian, and multiracial. The gender ratio is equal. As in most communities, youth in Rockdale County frequently classified one another according to a set of local categories used to identify particular peer groupings. Some common distinctions made by and of local youth were among “jocks,” “preps,” “Christian kids,” “rednecks,” “blacks,” “Hispanics,” “wiggers,” “drama kids,” “band kids,” the “straight-edge mafia,” and “loners.”

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence significant, or whether, as those persons later said during postincident investigations, they had been “joking”; on whether T.J. had really been close to suicide when he put the gun in his mouth in the basement the winter before the incident; and whether the classmate got it right the first time, when he talked to investigators on the day of the incident, or later, during court testimony, when he changed his story. Then there was the question of whether the shooting incident itself was either suicidal behavior, as a full emulation of Columbine would have been, or indicative of sufficiently severe “disorder of thought or mood” to warrant involuntary commitment to a mental institution. On one hand, T.J. did a pretty bad job of copying Columbine. He did not successfully kill any of his victims or himself. On the other hand, he might well have. The concept of “secondary gain” was important here, the issue of whether there was anything positive that T.J. was getting out of the act. The defense argued that the obvious lack of any possible positive consequences showed disordered thought and suicidal intentions. The prosecution argued that this was a “me” crime, in which T.J. wanted to get a lot of attention so badly that he was willing to do something that he knew was very wrong. T.J. had made statements indicating that he mainly wanted attention, not from the national media but from those in his immediate environment. The arguments over whether he was committable for mental illness also had to deal with events that occurred in between the shooting and the transfer hearing. While in detention in Lawrenceville, T.J. displayed symptoms that might be classified as psychotic. He banged his head on the wall, scratched an X across his chest, and began to hear screams and experience flashbacks to the incident. He had initially been put on antidepressant medication, Zoloft. After these symptoms and behaviors began to appear, he was switched to a different medication, Depakote, which is also an antidepressant but one with more sedative effects. After the change in medication, T.J. stopped hearing the screams and acting out. The court-appointed psychologist testified that T.J. would have been committable after the incident without medication but that he should not be considered committable as long as he was securely confined and given appropriate medication. In other words, he could be tried as an adult as long as he was kept incarcerated and sedated. The prosecution also argued that T.J. could get adequate treatment in the adult corrections system. Judge Schneider returned a decision explicitly agreeing that T.J. was not committable to a mental institution under the standards of state law and waived the case to superior court. He stated: “The severity and the viciousness of these offenses makes the public’s interest in treating the juvenile as an adult paramount to any other interests be

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence fore the Court including the juvenile’s interest in remaining in the juvenile system.” Waiving T.J. to superior court exposed him to far more severe penalties than he could have received in juvenile court. Had the case remained in juvenile court, T.J. could have received a maximum sentence of 5 years and would have been free at the age of 20. This issue was never argued directly by the prosecution and defense at any point in the hearings, as it was formally irrelevant to the questions of mental health and court jurisdiction that had to be decided under state law. During the 14 months following the waiver, T.J. was evaluated by psychologists and indicted in superior court, where he entered, and the superior court accepted, a plea of guilty but mentally ill for 29 criminal charges, including aggravated assault (for the gunshots), cruelty to children (for the injuries to the victims), and illegal possession and use of firearms. Only one charge was tied to his age, that of possession of a pistol by a person under the age of 18. The sentencing hearing was much shorter than the transfer hearing. The judge, Honorable Sidney Nation, relied heavily on the transcript of the transfer hearing as an evidentiary base. Four of the six victims and the father of a fifth made statements, along with members of T.J.’s family and psychological experts for the court, the state, and the defense. The issue of mental illness played quite a different role in the sentencing hearing than it had in the waiver hearing. Under state law, a verdict of guilty but mentally ill has no bearing on length of sentence. It merely entitles a prisoner to treatment, which is not mandated for adults as it is for juveniles. Under the charges to which T.J. pleaded guilty, he could have been sentenced to over 300 years in prison. The defense asked for 10 years, the prosecution for 60. The judge asked some pointed questions of the prosecution. One was about T.J.’s intentions. Both witnesses’ accounts and T.J.’s written statements afterward suggested that he might not really have wanted to kill anybody. His bullets had gone low, and most of the victims were shot in the foot or the leg. The judge wanted to know why someone with as much experience with firearms as T.J. had not in fact killed anyone. The prosecution pointed to the bullet that was stopped by a book held over a girl’s chest. Another question was whether T.J. deserved any discount for pleading guilty, which the judge referred to as a not uncommon practice in the state’s courts. The prosecution declined to ask for a discount. The judge did not ask such sharp questions of the defense, instead responding rather dismissively. At two points in the colloquy with the defense, he posed the rhetorical question “Do we have the guts to protect ourselves from our own children?”

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence Judge Nation handed down a sentence of 60 years of custody by the Department of Corrections along with a concurrent 40 years on probation, and a prohibition against ever again setting foot on school property in the State of Georgia. The way in which the judge set the consecutive and concurrent relationships of the sentences made it appear to most observers that T.J. would have been eligible for parole after a minimum of 18 years. In reaching and issuing his decision, Judge Nation said that he considered T.J. mentally ill. He said, “I understand mental illness. I know it’s real. I know it exists,” but, that, in reaching his decision, “What I kept searching for was for somebody to tell me when, if down the road it would be safe. Nobody could give me that answer,” as a result of which he chose to err on the side of public safety. T.J. was remanded to the custody of the Georgia Department of Corrections immediately after the sentence was handed down, in October 2000. He was sent to Arrendale State Prison, in the mountainous northeastern part of the state, a facility that provides secure confinement and a variety of diagnostic, educational, and treatment services for adjudicated juvenile and convicted adult male offenders. Two months later, in December, he attempted suicide, overdosing on pills that he had managed to obtain from another inmate. He came close to death. In May 2001, the state parole board issued its finding that, under their guidelines, Judge Nation’s sentence should be interpreted to mean that T.J. should serve a minimum of 36 rather than 18 years. The parole board’s decision was presented as conforming to its 1998 guidelines that 90 percent of sentences for 20 specific crimes, including aggravated assault, be served in full. Fieldwork for the current study during June 2001, however, disclosed speculation from a number of knowledgeable parties that the parole board’s action was in fact an angry response to T.J.’s suicide attempt. During fieldwork for the current study, researchers contacted the Georgia Department of Corrections with a request to interview T.J. A spokesperson replied that the request would be given serious consideration but mentioned that T.J. had recently tried to kill himself and was considered likely to be a problem for the agency for many years to come. Shortly afterward, a second spokesperson informed us that the request could not be granted because of concern about his mental health. In August 2001, Judge Nation reduced the sentence so that it would conform to the originally understood minimum of 18 years. His order contained an explicit and stinging rebuke to the parole board, affirming his original intentions and pointing to eight other cases in which the board had not conformed to the guidelines it cited as justification for its action in T.J.’s case the previous May.

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence The judge imposed further conditions of the sentence, requiring that T.J. receive and comply with psychiatric treatment or risk violating probation. These additional conditions are consistent with his original statements at the sentencing hearing that he believed T.J. to be mentally ill and in need of treatment. His specification that any further evidence that T.J. is a danger to himself and others be considered a violation of probation can be read as a statement to the state parole board not to tamper with his express intentions, inasmuch as the probation department falls within the jurisdiction of Rockdale County. The import of the judge’s new sentence for T.J. himself is less clear now. If T.J. tries to kill himself again and fails, he risks having his probation revoked. If he succeeds, the issue is moot. The structure of incentives provided by the new order thus penalizes only a failed attempt. In light of his previous actions and his most recent attempt, which was reported to have come close to succeeding, it is uncertain whether or how the judge’s order might affect T.J.’s future actions. This uncertainty illustrates some of the difficulties of dealing with mental illness through the criminal justice system. AFTERMATH: THE VICTIMS For all but one of those injured, physical recovery has been virtually complete, with only the presence of scars where the bullet had once entered their flesh. The exception is the case of the most seriously wounded student, a female. The bullet fragmented after entering her abdominal area, piercing her colon multiple times with part of it lodging in her hipbone. Splinters of bullet and bone also hit her right ovary. She has since undergone two rounds of surgery and months of physical therapy. It is not clear whether she will ever be able to bear children. Aside from physical afflictions from the shooting incident, several of the victims and their families have experienced psychological and emotional distress as a result of their experiences. All of the victims underwent psychological counseling in the months succeeding the shooting. Their parents also suffered emotional anxiety, and several family members experienced depression requiring prolonged treatment. Some continued psychological treatment over two years later. The event also placed strains on marriages and relationships between children and parents. More than one report indicated parents becoming, in their words, “overprotective” of their children, causing tension. Another family went in the opposite direction, giving virtually unfettered freedom to their child, with some negative results. There were also reports of several of the victims acquiring indifferent dispositions following the shooting. We collected reports of some victims

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence who “just didn’t seem to care about much after the shooting” or “seemed to live for the moment.” In addition to the direct physical, psychological, and emotional impacts sustained by the victims of the Heritage High shooting, some families also felt additionally victimized by the mass media. They felt used by reporters and felt that their privacy had been invaded in unethical ways. In spite of these difficulties, however, for the most part all of the victims of the Heritage High School shooting have moved on with their lives, following the same succession of life course events that many others not affected by the shooting have pursued. At the time of our fieldwork, some had gone off to college while others were still at Heritage. One victim has had some difficulty adjusting, having initially gone to college, only to drop out after a year and a half. After experimentation with drug use and a carefree lifestyle, he now holds two jobs and is considering going back to school. These difficulties may have been related to his victimization. Throughout the judicial proceedings, all of the victims had at least access to an active role and were given the opportunity to voice their opinions. In the time prior to hearings, prosecutors met with most of the victims concerning their views of what punishment T.J. should be given. Two of the victims testified in the juvenile court transfer hearing and others provided testimony in the sentencing phase. Victims and their families differed considerably in their attitudes toward T.J. According to one recollection, three of the victims wanted the longest possible sentence to be handed down in response to T.J.’s actions. In the words of one, “No, I don’t forgive him and I don’t like him. Him doing the shooting makes him less of a person. The DA asked the victims what we wanted the sentence to be and I told him ‘I want him to be in jail as long as he possibly can be.’ … You see things differently when it happens to you.” Conversely, two other victims expressed attitudes of forgiveness and concern over T.J.’s fate. Another wanted T.J. to be assigned to some type of service so as to give something back to the community. A family member of one of the victims’ felt that T.J.’s incarceration is the appropriate recourse and believes that T.J. exhibited signs of trouble that should have been picked up on by parents and school officials. “He robbed a lot of people of a lot of things…. I don’t have any anger against him; he’s just a mental case.” Three of the six injured victims filed civil suits against T.J. and his family. One was settled. Two were still pending. While no one died, T.J.’s bullets impacted the lives of the victims and family members in multifaceted ways. Victims were clearly affected physically, psychologically, attitudinally, and within their interpersonal relations.

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence AFTERMATH: THE COMMUNITY During our fieldwork, conducted two years after the shooting, we were able to assess several aspects of the incident’s aftermath for the wider community. One common theme was the necessity of having to deal with the external reputation of Rockdale County and its residents. Virtually everyone resented the portrayal of the area in the mass media. Besides resenting the content of these portrayals, many people who had direct contact with reporters, especially the victims but many others as well, felt violated by the way journalistic practices in the wake of a hot story invaded their privacy. This media resentment, however, was shaped more by the public television documentary on the teenage syphilis outbreak than by the shooting incident. It was easier to rationalize T.J.’s actions as those of a lone “mental case” than to deal with external perceptions of local youth related to the syphilis outbreak, but the combination of the two created a special burden. The young people interviewed for this study said they were embarrassed to say where they came from when they met peers from outside the county. One reported having players on opposing football teams refuse to shake his hand. Others said they planned to keep a low profile until they got to college. Local adults were more diverse and measured in their reactions. One person felt the area had been “raped” by the media. Another reported that when he talked to people outside the county, he actually got supportive feedback, to the effect that these incidents could have happened in “Anywhere, U.S.A.” A few people, including some who had worked with the documentary filmmakers and also some public officials responsible for services in the county, thought the spotlight on these problems was at the same time painful but important. From their perspective, real problems did exist and needed to be confronted. They shared the “Anywhere, U.S.A.” perspective and the feeling that Rockdale County was being unduly targeted for attention about problems found in many other places. At the same time, they expressed hope that the attention could lead to needed changes. Another reaction was avoidance. One person referred to a cultural norm among middle-class Southerners that discourages discussing unpleasant things in polite company. Others expressed milder versions of this perspective, saying that there was not so much avoidance as a desire to move on. Across the community, as among the victims, there was a wide range of attitudes towards T.J., both in terms of basic emotions and in terms of how he should be and was being dealt with by the criminal justice system.

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence A wide range of people stated that they were more sorry for him than angry at him. This was especially true of young people in the community. One adult who worked with some Heritage students immediately after the shooting said “kids were compassionate with T.J. They understood his problems. They described it as ‘Yeah, he had problems with X, Y, Z and he just lost it.’ They were not angry with him.” Two years later, in two separate youth focus groups, we heard similar statements. There was a lot of doubt about whether he had really wanted to kill anybody. One person said, “I don’t think T.J. knew who he shot.” Another said, “He just started pulling the trigger, I don’t think he intended to seriously harm people,” and another “Yeah, he was shooting towards the ground, the whole time. I don’t think—I really truly don’t think he was trying to kill anybody.” Another pointed out how much T.J. knew about guns and said, “if he wanted to kill somebody, they’d be dead.” These youths also felt a good deal of sympathy for the emotional stress that they perceived as driving his actions. They said he was giving a “cry for help” and a “cry for attention … look at me.” One said, “I think he got tired of everybody’s bullshit and said ‘Screw it,’” to which another added his construction of T.J.’s state of mind as “Nobody else is going to help me, I’ll do it myself…. I think he wanted to scare the hell out of everybody. And he accomplished that.” When asked what kind of help they thought he wanted, they said “Friends, somebody to care about him” and “Somebody to stop judging him; judgment is a huge issue, right now.” Not everyone held compassionate attitudes. Some were simply afraid and wanted him put him away for as long as possible. Others vigorously disputed the idea that he had not really wanted to hurt anyone, echoing the prosecution’s emphasis on the girl who missed a bullet through the chest only because she was holding a book in front of her and pointing out that 9 hits and 6 wounded victims out of 12 initial shots was a high percentage. One of the victims was aware of and impatient with the sympathy for T.J., saying, “People feel sorry for him. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?” It is of course quite likely that if there had been deaths or more serious injuries, this mix of views would have been angrier and more punitive. The feelings of empathy among the young people, however, are striking. The tone of their remarks suggests fairly prevalent feelings of emotional identification. Public officials and community members described a wide range of responses by community institutions in the aftermath of the shooting. There was clearly a flurry of activity right after the event. Extensive efforts were made to provide counseling to victims, students at Heritage,

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence and young people throughout the county. County officials worked to bring in counseling resources from outside the county and were successful in doing so. Churches became involved and held community meetings. One church organized a retreat at which some students from Columbine High School came to Rockdale to talk with Heritage students. On a more long-term basis, the school system has increased the number of psychologists and social workers in the system, and a new parent education program has been introduced in the county. These increases, however, come in an area that already has a high level of public services. Despite this, public health officials and youth workers that we interviewed expressed ongoing concern that too many local youth still are in need of adult attention. One of them offered the opinion that “It’s not kids. It’s the parents.” The circumstances of rapid community change and of many young people on their own while their hard-working, affluent parents are making long commutes are ongoing structural problems in the area that social service providers continue to confront. One of the youth focus group participants also reported some changes in community attitudes toward young people with guns since the incident: “A year ago guns are bad and you are not allowed to touch them. Now it has gotten more loose…. parents are real strict about it a lot, I know my parents are about me having one…. I don’t think it will ever get as loose as what they were. But they are getting looser about you carrying a gun.” The primary area in which there is evidence of decisive, long-term change in institutional policy is that of relationships between school officials and law enforcement with respect to weapons in schools. Prior to the incident, school officials retained some discretion about whether to report weapons discovered in school to the police. By all accounts, that is no longer the case. After the incident, there was a series of meetings at which school officials and parents discussed what changes were needed in school security. There was general agreement that bringing in metal detectors was not the answer and that the community “did not want the schools to become like prisons.” There was some pressure also from some parents for systems to detect potential offenders in advance through some kind of psychological screening. School officials successfully resisted that also, without much controversy. There were a number of behavioral code changes in the schools. Heritage students to whom we spoke grumbled about new dress codes, including such nonsafety-related requirements as that shirts must have collars, along with a rule directly related to T.J.’s shooting strategy that strictly forbids baggy pants of the type in which he concealed the .22 rifle.

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence The major change, however, appears to be the new policy of immediately referring any incident involving weapons in school to law enforcement. There was an incident following T.J.’s shooting in which a student was discovered to have brought a pistol to school. Since that student was already 17 years of age and therefore an adult under state law, he went directly before the superior court. Judge Nation gave a sentence of 10 years, to serve a minimum of 7, and had the sheriff post a copy of the sentence in every school in the county. CONCLUSIONS This case study, although focused on but one of the recent incidents of extremely serious school violence that have troubled the United States, raises a number of issues of potentially more general interest. These include public perceptions of the role of bullying in generating these incidents, the possible existence of a copycat wave of behavior, the role of mental illness, and the handling of mental illness among youth both by the criminal justice system and by society. Even one case is enough to refute theories that oversimplify by attributing universal causal linkages. There has been a tendency in much of the commentary about school violence to see it as a response to bullying behavior. While revenge against bullies has been a significant factor in some cases, it was not for T.J. Solomon. His problem was not rooted in his direct interactions with peers, except in the negative sense that he was disconnected from them and from every other form of social interaction with others. Bullying is a serious problem, and one that has proved amenable to systematic intervention (Olweus, 1991). While that intervention is worthwhile for many reasons, it may not be the only or even the best way to think about preventing these kinds of incidents. On the other hand, this case study clearly demonstrates the existence of copycat behavior. T.J. Solomon was stimulated to do what he did by the sensational media coverage of the events at Columbine High School. The next logical question is why it was T.J. that responded this way, rather than one of the legions of other young people exposed to this media coverage. Here, the study provides some potentially helpful answers. First, although the record contains conflicting points of view on the issue, it appears that T.J. was seriously mentally ill and suicidal. The contentions to the contrary advanced during his court proceedings have been contradicted by the subsequent event of his nearly successful suicide attempt in prison. That he had never been diagnosed so is not surprising. It would be surprising if he had, since serious mental illness can be difficult to diagnose in middle adolescence. The course and timing of his own developing psychopathy made him extremely vulnerable to the effects of Columbine.

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence One other factor was crucial in this case, the role of firearms in his family history and their inadequately secured presence in his home. Mental illness, the example of Columbine, and emotional attachment and access to guns were the crucial factors that came together in the Heritage High School shooting incident. These things are clear from this case. Could there be other cases in which the same three factors did not produce the same result? Undoubtedly there could. The fact that there is at present no way to assess how many such cases there are is not reassuring. Still, there is one potentially hopeful element here. To the extent that there is a copycat thread connecting the recent school shootings, this presents the possibility that it could run its course, as the infamy of being just one more suicidal loser dims. At a minimum, the increasing passage of time without further recurrence would seem to be favorable, to the extent that a copycat process has occurred. If, however, the trend of mass school shootings does subside and, in so doing, diverts attention from the plights of other youths as seriously mentally ill as T.J. Solomon, then that diversion of attention would be unfortunate. The problems of family communication, rapid community change, and lonely young people sinking into despair in the midst of an affluent, heavily armed society are widespread. Those like T.J. still need help, even if most of them never hurt anyone but themselves. Finally, this case raises a wide range of questions, most of which cannot be answered here, about youth, mental illness, and justice. The paradoxes of T.J.’s course through the juvenile and adult justice systems are several. In order for him to be tried as adult, it was necessary to deny his mental illness, a denial that has been definitively mocked by subsequent events. In an era in which the long-standing assumptions of the juvenile justice system are under sustained attack, this case reminds us that youth are not adults, and it points to a very particular aspect of this difference. Mental illness does not arrive full-blown. It cannot be assessed in a 15-year-old as well as in a 25-year-old. This realization leads directly to another paradox. Even though in this case state law formally tied transfer to adult court to an assessment of mental health, the ability of state institutions to provide adequate treatment to mentally ill juveniles may have been severely compromised. Just two years before the incident at Heritage High School, the State of Georgia resolved an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into conditions of juvenile confinement by signing a memorandum of agreement designed to improve education and mental health services and improve monitoring of physical abuse. The judicial processes that sent T.J. to a long prison sentence as an adult did not happen in a vacuum. They

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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence occurred in the context of a broader structure of criminal justice and public health systems. REFERENCES Baumrind, D. 1978 Parental disciplinary patterns and social competence in children. Youth and Society 9:239–276. Butterfield, F. 1995 All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Curtis, L. 1975 Violence, Race, and Culture. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books. Goodman, R.D. and B. Goodman 1999 The lost children of Rockdale County. Boston: WGBH Educational Foundation, PBS Frontline. Guide, AMG All Music 2001 Available: http://www.allmusic.com. [Accessed July 15, 2002]. Miller, W. 2001 The growth of youth gang problems in the United States: 1970–98. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Olweus, D. 1991 Bully/victim problems among school children: Basic facts and effects of a school-based intervention program. In: The Development and Treatment of Childhood Aggression Among Children, D.J. Pepler and K.H. Rubin, eds. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.