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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence 3 Bad Things Happen in Good Communities: The Rampage Shooting in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, and Its Aftermath William DeJong, Joel C. Epstein, and Thomas E. Hart At approximately 9:40 p.m. on Friday, April 24, 1998, Andrew Jerome Wurst, age 14, shot and killed science teacher John J. Gillette, at an eighth grade school dance held at Nick’s Place, a banquet hall near the Parker Middle School just north of Edinboro, Pennsylvania. Armed with his father’s .25 caliber semiautomatic pistol, Andrew also wounded another teacher and two classmates. Adjudicated as an adult, Andrew eventually accepted a plea on third-degree murder. Judge Michael M. Palmisano sentenced Andrew to serve 30 to 60 years in prison. He will not be eligible for parole until age 45. * * * April 24, 1998: There is a photograph of Andrew Wurst taken less than an hour before he shot and killed science teacher John J. Gillette. The occasion is the end-of-the-year dinner dance for the graduating eighth grade class at Parker Middle School in Washington Township, just north of Edinboro, Pennsylvania. Andrew sits awkwardly at a banquet table, dressed in a dark blue sports coat, white shirt, and blue and tan tie. He looks like an unexceptional 14-year-old boy, with blue eyes, glasses, and a mop of thick, dark brown hair covering his forehead. His arms are tightly crossed, his face expressionless. Looking at the photograph, it is hard to imagine that this slightly built and callow middle school student would soon be pulling out a semiautomatic handgun and killing John Gillette at close range. June 7, 2001: Parker Middle School is a large, sprawling complex, in many ways typical of modern, suburban-style middle schools found across
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence the United States. From a distance, there is nothing remarkable about the school, but near the front entrance that impression changes. The flagpole is surrounded by a large square wall made of brick, with a cement slab on top for seating. Mounted on one side is a small brass plaque with a three-line inscription: “John’s Bench/Friend, Teacher, Builder/John Gillette.” A few yards away is a well-tended garden with several stone walkways, each made of decorative stones with messages and designs made by Parker students. One corner of the garden, which was dedicated a year after the shooting, is dominated by a large gray stone engraved with these words:; “In memory of John Gillette, April 24, 1999.” * * * After John Gillette’s death, people who live in this small and picturesque lakeside town have repeatedly asked themselves, “How could this horrible tragedy happen in such a good community?” “That’s the wrong question,” a school administrator told us. “The real question is, Why not here?” By that he meant that a school-related shooting like this, involving a troubled and impulsive boy with access to a gun, could happen anywhere in the country. What he also meant is that if we are to prevent future shootings, we need to reflect on how we care for our children, manage our schools and communities, and live our lives. In this case study, we examine the events that led to the shooting death of John Gillette, with the aim of understanding the mix of individual, peer, school, and community factors that combined to create this tragedy. We also explore the aftermath of the shooting, focusing in particular on how people have come to explain the event and what they appear to have learned from it. Our report is based on extensive interviews we conducted during a site visit to the Edinboro area during June 2001, which involved individual and group sessions with 32 students, teachers, school administrators, community residents, town officials, police investigators, lawyers, court officials, and journalists. We also interviewed Andrew Wurst’s parents, Catherine and Jerome J. Wurst. We learned that Andrew’s mother does not permit interviews with Andrew, and we did not ask for one. Based on advice from friends of the Gillette family, we also did not seek interviews with them. We conducted all of the interviews according to procedures for the protection of human subjects approved by the institutional review board of the National Academy of Sciences. Everyone we interviewed, including public officials, spoke under conditions of confidentiality. Several minors participated in a focus group with informed consent from their parents or guardians, in addition to their own assent. We have not identified sources by name unless their statements were part of the court record.
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence We also received official court documents, including procedural transcripts, psychiatric reports, and other materials entered into evidence. It was clear that, three years after the shooting, people’s memories of what occurred were clouded, making it difficult to rely on the interviews to piece together a clear narrative. We benefited enormously from having access to the complete police investigative file, whose several thousand pages included summaries of witness interviews, signed depositions, Andrew’s writings, evidence inventories, and other useful material. This file was provided to us by a source outside the Pennsylvania State Police. We also reviewed media reports, but after discovering several inaccuracies in those accounts, we relied on other sources for basic facts about the case. To provide background on Edinboro and the General McLane School District, we consulted a mix of census data, town records, school and police reports, and town-related web sites. THE INCIDENT The basic facts of the case are beyond dispute (Box 3-1). On Friday evening, at approximately 9:40 p.m., April 24, 1998, Andrew Jerome Wurst, age 14, shot and killed science teacher John J. Gillette, age 48, at Nick’s Place, a banquet hall located just south of Parker Middle School on Route 99. The event, which Gillette had helped plan, had drawn about 240 students. The theme fit the occasion: “Had the Time of My Life.” BOX 3-1Incident Timeline of Events: April 24, 1998 2:50 p.m. The school day ends, and Andrew takes the bus home. 5:00 p.m. Dressing for the eighth grade dinner dance, Andrew takes his father’s handgun and puts it into a holster belt under his shirt. 5:10 p.m. Andrew leaves a suicide note on his pillow. 5:30 p.m. Andrew’s parents drop him off at Nick’s Place. 6:00 p.m. The dinner dance begins. 9:25 p.m. Andrew goes to the bathroom to take the handgun out of the holster belt and put it into his pocket. 9:40 p.m. Andrew shoots and kills teacher John J. Gillette. He then shoots and wounds teacher Edrye May Boraten and students Jacob Tury and Robert Zemcik. 9:50 p.m. Andrew is apprehended at gunpoint by Nick’s Place owner James A. Strand. 10:00 p.m. Andrew’s mother arrives at Nick’s Place to pick up her son, instead finding him under arrest. NOTE: All times, except the start of the dinner dance, are approximate.
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence About 20 minutes before the dance was to end, Gillette went out on the back patio to ask a group of kids, including Andrew Wurst, to come back inside. As Gillette turned to leave, Andrew pulled out a .25 caliber semiautomatic pistol belonging to his father and shot him twice, once in the face and once in the back. A friend standing nearby recoiled in shock. “Don’t worry,” Andrew reassured him, “I’m not going to shoot you.” Andrew moved back inside, carrying the gun, and called out for Eric Wozniak, another student. Patricia M. Crist, Parker’s principal, was cowering nearby, trying to take cover. “He’s not here,” she told Andrew. Andrew turned and pointed the gun at Crist’s head. “That won’t save you,” he said sternly, looking at the principal’s makeshift barricade. Andrew didn’t fire but continued walking toward the dance floor area. As Andrew came through the double-door entry, another friend pleadingly asked why he was doing this. Andrew responded by putting his free hand to his head, twirling his extended finger, and yelling, “I’m crazy, man! I’m crazy, man!” Andrew scanned the crowd of terrified teachers and classmates who were scrambling to hide or escape. “Shut up,” he yelled, “or someone else is going to die.” He fired two more times, grazing a second teacher, Edrye May Boraten, 51, and wounding a classmate, Jacob Tury, in the back. Andrew’s eyes locked onto Justin Fletcher, one of the toughest boys in the eighth grade, who stood defiantly and stared at him. “If you’re going to shoot, shoot me,” Justin said firmly, “just don’t shoot anybody else.” Andrew fired. The bullet passed through Justin’s shirt sleeve and hit classmate Robert Zemcik in the foot. Seeming confused, Andrew left the banquet hall and went to a grassy area in back. Nick’s Place owner James A. Strand, who lives next door, heard the gunshots, grabbed his 12-gauge shotgun, and ran over to confront the shooter. He spotted Andrew about 40 yards in back of the building. In his statement to police, Strand said that Andrew pointed the pistol at him. He drew a bead on Andrew with his shotgun and twice yelled for the boy to drop the gun. Andrew hesitated but did not drop his weapon immediately. Strand then heard someone else yell for Andrew to drop the gun, and he did. Strand got Andrew onto the ground and began to search him for other weapons, assisted by science teacher David A. Masters and James J. Washok, a student teacher who worked with Gillette. Strand found a dinner fork hidden inside the top of Andrew’s sock. In his statement to police, Washok stated: “Wurst was rambling and crying and said something to the effect, ‘I died four years ago. I’ve already been dead and I’ve come back. It doesn’t matter anymore. None of this is real.’” Strand and the two teachers walked Andrew back to the building and held him until
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence state police arrived a few minutes later. Strand later said to police, “If it hadn’t been a kid, I’d have killed him.” Parents began to arrive at Nick’s Place just a few minutes later to pick up their children from the dance, finding instead a scene of complete pandemonium, with police cars, ambulances, television news crews, and clusters of sobbing children. Panicked parents rushed in to find their children, making it difficult for police to maintain the crime scene. One of those parents was Catherine Wurst. As she frantically looked for Andrew, she was pulled over to police investigators by Patricia Crist, the principal. “Here’s the shooter’s mother,” Crist announced. Andrew Wurst was arraigned before District Justice Denise Stuck-Lewis on April 25, 1998, on a charge of criminal homicide. Andrew was very quiet and showed no emotion in court. Were Andrew to be convicted in juvenile court, he would be released automatically when he turned 21 years old. Were he to be convicted as an adult of first-degree murder, he would face life in prison with no chance of parole. (According to Pennsylvania law, the death penalty cannot be imposed on offenders younger than age 16.) Erie County district attorney Joseph P. Conti made clear from the beginning that he would seek to have Andrew tried as an adult. THE PERPETRATOR: ANDREW JEROME WURST Rumors circulated immediately after the shooting that there was a list of targets and that two of Andrew’s friends had vowed to “finish” the job he had started. A girl told police that one of those friends had said this to her directly. Early news accounts revealed that Andrew had tipped off several classmates about his plans, which fed concerns about a possible conspiracy. The police later received reports of an overheard conversation, with one boy going up to Andrew to say, “I’m out.” As the police got to know more about Andrew’s friends, they even began to wonder if one of them was a “puppet master” who may have manipulated Andrew into using the gun or at least encouraged him. Police were quite right to pursue these theories, but presently there is no credible evidence of any conspiracy. Andrew appears to have acted alone. What was Andrew’s state of mind when he opened fire? His very actions show that he was troubled, but was he mentally ill? This claim was the crux of Andrew’s legal defense. Robert L. Sadoff, a nationally reputed forensic psychiatrist and a sought-after expert witness, examined Andrew during four interviews totaling over eight hours. Based on those interviews, plus meetings with Andrew’s parents and various other records, Sadoff concluded in his official report that Andrew suffers from “a major mental illness, with psychotic thinking and delusions of perse
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence cution and grandeur” and is in need of long-term inpatient treatment with medication. Andrew was average in size at 5′8″ and 125 lbs. According to Sadoff, while Andrew said he enjoyed football and soccer, he was not particularly athletic. He had worn glasses since second grade and talked of getting contacts to change his image. He also wanted to get stronger by lifting weights, noting that, when trying to work for his father in the landscaping business, he was unable to do some of the physical work due to his lack of strength. Andrew was not under a doctor’s treatment and did not take any medications. Andrew struggled academically, with his grades slipping year by year until he was getting mostly Ds and Fs in eighth grade. In a local newspaper article, one of Andrew’s long-time friends said that Andrew’s parents had grounded him a few weeks before because his grades had fallen. Andrew liked to read, and Stephen King was one of his favorite authors. Like other boys, he watched television and played computer games. Andrew’s taste in music ran to heavy metal, with Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails being among his favorite bands. Indeed, a friend had given Andrew the nickname Satan because he was such an avid fan of Marilyn Manson’s dark and angry music. Andrew told Sadoff that he didn’t like the nickname. The Wurst family is Catholic. Andrew attended religious classes but didn’t go to church, explaining to Sadoff that he questioned the existence of God because of all the suffering in the world. He said he didn’t believe in Satan either, noting that without God there can be no Satan. Andrew informed Sadoff that he frequently drank whiskey or vodka with orange juice, getting a “buzz,” but not drunk. In eighth grade, he began to use marijuana occasionally, which he said made his body go numb. Several classmates told police that Andrew had bragged constantly about his drug use in recent months. According to the police complaint, Andrew was in possession of a “small amount of marijuana” at the time of the shooting, which he later told Sadoff he had bought for $80 to split up later with a friend. According to Andrew, he did not drink or use marijuana the night of the shooting. Urine and blood tests conducted by police investigators found no evidence of cannabinoids. Andrew had briefly dated a classmate until about three months before the shooting, when she called him on the telephone to end their relationship. About this, Sadoff wrote, “He said he really didn’t care, but maybe just a little bit.” Clearly, the relationship meant something to Andrew. After school, when he was alone, Andrew would call the girl and talk at length with her, racking up expensive long-distance telephone bills. Andrew told Sadoff that he had never had sex with her and seemed uncomfortable talking about the subject.
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence By his own report, Andrew had difficulty falling asleep, often lying awake in bed for an hour or two, and he sometimes had nightmares of monsters chasing him. In his last interview with Sadoff, Andrew said that he was afraid of spiders and heights. He also spoke of monsters in his closet. Andrew’s mother, Catherine Wurst, confirmed with Sadoff that her son had these fears about his closet, as well as the space under his bed. Each night she had to make sure there was nobody under the bed or in the closet and to leave a light on in his room. Often, she would lie on the covers with him for awhile, talking affectionately with him, trying to help him settle down to sleep. Sadoff wrote that, according to Andrew, he was a frequent bed wetter until about age 9, which his mother confirmed. Andrew said that his two older brothers teased him about this a lot. Sadoff reported that Andrew had no history of fire setting or cruelty to animals, which are often warning signs of future violence. His mother told the psychiatrist that when at play Andrew would sometimes wear camouflage clothing and carry a toy gun and then crawl on the ground as if he were stalking someone. Andrew told Sadoff that he began having suicidal ideas when he was 10, but could not say why. One time he had put a plastic bag over his head to see what it would be like. Other times he thought about hanging himself or shooting himself with one of his father’s guns, the semiautomatic handgun he eventually used at Nick’s Place or a long rifle, but he had never taken steps to act out those thoughts. He denied ever getting angry and, in fact, could not even describe the last time he was. Andrew recounted to Sadoff that, on the evening of the shooting, he took his father’s handgun and put it in a holster belt under his shirt. He loaded the gun with nine bullets in the magazine clip and one in the chamber. Before leaving for the dance, Andrew left a suicide note on his pillow, Andrew’s mother told Sadoff. Andrew told the psychiatrist that a friend at the dance had seen the gun under his shirt. The friend, in his own statement to police, said that Andrew had asked him to feel something under his shirt, which he had surmised to be a gun. Later, according to Andrew, he went to the bathroom to take the gun out of the holster belt and put it into his pocket, intending to kill himself but not hurt anyone else. About 15 minutes later, he was out on the patio with several friends, when Mr. Gillette came out to ask them to come inside from the cold. Andrew pulled out the gun and shot him in the head. The teacher fell to the ground, and Andrew shot him a second time. Why did he do it? Andrew doesn’t know, he told Sadoff, saying he had no reason to kill the teacher. Andrew remembered going inside then and shooting, but not at anyone in particular. One boy, Justin Fletcher, was staring at him, Andrew recalled for Sadoff, and that is why he shot at him. The psychiatrist asked
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence Andrew why he had called for Eric Wozniak. Having wanted to die, Andrew replied that he didn’t think one bullet would kill him, and he wanted Eric to take the gun and shoot him several times to make sure he’d die. Andrew stated that he went outside and started putting extra bullets from his pocket into the gun clip. Then James Strand, the banquet hall owner, came out with a shotgun, and Andrew put his gun down. Why did he do that, rather than incite Strand to shoot him? Andrew told Sadoff that if Strand had shot him from a distance, it would not have killed him, and he did not want to be in a coma. Later press accounts stated that, as Andrew sat handcuffed in the back of a police car, television cameras recorded him laughing, which angered many people. (We were told that this video clip was often reused whenever a new development in the case was reported on television news.) When Sadoff asked about this, Andrew explained that he had heard a friend call out his name and had turned to smile at him. In the second interview, Sadoff asked Andrew about hearing voices, which he denied at first. The psychiatrist persisted, knowing that Andrew had mentioned in a letter to a friend that “the voices are coming again.” Andrew then opened up. In his report, Sadoff stated that Andrew thinks he is real, but everyone else is unreal. Other people are “programmed to act and say what the government, mad scientists, or a psycho want them to say.” Andrew elaborated later, saying that people are like robots, programmed with “time tablets” that give them differing levels of intelligence and different personalities. Had Andrew found any real people in the world? No, he answered, but he is still looking. Sadoff asked Andrew several questions designed to get Andrew to elaborate on his belief system. In response, Andrew explained that people can be real in his presence, but once they leave, they no longer exist. Everyone has a body, but what is different in people is the mind. Andrew himself can think, but everyone else is programmed. According to the psychiatrist, Andrew’s thoughts are vital to his sense of self. As Andrew put it, “If I can think, I am free—the last freedom are my thoughts.” There was nothing wrong with killing Mr. Gillette, said Andrew, because “he was already dead or unreal.” At another point, Andrew said that the unreal world has rules that are not his rules, including the rule that killing is wrong. He is in jail, he explained, because he killed an unreal person. According to Sadoff, Andrew stated that “when he wakes up, he will wake up and be real and be back in his own real world when he dies. Then he will be going home again.” He explained that this real world would be “the ideal world, where there are no wars, no crime, no viruses—it is a utopia.”
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence When did Andrew begin to have these thoughts? Andrew told Sadoff that, when he was 8, he got caught between two swings and lost consciousness. He thought he might have died but “didn’t know if he had gone to hell or to heaven or a different world.” By the time he was 10, he was certain that he was the only real person living in an unreal world. At another point, Andrew stated he had returned from the future and has “a mission to prevent something terrible that has happened or that will happen in the future.” He wasn’t certain what that mission was, but he did know that he had an “arch enemy” who would try to prevent him from accomplishing it. He had never seen this arch enemy but knew that everyone has one, which meant that he had to be on guard. In the third interview, Andrew explained that he also had to watch the unreal people, stating, “They are going to screw me over.” As Sadoff pressed him to reveal more about his thoughts, Andrew replied, “If I tell you my thoughts, that’s not good. All I’ve got left are my thoughts, and I would lose my purpose or mission in this unreal world if I told you my thoughts.” When asked about important relationships in his life, Andrew stated that he loved his dog, Tasha. Sadoff asked Andrew about his parents. The psychiatrist later wrote, “He wasn’t sure that he loved his mother. He said he liked her, and he even liked his father, but he wasn’t sure he loved him.” Andrew next said “the only thing that could save him was killing himself.” Then he could go back to his real world. Sadoff noted that Andrew questioned whether the Wursts were his biological parents, stating that he was “brought here when he was about 4 years of age from his world, and his parents were an appropriate candidate to have him.” Also in the third interview, Sadoff asked Andrew how he felt the evening of the shooting. His answer: “Miserable.” He said he was planning to kill himself, explaining that the worst thing was the hopelessness he felt. What was he feeling hopeless about? “Everything.” What was making him so miserable? “Nuclear wars, viruses, murders, robberies, school.” Sadoff asked Andrew if there were specific things about himself that made him miserable, but he couldn’t recall anything specific. In his report, Sadoff concluded that Andrew is “not old enough to be labeled a schizophrenic, but he clearly has pre-schizophrenic ideation…. I can diagnose him as having a psychotic condition, not otherwise specified, with paranoid ideation” (diagnosis 298.9 in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—Fourth Edition). It should be noted that this is a condition that is often accompanied by severe depression. In Sadoff’s medical opinion, Andrew was psychotic at the time of the shooting and “did not have a realistic appreciation of the nature and quality of his behavior or the wrongfulness of it because of his delusional belief that Mr. Gillette, along with all the others, were unreal and programmed by
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence others. It was not in his thinking that it was wrong to kill a person who is already dead or who is unreal.” A psychiatrist who examined Andrew for the Erie County prosecutor reached a different opinion about the boy’s mental health. John S. O’Brien, a forensic psychiatrist and staff psychiatrist at Pennsylvania Hospital, conducted a nearly three-hour evaluation of Andrew in August, just over two months after Sadoff completed the last of four interviews with Andrew. O’Brien’s opinion was that Andrew did not suffer from a delusional disorder or manifest symptoms of any major psychiatric illness. Andrew had a history of emotional upset, he said, which was characterized by “depressed moods associated with aggressive and suicidal ideation.” He also declared that Andrew was competent to stand trial. Hard-nosed police investigators are often skeptical about claims of legal insanity or mental illness, and that was certainly the case for the Pennsylvania State Police. Their theory was that Andrew wanted notoriety. He wasn’t a star pupil. He wasn’t an athlete. The shooting, they assert, was Andrew’s way of gaining the attention he craved. In their view, claims that Andrew was mentally ill were overblown. Feeding their doubts was a mistake made by the defense at the competency hearing held on September 25, 1998. Sadoff characterized some of Andrew’s handwritten notes as “showing evidence for hallucinations, delusional thinking, loose associations of thought.” It turns out, however, that what Andrew had written down were song lyrics by Marilyn Manson. When confronted about this at the decertification hearing on March 9, 1999, Sadoff said that learning this did not change his diagnosis, and that while these turned out not to be Andrew’s original writings, it was still important that he had selected them to copy. From a lay perspective, what makes Sadoff’s diagnosis difficult to accept is that people with delusions will often function well and appear to be normal in their everyday lives. The illness can become evident when they discuss their delusional belief system, but they are generally reluctant to do that if they anticipate disapproval. For this reason, Andrew’s mental illness could easily have escaped his parents’ notice. This also explains why Andrew would reveal his thoughts to Sadoff but not to O’Brien, the psychiatrist brought in by the Erie County prosecutor. Sometimes this type of illness is revealed more tragically, as with Andrew’s rambling declarations after the shooting spree that he had died four years ago and come back and that none of this was real. Based on his interviews, O’Brien asserted that what Andrew had talked about with Sadoff were not fixed beliefs or convictions, but just ideas he was thinking about. In our view, that argument cannot adequately account for what Andrew said after James Strand and the two teachers had him pinned to the ground.
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence Police investigators’ doubts about Sadoff’s diagnosis were also fueled by suspicions that Andrew was trying to con the psychiatrist into thinking he was mentally ill. The most crucial evidence against fakery is that, shortly after they started going out back in February, Andrew told his former girlfriend his fantastical thoughts about “real” and “unreal” people. According to Sadoff’s report, Andrew said to her, “We are all in reality in hospital beds being monitored and programmed by these mad scientists, and this world is not real for them…. The scientists watch over us to see what we’re doing.” She found the conversation disturbing and asked him to stop. He brought up the subject again about two weeks later, just before they broke up. THE VICTIMS Mr. Gillette was known to Andrew as the eighth grade class adviser, but he had never been Andrew’s teacher. No school administrators, faculty, or students could remember any kind of previous disagreement between the two. Police questioned eyewitnesses: Did Gillette seem angry at Andrew? Did he say anything to Andrew when he came out on the patio? Did he say anything to Andrew earlier in the evening? Some students recounted that Gillette had called out Andrew’s ticket number for a small door prize, and that Andrew seemed reluctant at first to come forward. His friends coaxed him to retrieve the prize, but it was clear to the girl who handed it to Andrew that he didn’t want it. In fact, he immediately passed the prize to one of his friends, indicating that he wouldn’t need it. On reflection, no one who was at Nick’s Place that evening could recall anything that might explain what happened. As noted, Andrew himself had no explanation. A former football coach, Gillette didn’t brook any nonsense, but he was also among the more popular teachers. Police investigators firmly concluded that there was no reason why Andrew targeted the science teacher. When Andrew entered Nick’s Place, having just shot and killed Gillette, he asked for Eric Wozniak by name. Was he Andrew’s intended victim, or was there another reason he wanted him? It’s not clear. Police investigators believe that, when Andrew was scanning the crowd of teachers and classmates, he was looking for specific kids to shoot. Investigators did not find a written “hit list” of targets, but one friend whom Andrew told of his plans had asked about a list, and Andrew did mention one girl by name. During the shooting, however, Andrew did not call out for her. As mentioned earlier, Andrew told Sadoff that he had called out Eric Wozniak’s name because he wanted Eric to shoot him to ensure his own death. Justin Fletcher, the boy who stood up to Andrew and defied him to shoot him, was well known to area police. According to police investiga
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence the town the look and feel of a small but prosperous college community and enriches the town’s cultural and social life (Table 3-1). University students who live in Edinboro are counted in the census, which makes it difficult to develop a meaningful statistical portrait of the borough’s permanent residents. For example, according to U.S. Census Bureau data for 2000, 59 percent of Edinboro’s residents are between the ages of 15 and 24 years. Fully 27 percent are classified as living in group quarters (in this case, college dormitories), and 6 out of 10 of Edinboro’s households (60.2 percent) are nonfamily households. Including university students, Edinboro’s population is 92.3 percent white and 4.4 percent black. Edinboro is generally considered middle to upper middle class and has a relatively large percentage of professionals compared with other small towns in rural Pennsylvania. The cost of living is low by national standards. Housing is reasonably priced. The borough’s web site directory lists 17 churches, and many of the people who spoke with us openly revealed the importance of religion in their lives and the life of the community. In general, Edinboro’s business climate is good. The two largest employers in the area are the university and the Northwest Tri-County Intermediate Unit, a regional agency that provides education programs and services to 17 school districts in three counties. Contacts at both places helped bring in several grief counselors immediately after the shooting. Two other major employers include Penn Union, which manufactures electrical connectors, and Morrison Food Service. The downtown area along Erie Street has a good mix of stores, services, and restaurants. The Crossroads Dinor [sic], a landmark restaurant TABLE 3-1 Comparative Demographics: Income, Race, Home Ownership, and Poverty by Area Area Median Household Income % Black % Hispanic % Owning Home % Below Poverty United States $37,005 12.3 12.5 66.2 13.3 Pennsylvania $37,267 10.0 3.2 71.3 10.9 Erie County $35,341 6.1 2.2 69.2 12.7 Edinboro NA 4.4 1.0 NA NA NOTE: University students who live in Edinboro are counted in the census, which makes it difficult to develop a meaningful statistical portrait of the borough’s permanent residents. NA = Information not yet available. SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2000 (http://www.census.gov/census2000).
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence owned by John Gillette’s brother, James, sits at the corner of Erie and Plum Streets. There are a few taverns in town, one of which is owned by Edinboro’s mayor. At the south end of downtown is a refurbished fountain, which was installed in 1913 to “serve men, horses, and dogs.” Recently, the Edinboro Kiwanis Foundation led an effort to revitalize the downtown area, placing new benches and trash receptacles. Leading north out from Edinboro, there are small suburban-style shopping centers along Route 99. A new Wal-Mart is under construction near Interstate 79. In many respects Edinboro is vintage small-town America, with a volunteer fire department, historical society, garden clubs, and a long list of community service organizations, including the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the Kiwanis Club, the Knights of Columbus, the Lions Club, the Rotary Club, and Veterans of Foreign Wars. The local newspaper, the Edinboro Independent-Enterprise, is full of typical small-town news. A calendar of events published by the Greater Edinboro Area Roundtable reveals an active community: free concerts; golf outings and tournaments; sporting events (e.g., Edinboro Triathlon, Annual Duck Race); auto rallies and classic car cruises; historical society lectures (e.g., “History of the Hardware Store”); family events (e.g., “Baby Bison Days” at the Wooden Nickel Buffalo Farm, the Edinboro Kiwanis “Peanut Days”); seniors meetings; and adult band camps. The July 2001 calendar included a fundraising event, the John Gillette Memorial Golf Scramble, which was initiated by the Gillette family to fund a memorial scholarship. The town’s web site (www.edinboro.com/Events) lists even more events. Edinboro Lake, on the borough’s north side, brings vacationers and tourists to the area to enjoy swimming, boating, waterskiing, jet-skiing, and trout fishing. Coming off Interstate 79, the approach into town on Route 6N brings drivers past a golf course, one of several in the area. In the fall, there is hunting season. Winters in this part of Pennsylvania can be harsh, but there is skiing just across the border in New York. In addition to standard spectator sports, Edinboro University has several cultural events during the academic year that are open to the public, including plays, music programs, and lectures. Each summer the university runs summer youth soccer tournaments and state-wide band camps. Given its size, Edinboro offers a surprisingly wide range of recreational options for children. On Route 6N can be found the new offices of the Penn Lakes Girl Scout Council, a new YMCA, and a large outdoor complex for children’s sports. Elsewhere in town there is a bowling alley, a skateboard park, a large outdoor swimming pool, and sports fields. Next to Nick’s Place is a miniature golf course, a driving range, and batting cages, and across the road is a go-cart track, Fastrax. Notices posted on bulletin boards in grocery stores and other locations advertise dance studios, church groups, and sports leagues.
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence Reviewing the list of options, one person who met with us cautioned against “the false doctrine of salvation by activity.” That said, he noted that there probably were not enough activities in town for middle school students, a point echoed by several other community residents. One school official explained that, as children reach middle school, many parents think they need less supervision and are more willing to let them stay home alone while both parents work. Transportation is another problem. The community is rural, and many residences are several miles from places or activities that students this age would enjoy. When they reach high school, young people have additional opportunities available to them, many of them through the school itself. And, as they get older, many of them are able to get themselves to community-based programs or after-school jobs by driving or getting a ride from an older friend. Edinboro has a low crime rate, but crime is not unknown. When applying for a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, the police department noted that Edinboro had seen a very large increase in drug violations between 1994 and 1998. The department attributes the increase to college students, stating that several areas along the periphery of the university have experienced increased drug-related activity over the past 12 years. Several renter-occupied dwelling units have developed into drug trafficking bases, which have attracted some gang members from nearby major cities. In June 2000, two parents and their 18-year-old daughter were arrested for growing marijuana in their home and on their property. The drug problem extends into the middle school. LSD, in the form of “liquid acid,” is a new worry, according to some sources. The dealer takes an LSD tab, crushes it, mixes it with alcohol and a sweetener, and sells it a few drops at a time. School officials note, however, that Parker’s surveys of student drug use show rates slightly below the national average. THE COMMUNITY RESPONSE In a commentary published by the Erie Times-News just two days after the shooting, an Edinboro University professor wrote, “Is there anything we can learn to do differently after a tragedy like the one we are living through today in Edinboro? Or do we shed a tear and then go back to our usual ways?” Any community that suffers misfortune has the opportunity to learn and be strengthened by the experience. Has that happened in Edinboro? Virtually everyone who spoke with us offered opinions about what lessons should be learned from this tragedy. The idea that parents need to spend more time with their kids was a recurring theme. A newspaper quote from an Edinboro police officer captured this sentiment: “When
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence your kid comes home from school, listen to what he has to say. Don’t blow him off.” Many people pointed out to us how important it is for parents to know their children’s friends and to discourage friendships that might harm them or lead them astray. Others took a broader view, expressing the need for Americans to “get back to basics,” including making religion the cornerstone of family life. When asked about lessons the community might learn, one public official offered the following list: (1) Recognize that this kind of crime can happen anywhere; (2) If a kid is talking about shooting or killing someone, that must be taken as a serious threat and not put aside as a joke; (3) Parents need to connect with their children and look for signs of anger or resentment; (4) Parents need to be more active in their children’s schools; and (5) Responsible gun ownership means locking up the guns so that children do not have access to them and cannot fire them. Few Edinboro residents appear to have given much thought to the fact that Andrew had such easy access to his father’s semiautomatic handgun. When we asked about this, many people reminded us that the Edinboro area has many hunters, and that having guns of all types in the home is accepted as a matter of course. Reminders of the gun culture are everywhere. One school official told us that there is no school on the Monday after Thanksgiving because it is the first day of deer season. We asked for directions at a gas station, and the attendant asked if we were looking for a certain gun club that was down the road. Ironically, there is a “guns and ammo” shop, Uncle Sam’s Trading Post, located on Route 99 in between Parker Middle School and Nick’s Place. There are some residents who have called the Edinboro region’s gun culture into question, especially after the shooting, but most remain largely silent. Gun ownership is just too much a part of the community’s social fabric. But there is another factor: in support of gun ownership, people had only to point at Nick’s Place owner James Strand, who had grabbed his shotgun and forced Andrew Wurst to drop his weapon. How many more teachers and children may have died, they asked, if Strand had not owned a gun? After the shooting, an Erie television station worked briefly with the district attorney’s office to offer gun trigger locks at a discount, but the program died out relatively soon. Several people expressed the idea that locking up a handgun would make it useless for home defense. One person said that a trigger lock wouldn’t work because children would know where the key was kept. What we heard instead is that it is a family responsibility to teach respect for firearms. We also heard ideas about what needs to be done in the schools. A source who was involved in the case drew the following lessons: (1) Teachers need to be educated about mental illness and be aware of the
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence possible signs; (2) There needs to be a mechanism in place for teachers to identify and refer students who might need a clinical evaluation; (3) Teachers should be more available to their students and get to know them better; (4) Bullying should not be tolerated at any level; and (5) Students need to be educated about telling their teachers about others students’ behavior that they find disturbing, and they need to feel safe in doing so. Putting most of these ideas into practice would require systems change in the schools. Every community wants teachers who are motivated to know their students well, but whether teachers can sustain their motivation over time will depend on how school administrators have organized the school’s operations to build stronger teacher-student bonds and a true sense of community. This is especially important at a large institution such as Parker. One set of options, for example, would be to divide teachers and students into smaller administrative subunits, and then having teachers meet as a group to talk about and develop plans for all of the students in their subunit. No one we spoke with brought up the need to look at these kinds of systems issues. After the shooting, the General McLane School District, with a grant from the Safe Schools Office of Pennsylvania, developed a character education program for its students. The program is built on six Pillars of Good Character—respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, trustworthiness, and citizenship. Under each is a set of principles. For example, under respect, the principles include “Follow the golden rule. Use manners. Don’t threaten, hit, or hurt anyone.” Across Route 99 from the high school and middle school is an old barn whose side has been painted with the program’s now familiar symbol, a stylized, triangleshaped pediment supported by six pillars, each labeled with one of the six program elements. The curriculum is based on several programs that were already in place, including WiseSkills for grades 3–8, plus selected children’s books, videotapes, and other new materials and resources. In addition, the program incorporates a curriculum infusion model, with the principles of character education woven into the main academic curriculum. There are also special displays and activities planned throughout the school year. Posters supporting the character education program appear in several storefronts in town. Opinion about the program is divided. Some parents wish that more time in school were devoted to these subjects, while others believe that character-building should be done at home and in the churches, with school time devoted to academic basics. One source complained to us that the school still needed a stronger antiharassment policy to make clear that bullying would not be tolerated. In the aftermath of the shooting, the school district’s teachers now receive more training on conflict resolution and how to deescalate poten
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence tially violent confrontations. Administrators have also exhorted teachers to use the student support program as it was intended. If teachers are concerned about a student, they should tell someone. Likewise, school officials have talked to students about how important it is for them to come forward with information about a student who is acting in ways that disturb or worry them. The greater challenge, of course, is creating a climate in which students will actually feel safe in doing that. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Parker Middle School began to make changes in security around the school, including restricted building access and name badges for staff. Some experiments failed, such as using metal detector wands to check students before they entered the building; this only served to create long queues of students vulnerable to attack. To their credit, school officials tried not to overreact, which was difficult given the pressure placed on them by worried parents. After the shooting, the Catholic diocese in Erie County temporarily cancelled all school dances. In contrast, the General McLane School District avoided that step and still held the high school prom, although metal detector wands were used to screen students before they entered. Prior to the shooting, there was no policy to hire police officers for security, and that has remained the case. One positive development is that Parker’s end-of-year celebration for graduating eighth graders was revamped. The event is now held at the school and no longer has the trappings of a junior prom. Over the next summer, the General McLane School District received recommendations from outside professional organizations, teachers, parents, and students, which were reviewed in a series of meetings and reports. The recommendations ran the gamut, from banning book bags and backpacks to creating a character education program. Ironically, few of the recommendations would have made a material difference in the Andrew Wurst case. Most of the focus was on school security rather than on creating a relationship-centered school environment in which every student is connected to a teacher or counselor, or on identifying students who may be “falling through the cracks” and need extra attention or professional help. Moreover, the security measures that were recommended were better suited for dealing with outside threats, not those from the student body. There have also been efforts to get a program started to provide school resource officers, although these so far have not worked out. Erie County sheriff Robert Merski, for example, applied for a U.S. Department of Justice grant, for which the General McLane School District signed on as a partner. However, the Justice Department program will fund only the lead law enforcement agency, which in this case is not the sheriff’s office but the state police. In Edinboro, the police department applied for a
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence federal grant for a resource officer but, to receive it, town officials had to maintain the same department budget level for the duration of the grant. That commitment was not forthcoming, as two police positions in town were also funded by grants that would end during the time of the new grant, and it was very unlikely that the town would continue to carry them. With that, Edinboro’s police chief, Jeffrey Craft, contacted all of the municipalities that send students to the General McLane School District about funding the position, but McKean Township was unwilling to take that step. In 1998, Patricia Crist had been Parker’s principal for 11 years. Like many principals, Crist received her share of criticism from parents and teachers, especially after the shooting. Those who had always disliked her policies or style now found ample reason to call for her ouster. She served for two additional years and then stepped down, moving next door to the high school to be a teacher and mid-level administrator. The town government has launched no major initiatives since the shooting. In the private sector, beginning in September 1999, the Christian Institute of Human Relations has sponsored The Hangout, a youth center built in a defunct two-screen movie theater. Plans for the center were under way prior to the shooting. Under the direction of high school coprincipal Rick Scaletta, the center provides a coffeehouse and band hall for older teens to listen to live music, play pool or ping pong, and talk. The Hangout does not have programs for middle school kids, although some will occasionally attend a concert. The center’s ultimate purpose is to provide a venue for Christian ministry, but all young people, even those uninterested in the religious program, are welcomed. The regional bands that play at the center are heavy metal and hardcore groups. Most are secular, but some, such as Closer Than Dying, play music with religious themes. Advertising for the concerts is youth-oriented and hard edge (e.g., “You Ain’t Cool Unless You Pee Your Pants”). The Hangout’s religious educators then try to make the link between this youth culture and Christianity. One brochure, explaining Christian belief about the crucifixion, speaks of Jesus Christ “receiving the ultimate body piercing.” After kids have come to the center a few times, the educators approach them one-on-one to talk and to let them know about The Gathering, a Tuesday-evening prayer session held there. Edinboro’s residents are quite aware of The Hangout and view it as a positive force in the community. The Christian Institute of Human Relations, a nonprofit corporation, is dependent on private donations to meet its operating costs of about $2,500 per month, many of which come from local churches. Adult volunteers serve as chaperones, help maintain the youth center, and lead religious programs. So far, the center has been a success.
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence CONCLUSION The Edinboro shooting was one of a series of highly publicized school-related shootings in the United States in 1997 and early 1998. In quick succession, there had been shootings in Pearl, Mississippi; West Paducah, Kentucky; and Jonesboro, Arkansas, before Edinboro, Pennsylvania, was added to the list. Andrew Wurst was fully aware of these dramatic incidents and talked frequently with his friends about the Jonesboro shooting, indicating to them that he might do something like that someday. Violence experts have noted that extensive news coverage of these school shootings can provide some troubled youth with a script for how to deal with their anger, hurt, and frustration. Andrew Jerome Wurst appears to be one of those cases. In the end, Andrew’s defense attorney, Leonard G. Ambrose, recommended that Andrew accept a plea on third degree murder rather than be tried on first degree charges and run the risk of a life sentence with no chance of parole, the maximum possible sentence. Juries are unsympathetic to insanity pleas, Ambrose explained to news reporters, and this would be especially true with public fears about school shootings. Andrew and his parents agreed with Ambrose that there was too much at stake to take the risk of going to trial. On September 9, 1999, Judge Michael M. Palmisano sentenced Andrew to serve 30 to 60 years in prison. He will not be eligible for parole until age 45. The Gillette family is seeking another day in court. Deborah L. Gillette, John Gillette’s widow, has filed a civil law suit against the Wursts, which is still working its way through the legal system. Some town residents expressed the wish that the Gillettes could forgive the Wurst family and doubted that any good would come of the lawsuit. One said it was understandable why Mrs. Gillette would want to take this step, especially in light of the plea bargain that prevented Andrew from receiving a life sentence without parole. In their view, no one is in a position to second-guess Mrs. Gillette or any member of the Gillette family; others cannot know the depths of their despair, nor can they say how they themselves would react if a loved one were taken from them this way. In our view, there is little doubt that Andrew Wurst was mentally ill. Whether he was legally insane and therefore incapable of forming criminal intent is a harder issue to resolve, which is reflected in the contradictory psychiatric testimony heard in this case. Should Andrew’s parents have known something was wrong? So far as they knew, their son had no history of violence or bullying, and he never seemed angry. His grades were poor, but he was not a disciplinary problem at school. His parents had caught him drinking, but they had no idea he was smoking marijuana. Andrew also did not reveal to his parents any disturbing thoughts
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence or fantasies. The Wursts are not trained clinicians, and so it is not surprising that they never thought Andrew was mentally ill or even depressed. The fact is that lots of parents see their kids having problems with the awkwardness and pain of growing up without ever thinking they need psychiatric help or might commit a horrible crime. The Wursts were no different. Every middle school has procedures in place for teachers to refer students who require intervention, but that system appears to have broken down in Andrew Wurst’s case. Following the shooting, the General McLane School District launched a high-visibility character education program. The program got mixed reviews, but few people doubted that it was a step in the right direction. In addition, school officials took reasonable steps to tighten security while avoiding a mindless overreaction that would have compromised the quality of life at the schools. In our view, however, school officials so far have avoided many of the harder issues: How might the Parker Middle School be operated differently so that there is a stronger sense of community among students? What steps can be taken so that every student feels valued and cared about as a member of the school community? What can be done to ensure that students do not merely tolerate diversity, but respect and even embrace it? How might the inherent divisiveness of cliques be minimized? How can the school protect every student from bullying? How might the school be reorganized so that every student is well known by several teachers? What can be done to make students feel it is safe to notify teachers, counselors, or other adults when another student says or does something they find disturbing or threatening? Does a greater investment need to be made in after-school programs so that fewer middle school students are home alone? How can the student support program be reinvigorated so that teachers and other school officials will better recognize when students are showing signs of distress, alcohol and other drug problems, or mental illness, and then advocate for their being referred and receiving appropriate help? In laying out these questions, we do not mean to imply that Parker school officials should be blamed for what Andrew Wurst did. In ordinary times and by normal standards, Parker Middle School would be considered a well-run and progressive school. Times have changed, however, and the standards by which schools are now judged must change with them.
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence Andrew Wurst’s classmates are now in their senior year of high school, anticipating their next graduation celebration and taking another big step toward adulthood. For them, the events of April 1998 seem almost a lifetime ago. Time has moved on, and so have they. In fact, four years after John Gillette’s death, there is a general sense in Edinboro that the whole community is ready to move on. Most of the people we met see the shooting as a bizarre and puzzling aberration, largely disconnected from the fabric of their lives. For them, the story of what happened at Nick’s Place boils down to this: Andrew Wurst was a troubled boy from a troubled family, and he happened to live here. He committed a horrible crime, and he deserved to be punished. People expressing this viewpoint often spoke of parents needing to provide stricter moral guidance and to stay better connected as their children move into adolescence. We met a few people, however, who expressed dismay about the prevailing desire for life in Edinboro to return to normal. They believed fervently that there was still much soul-searching for the community to do, that there were still more lessons that needed to be reflected on and absorbed. What does it mean, they seemed to be asking, that Andrew Wurst could not feel he was part of a school community that valued him? What does it mean that so many people could not look beyond this horrible crime and see a boy who was mentally ill and needed treatment and who might be saved? What does it mean that the Wursts felt shunned by a community that they had been part of for so many years? Without for a moment forgetting the sorrow inflicted on the Gillette family, why could people not see that the Wursts were suffering, too? When Catherine Wurst gazes at Andrew, she does not see evil, or even a criminal, but a boy who became desperately ill and didn’t get the help he needed. In her view, Andrew is still not receiving that help. After battling state prison officials to improve Andrew’s therapy, she has become a member of the Pennsylvania Prison Society and an advocate for prison reform. She refuses to believe that Andrew is beyond redemption. She visits her son frequently, concerned about how well he will endure his long sentence, but also hoping that with proper psychiatric treatment, coupled with her love and continued attention, Andrew might come out of prison at age 45 with a hopeful future. Whether that can happen, and whether the town of Edinboro can accept that if it does, is the next chapter of the story. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS We wish to thank the students, teachers, school administrators, community residents, town officials, police investigators, lawyers, court officials, and journalists who met with us or provided background materials
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Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence for our research. We especially thank Andrew Wurst’s parents, Catherine and Jerome J. Wurst, who invited us into their homes to talk about their son. No one had to help us, but they did, and we are grateful. We also thank reviewers from the National Research Council for providing comments on an earlier draft of the report. We were profoundly moved by our visit to Edinboro. We hope our report will help the people of Edinboro heal and learn from the tragedy that befell their community. We also hope that both the Gillette family and Andrew Wurst’s parents will eventually find peace.
Representative terms from entire chapter: