. "2. The Copycat Factor: Mental Illness, Guns, and the Shooting Incident at Heritage High School, Rockdale County, Georgia." Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2003.
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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.
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.