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25 O n May 20, 1999, one month to the day following the schoolshootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, An-thony 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 hand- gun 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. Solomonâs 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 delin- quency. 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 aggres- sive, and came from a close, upper-middle-class, churchgoing family in which the parents closely monitored every aspect of their childrenâs lives. 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
26 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE This case study examines in more detail this community, school, fam- ily, 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 proce- dures for the protection of human subjects approved by Rutgers Univer- sity and the National Academy of Sciences. Some subjects with uniquely identifiable roles in the event agreed to be interviewed for public attribu- tion, 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 gov- ernment, and school officials; some of the victims and their parents; jour- nalists 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. News- paper 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, how- ever, were the extensive files provided by law enforcement agencies, in- cluding the sheriffâs office and the district attorneyâs 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 inter- view 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-
27THE COPYCAT FACTOR 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 infor- mation and personally beholden to the individuals who facilitated this access, we are also aware of the potential pitfalls of relying too exten- sively 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 en- forcement sources, it turns out that there is very little disagreement across multiple sources of information, either within the law enforce- ment 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. Solomonâs mental health. Even in this matter, the facts bearing on that assessment were little disputed, only their interpretation, and the opposing interpreta- tions are well documented. Extensive psychological assessments were conducted by highly quali- fied 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
28 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 geographi- cal 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 vi- brant 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 Rock- dale, 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 countyâs small population of blacks and lower-income white families with direct ties to the modest circumstances of a rural past are concen- trated. A few signs of gentrification are visible in the form of gourmet restaurants and fancy shops developed in the charming old brick build- ings beside the railroad track, but many of these old buildings are still untouched. TABLE 2-1 Comparative DemographicsâIncome, Race, Home Ownership, and Poverty by Area Median % % Household % % Owning Below Area Income Black Hispanic Home 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.
29THE COPYCAT FACTOR Out in the county, a few country roads with modest old houses re- main. 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 destina- tion for horseback riders from throughout the metropolitan region and beyond. The commercial as well as geographical spine of Rockdale is the Inter- state 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 transfor- mation 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 (âWhat would you tell an email pen-pal in another place about your community?â) as follows: âOur community right now . . . itâs big . . . itâs 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.â 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. Solomonâs 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 shoot- ing, but its main subject is a syphilis outbreak among teenagers that oc- curred in 1996. The outbreak, which affected over 200 teenagers, grew out of a pat- tern of extreme sexual experimentation among one clique of local youth. It centered around one wealthy young man who had the run of his par- entsâ 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
30 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 im- age 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 impor- tance of churches and religion in the community: âOur town has grown into, there is a church on every corner. Itâs Bible, itâs 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. Itâs a real religious based county.â Of course, it is entirely possible for religiosity and deviance to coexist in the same community. In fact, there is something distinctly and tradi- tionally 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 characteris- tics 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.
31THE COPYCAT FACTOR 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 commu- nity. 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 commu- nity 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 offi- cials and community members. Inquiries about other incidents of seri- ous violence repeatedly elicited descriptions of the same small handful 0 2,000 4,000 6,000 8,000 10,000 12,000 14,000 16,000 18,000 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 Rockdale Dekalb Fulton Georgia United States FIGURE 2-1 Overall index crime rate per 100,000 population, 1990â1998. SOURCE: Data compiled from Georgiaâs Criminal Justice Coordinating Coun- cilâCrime Statistics and FBI Uniform Crime reports.
32 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 anyoneâs memory. One was a sensational thrill-killing incident that oc- curred 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 sheriffâs 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 connec- tion 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 re- ported 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 ârednecks.â This âredneckâ population was now aging. Young people in the county also occupied the attention of law en- forcement, 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/Geor- gia 138 corridor, where crowds of teens often gathered. These areas con- stitute 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 Krogerâs 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 theyâre hanging out at Salem Gate. . . . SPEAKER 3: Yeah, itâs finding drugs, finding alcohol, and finding girls.
33THE COPYCAT FACTOR 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 syphi- lis 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. Solomonâs 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 sheriffâs department and the city of Conyers police department. During our brief field visits, the representatives of these agencies con- veyed 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 countyâs 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.
34 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 âseven deadly sins,â 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 evi- dence 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.âs case. Another significant change in juvenile justice in this state was the 1998 signing of a memorandum of agreement between the State of Geor- gia 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 parentsâ 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
35THE COPYCAT FACTOR 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 participat- ing 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 âtwo seconds, if I had driven.â Another stated: âMost 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.â Another said: âNow that itâs summer, a lot of people carry guns in their trucks. Friends carry guns in their cars. In the school year you canât 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. Itâs not like a big thing.â Firearms are thus accepted as an everyday part of life for people in this area, including young people. Guns are ubiquitous. YOUTH Of Rockdale Countyâs 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 multi- racial. The gender ratio is equal. As in most communities, youth in Rockdale County frequently classi- fied 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 âjocks,â âpreps,â âChristian kids,â ârednecks,â âblacks,â âHispanics,â âwiggers,â âdrama kids,â âband kids,â the âstraight- edge mafia,â and âloners.â
36 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE Rednecks were identified as those who like to hunt and fish and listen to country music. Sometimes redneck also means lower class, but other times it does not. Some rednecks come from affluent families and drive new pickup trucks with Confederate flags hanging from the back. Jocks are those who are members of the school athletic teams. Preps were described as kids who dress nicely, wearing button-down shirts. In the words of one youth, âThey wear Abercrombie all the time and want to be all nice and look like they are 30.â Christian kids are self- consciously religious and abstain from sex, drinking, and using illegal drugs. Drama kids and band kids were identified with those activities. Wiggers were white kids who âhang with, act like, or like to date blacks.â The straight-edge mafia, also referred to as âvegans,â are a group of youth who are vegetarians. They listen to rock and roll and like to have a good time without smoking, drinking, or using illegal drugs; they refer to these as âthe three xâs,â but their ascetism is not defined in religious terms. The ethnic labels âblacksâ and âHispanicsâ or âMexi- cansâ were applied to the small number of racial and ethnic minorities, although associations did take place across racial and ethnic lines. Dur- ing the fieldwork for this study, for example, researchers observed a racially mixed group of young teenage girls bowling, with no apparent notice taken by other patrons. Despite the common acknowledgment of these categories, research- ers consistently heard that there is considerable overlap in group identity and mobility of individuals across identities and groups. For example, it was noted that many of the rednecks were also members of the athletic teams, making them jocks as well. Furthermore, some youth associated with the drama group, the jocks, and the rednecks interchangeably. Focus group youth also reported that it is easy for new students to make friends with existing students. In the words of one participant, âYou are taken in real well. But itâs left up to them who to drift off towards and who to get closer to.â In spite of the reported ease of accep- tance among Rockdale area youth, several people interviewed talked about loners. In some estimates, the number of loners has grown in recent years as the area has increased in size and diversity. School officials reported that 15 years ago there were relatively few loners, but that the number has increased. In a 14-month period in 1996 and 1997, two years prior to the shoot- ing, Rockdale County experienced a series of three suspected suicides. A local official reported that while they were all unrelated to one another, the three victims were similar in that they were all loners and came from middle-class to upper-middle-class families. The various cliques in Heritage High School gathered in distinctive places, both inside and outside school. In the commons area before class
37THE COPYCAT FACTOR and in the cafeteria at lunch, the black students congregated in one area, the rednecks in another, the preps another, and so on. Similarly, there were also descriptions of various groups gathering in different and predictable places outside the school. After school and on weekends, different groups would gather in the parking lots of retail stores, such as Kroger or TJ Maxx. The rednecks, for example, were said to hang out in the Kroger parking lot, while black youth had begun to congregate in the parking lot in front of Wal-Mart. Other focal points of youth activity were the local bowling alley, movie theatres, and church facilities. During football season, Friday night home games are attended by most of the student body and serve as a focal gathering point for the entire community. As is true in many communities, some Rockdale County youth ex- periment with sex, alcohol, and drugs, albeit at varying levels. In focus group discussions, several area youth estimated that anywhere from 85 to 90 percent of kids in Rockdale County have used alcohol. Estimates of marijuana use ranged from 60 to 75 percent of area teens. They also reported high levels of sexual activity, estimating that 50 to 60 percent of area adolescents are sexually active. Several reported that they knew one or more teenage girls in the community who have babies. In terms of intergroup relations, several area teens reported that in general, interactions between peer groups tended to be amicable, with no discernable rivalries at the group level. While this was the case for the majority of peer groups, there were some exceptions. For instance, more than one source identified tension between the rednecks and the straight edge mafia. Knowing the contempt the straight edge mafia had for meat, rednecks were reported to occasionally leave the corpse of a dead deer on the front lawn of one of their memberâs houses. Another reported group conflict was between some rednecks and black youths. In contrast to the general lack of group conflict, there were many reports of fights between individuals, over the usual issues of status, respect, and reputation. Very few of these disputes involved the dis- charge of firearms, but most of the youths we interviewed knew of inci- dents in which guns were brandished. Some had seen such events. A few could recount a dozen or more instances, others knew of four or five. One stated that he had someone pull a gun on him. Still others indicated that displaying guns during confrontations is very common. A couple of the focus group participants stated that, when they see a fight, they expect to see a gun pulled. Another di- verged slightly from this, saying that he expected to see a gun only when certain people are involved in the fight, indicating that some are more likely to use firearms than others. While it is hard to pin down an estimate of how often these incidents occur, it is clear that guns are
38 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE available to local youth and are also not uncommonly brandished dur- ing interpersonal disputes. THE SCHOOL Heritage High School is one of three high schools serving residents of Rockdale County. The oldest of the three schools, Rockdale County High School, is located in the old town of Conyers and serves a population that has higher percentages of minorities and working-class whites than the others. The newest, Salem High School, was built in 1991 as part of a national progressive education movement that emphasizes team teaching across a variety of subjects. Heritage, built in 1976, is touted as the flagship high school in Rock- dale County. It boasts high SAT scores, high graduation rates, top-rank- ing soccer and baseball teams, and a good band program. Administrators claim that many families move into the Rockdale area so their children may become beneficiaries of what the Heritage program has to offer. The school enrolls about 1,400 students in grades 9 through 12. Of the three county high schools, Heritage maintains the highest average SAT scores, the highest grades, and the lowest dropout rate. SAT scores run about 100 points above the state average. Over 97 percent of students graduate and 70 percent go on to college. Situated just off Highway 138 in the southwest portion of the county, Heritage was built and designed on a traditional model of educational philosophy that has continued. The school building forms a T, the center of which is the schoolâs common area where students gather before and after school and during lunch periods. Two wings consist mainly of classrooms and offices. The third houses the school auditorium/gymna- sium and auxiliary areas. Parking lots are located in the front and rear of the school. A circular drive in front allows for drop-offs, and buses load and unload in the rear, near doors opening into the commons area. School officials reported that both before and since the shooting inci- dent, day-to-day problems have been minor and infrequent, the most common being smoking in the restrooms, thefts from lockers, fender benders in the parking lots, and an occasional confrontation or fight be- tween students. On a few occasions, students have been caught bringing drugs or knives into the school. While overall school problems have been and continue to be minor, the school system has nonetheless maintained an active security program. Prior to the shooting, each of the area high schools was assigned one school resource officer, a sworn law enforcement official responsible for both the high school and its linked feeder middle school. Heritage also maintained four video surveillance cameras prior to the shooting. The TV
39THE COPYCAT FACTOR monitors and recording devices were located in the main office and were primarily used for determining the identity of a student subsequent to a reported problem. THE OFFENDER Prior to the day of the shooting incident, T.J. Solomon (hereafter T.J.) had never hurt anyone. Other than a few oblique remarks to peers in the weeks prior to the shooting, he had never threatened or bullied anyone. He had no record of arrest and had apparently committed only a few delinquent acts, all but one quite minor, and none violent. He was well- mannered, neat, and respectful of adults. The subsequent investigations, criminal and psychological, revealed that he suffered from depression. He was found guilty but mentally ill. The depression probably began in early childhood and became much worse after his family moved to Rock- dale County from Kernersville, North Carolina, when he was in the eighth grade. The task of reconstructing his state of mind in the period leading up to the shootings is one that has consumed the efforts of many people since the incident: family members, victims, neighbors, mental health and criminal justice professionals, journalists, and members of the public. The present study, conducted two years after the incident, thus comes in the wake of many previous efforts. The present study suffers from the limits of the increasing distance in time. It also suffers from lack of direct con- tact with T.J. or his family, although, if contacted at this point, they would not be the same people. At the same time, this study has the benefit of an extensive and diverse record compiled by previous investigators with a wide variety of personal and professional motives and challenges. The present study differs from past efforts by those involved in the adjudication of the legal charges. Their responsibility was to decide what to do with the offender. In contrast, the goal here is to present an objec- tive, scientific case study. A key difficulty for the present study is how to reconcile the differing viewpoints of the defense and prosecution in the legal deliberations on the question of T.J.âs mental health. The prosecu- tion contended that he was mildly depressed, the defense that he was severely mentally ill. In assessing the available evidence, we conclude that he was severely mentally ill prior to the incident and that the shooting at Columbine High School, combined with this preexisting illness, triggered the incident. Most of the parties who dealt with him agree that Columbine played a key role in stimulating his behavior. The disagreement was about the previously existing illness. The importance of assessing T.J.âs mental health at this point no longer
40 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE has anything to do with his legal status, which has been decided through due process of law. Rather, the issue at present is to understand what led to his heinous act of violence. In our view, it is necessary to recognize the salient role of mental illness in order to understand what occurred. An extraordinary national event coincided with a developmentally vulner- able period in his life in a chance and tragic manner. Had they not coin- cided, he might not have done what he didâbut he still would have been mentally ill. Contrary to the prevailing arguments in his court proceed- ings, our study concludes that his illness was severe (see Table 2-2). No one recognized that illness, because of his age and circumstances, the gradual developmental progress of mental illness during adolescence, and the nature of the particular form of depression that he suffered. This study is therefore relevant not only to efforts to understand, prevent, and control the sensational school shootings that have terrified the public, but also to broader concerns about mental illness and its prevention and treat- TABLE 2-2 Timeline of T.J.âs Significant Life Events September 6, 1983 T.J. is born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. June 1988 T.J.âs father and mother separate. All contact between T.J. and his biological father ceases. T.J. is 4 years old. 1990 T.J. moves to Denim Springs, Louisiana, with his mother. and sister. His mother remarries. At age 7, T.J. begins use of firearms. 1993 T.J. moves with family to Penbrook Pines, Florida. At the beginning of 4th grade T.J. begins taking Ritalin after diagnosis of attention deficit disorder. 1994 T.J. moves with family to Kernersville, North Carolina. November 1996 T.J. moves to Conyers, Georgia, with family. T.J. loses interest in organized sports and fails to make meaningful friendships. Grades begin to decline. May 1998 T.J. tells two fellow students that he doesnât want to live. Counselor notifies T.J.âs parents. December 1998 T.J. steals .22-caliber handgun from stepfatherâs boat and sells it to a teenaged neighbor. February 11, 1999 T.J. steals a CD from a teacherâs desk at school. February 26, 1999 T.J. allegedly takes gun to school showing it to a fellow student. Skips school in afternoon returning home at midnight after drinking all day. Parents reported T.J. as missing. April 20, 1999 Columbine, Colorado, massacre takes place. April/May 1999 T.J. makes statement to others in reference to Columbine about doing it differently and saying how cool it was. May 19, 1999 T.J. is caught with cigarettes and receives lecture from parents. May 20, 1999 T.J. enters Heritage High School and opens fire. Begins incarceration.
41THE COPYCAT FACTOR ment. Although a study of one event cannot provide definitive answers, it does attempt to raise awareness and pose useful questions. A particular form of psychological investigation is employed here to organize the analysis of T.J.âs state of mind leading up to the shootingsâ that of ecological psychology. This approach is introduced here, with a minimum of jargon, primarily because of its value in helping to make sense of an extremely puzzling situation, the commission of a heinous violent act in a nonthreatening situation by an individual with no previ- ous aggressive tendencies. Ecological psychology is an approach to the study of human develop- ment that assumes that development is profoundly influenced by envi- ronment and sees the continuous interaction of person and environment in terms of nested levels of environmental context. These levels can be designated here as family, community, and society. In our view, T.J.âs illness had its roots in his own family, stemming from the event of his biological parentsâ divorce in his early childhood and exacerbated by emotional distance from his mother from that point forward. His illness continued at a low level through middle childhood and the onset of adolescence and then became rapidly much worse as a result of a change at the community level, when his family made one more in a long series of residential moves, this time from North Carolina to Georgia. His illness then erupted in unprecedented and irrational violent behavior as the result of an extraordinary event at the national level, the Columbine High School holocaust. It was the unfortunate and unpredictable confluence of processes across these three levels of envi- ronmental experience that led to the events of May 20, 1999. T.J.âs biological parents, Anthony Solomon and Mae Dean Blundell, were married in 1974, nine years before starting a family. T.J., born An- thony Solomon, Junior, and called T.J. for âTony Junior,â was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1983. His younger sister was born three years later. His parents separated when he was 4 years old, and their divorce be- came final two years later. In psychological interviews after the shooting incident, T.J. immediately spoke of the separation from his father at age 4 when asked to describe the worst thing that had ever happened to him. This event appears to have had a permanent effect on his development. Excavating the circumstances of his biological parentsâ marital breakup from the available record is difficult, but the breakup was clearly not amicable. Two versions of the story are available. One, contained in the transcripts of criminal and civil court proceedings, is that of his mother, who repeatedly testified that T.J.âs father abandoned the family suddenly, for no reason, and terminated contact with his children thereafter. The other account, from his father, is brief, pro-
42 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE vided to investigators after the incident. He reported that she had left him for his best friend, Robert Daniele, whom she subsequently married. The divorce was uncontested. T.J.âs father was granted visitation rights, which he never exercised. His mother received custody of the children. Although the couple agreed to divide much of their joint prop- erty, T.J.âs mother also took sole possession of their jointly owned stock of firearms, which she estimated in her testimony as numbering between 10 and 15 guns. Hunting and target shooting were central recreational ac- tivities for the family. She participated directly in target shooting and also went on hunting trips, although she said that she did not shoot dur- ing the hunting. The guns, however, had been purchased jointly. The record strongly indicates that T.J. was suicidal before and during the Heritage High School shooting incident, despite the contention of prosecutors to the contrary. It is possible, though uncertain, that he may have been influenced by biological predispositions or examples in his own family. His motherâs brother killed himself; his suicide occurred after he discovered that he had an incurable illness. And T.J.âs father had been institutionalized for suspected suicidal behavior; whether he had actually been suicidal is unclear, but he had been committed for observa- tion after the breakup with T.J.âs mother. T.J. himself never learned of the incident involving his father prior to the incident at Heritage High School. Other experiences much later in his life are far stronger indications of T.J.âs own suicidal intentions. After T.J.âs mother married Robert Daniele, the family went through a series of residential moves, including three moves in the six years prior to the shooting incident. His stepfather achieved success in business during this period, and the family became affluent. Mr. Daniele traveled often on business, and T.J.âs mother was the primary caretaker for the children, including an older stepbrother from Robert Danieleâs previous marriage. While T.J.âs interviews indicate that he bore permanent psychological scars from the abrupt separation from his biological father in early child- hood, all the evidence points to an outwardly normal and untroubled childhood prior to the familyâs eventual move to Rockdale County, Geor- gia, from Kernersville, North Carolina, when T.J. was in the eighth grade. T.J. appears to have suffered only mild depression prior to that, mani- fested to others, if at all, only in a tendency to shyness and conformity. T.J.âs parents separated when he was four and the family was living in Tennessee. A period of two years ensued that are not well documented but that led to his motherâs remarriage to his stepfather, in Louisiana, where the newly constituted family continued to live for the next three years. T.J.âs stepfather was then transferred to Florida, where T.J. at- tended the fourth grade. Immediately following this move, he experi- enced trouble with his grades. At this point he was diagnosed with
43THE COPYCAT FACTOR attention deficit disorder and began taking the medication Ritalin. His grades reportedly improved afterward. The following year, the family moved once again, this time to Kernersville, North Carolina, following another change in his stepfatherâs business career. Research for this study included interviews with a number of people who had known T.J. in North Carolina, all of whom had been shocked when they learned what had happened at Heritage High School. They uniformly volunteered that he seemed ânormalâ at that period of his life. In Kernersville, T.J. had been involved in many activities, including friend- ships and play in his neighborhood and organized baseball. He had won fishing contests and been a successful athlete, skilled with a baseball bat. There was some indication that his older stepbrother was âmachoâ and bullied and harangued him occasionally, but other reports indicated that this was ânormal sibling stuffâ and that T.J. also respected and looked up to his stepbrother, who âstuck up for himâ with others. While the record of T.J.âs childhood before Kernersville is less de- tailed, some aspects of the quality of family life are consistently evident. The testimony of T.J. himself, of his mother and his stepfather, and neigh- bors and relatives all indicate that family life following his motherâs re- marriage was very close and somewhat turned in on itself, probably be- cause of the frequent changes in residence. T.J.âs mother took primary responsibility for the children and monitored them very closely. Even though his stepfather traveled frequently on business, he was also very involved with the children when he was at home. The family engaged in many activities together. Over the years these included hunting and fishing, golf, and frequent weekend camping trips. To the extent that they socialized outside their own immediate family, it was usually with extended family members. They were religious, Roman Catholic, and attended church services regularly. The household rules and routines were detailed and supervised. The children had regular chores. The house was always extremely neat and the children neatly attired. T.J.âs mother closely monitored his Ritalin medication from the time it began in fourth grade up through the morn- ing he opened fire at Heritage High School. She paid close attention to medical advice about possible adverse effects of long-term use and made sure that T.J. took Ritalin âholidaysâ whenever he did not have to attend school. She never entrusted the medication regime to him, however, and personally gave him the medicine to take each day that he went to school. Corporal punishment was a feature of childrearing in this household, administered by T.J.âs stepfather. While some experts classify any use of corporal punishment as abusive, there is no evidence that it was frequent or severe in this case or at odds with the standards of the various commu- nities in which they lived, all of them culturally similar despite their
44 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE number and geographic dispersion across the South. It did not happen frequently and was meted out according to a consistent set of standards. There is no indication that T.J. was an abused child according to the standards of his culture. In light of the existing literature on childrearing and delinquency, the extreme consistency of childrearing practices here is particularly notable. There was none of the unpredictable fluctuation between inattention and sudden imposition of harsh discipline that is known to be associated with behavior problems, particularly aggression (Baumrind, 1978). All the orderliness and close supervision of the household, however, appears to have to been related to another kind of problem for T.J.: a lack of emotional connection to others, particularly to his mother. There is some indication in his motherâs own descriptions of him in court testimony. One community member who observed the hearings judged her to be âcoldâ and noted that she referred to him throughout as âthis childâ rather than âmy son.â Inspection of the transcripts tends to bear this out. In response to multiple lines of questioning, she spoke repeatedly of her determined efforts to make sure that he performed well in school and behaved appropriately. She testified defensively to his normality in earlier childhood and voiced her fears about his well-being, especially in relation to taking Ritalin. She stressed her own careful moni- toring and supervision as her primary response to these fears. She never expressed warmth or enjoyment of his company. Whatever the state of T.J.âs mental health and his relationship with his mother in the earlier part of his life, the indications are substantial that both were in serious and worsening condition from the time of the familyâs move from North Carolina to Georgia. After the move, when he was in the eighth grade, T.J. became increas- ingly passive and withdrawn from others. This tendency affected every aspect of his social relationships: at home, in school, in organized recre- ational activities, and in informal relationships with peers. After the move, T.J. enrolled in organized activities, with his parentsâ assistance, but resisted active participation. Formerly a home run hitter in baseball, he would stand at the plate and let three strikes go by without swinging, while onlookers laughed at him. He also resisted joining a Boy Scout troop, even though he had previously enjoyed scouting. He did eventually join and appeared to continue enjoying camping activities. Being outdoors and alone or indoors and listening to music by himself were increasingly the main activities he enjoyed. Around this time, T.J. did succeed in one achievement that earned him the approbation of others. At the age of 13, he killed his first deer. His stepfather spoke of it approvingly in court, and peers reported that talking about guns and hunting was one thing that T.J. always did with
45THE COPYCAT FACTOR enthusiasm. In retrospect, however, there appears to have been a dark side to this. The psychologist who interviewed him on retainer from his defense counsel later testified that âguns were the love of his life. He enjoyed watching animals die and looking into their eyes and trying to figure out what itâs like. Heâs trying to get, to go to the other side. He enjoyed that.â His grades also began to suffer again, a process that had already begun prior to the move and worsened afterward. His parents tried to motivate him by saying that he could not get a driversâ license until they improved. Obtaining a learnerâs permit at the age of 15 is social milestone for Georgia teens. He replied that he did not care about driving. At the time he was arrested, T.J. had been in Georgia for over two years. He had formed no close friendships and had never been on an individual date. He did associate with young people his own age, but only in the context of family, with his cousins, or in organized activities, principally those related to school and scouting. The press widely reported in the immediate wake of the incident that it had been precipitated by a romantic breakup with a particular girl, but that turned out to be false. The young person in question was merely one of a group of people he spoke with in school. There may have been an element of flirtation, but the closest he had come to dating was going to movies in the same group. There had not been a breakup incident, in her mind or his. Girls frequently called the house, but T.J. never accepted the calls. His motherâs expressed irritation about the calls probably did not encourage him, but he himself stated in interviews that he did not like to have friends and did not want people coming over to his house. The strongest evidence that a great emotional distance had opened between T.J. and his mother comes from the videotape made by law enforcement officials immediately after the arrest. It is a remarkable tape, obviously not a directly representative record of daily patterns of interac- tion under normal circumstances, but difficult to ignore nonetheless. Al- though discussing it at this point is out of chronological sequence with the presentation of the course of his development, it is crucial to the analysis of his state of mind in the months leading up to the incident. The tape begins at 8:42 a.m., less than an hour after he discharged the firearms at others. He is alone in a room in the sheriffâs office, with the tape running in real time. He is sobbing and breathing heavily. The first person who comes in is the chief of detectives, Warren Summers. Sum- mers tells him he only needs to ascertain his name and birthdate and will hold other questions about what has happened until T.J. has a chance to seek an attorney. Summers is then solicitous of T.J.âs welfare. He tells him repeatedly to calm down. He offers to get him food. T.J. is frightened and respectful, addressing the detective as âSir.â
46 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE T.J. asks Summers if he has hurt anyone. Summers says âWell, thereâs some people not in too good shape. I tell you this, I donât think anybody is critical. I donât think anybody is gonna die.â Summers leaves the room. T.J. breaks into sobs, says âoh, Godâ once and then âfuckâ twice. He then gets down on his knees and puts his hands in praying position. Someone brings him food and coffee. Summers comes in and out, talking to him about baseball and trying to calm him. At 9:53 a.m. his stepfather arrives. Robert Daniele immediately puts his arms around T.J. and strokes his head. They converse inaudibly. At this point, Summers reads them a Miranda warning. Daniele says he wants to get a lawyer, and Summers agrees but expresses his concern that they do not know what else T.J. may have left at the school. Daniele agrees that he is concerned about that also; he then asks what happened and why and T.J. repeatedly says that he does not know. At one point, Daniele tells T.J. to give him his hands and look him in the eye. T.J. does so and appears to relax somewhat, but he still cannot articulate an explanation. At 11:35 a.m. his mother arrives. She does not touch him. She asks if that is his food and has it removed. She begins asking him what hap- pened and scolds him. During the subsequent conversation she expresses her bewilderment, her anger, her shame, her concern for his sister, and the victims. She asks if he has prayed for the victims. He says he has. She also asks him three separate times why he did not follow through killing himself. The first time, she says, âAnd you were going to kill yourself, I understand? How did that not happen?â T.J. replies âI de- cided not to.â She then repeats, in a mocking tone, âYou decided not to, after you shot these five [sic, there were six] innocent people, you decided not to hurt yourself?â She then expresses her ongoing frustration in communicating with him, saying, âWhy didnât you talk to me?â T.J. replies, âI was scared.â His mother says, âYou were scared? You were too scared? But not scared enough to pull a gun on people? T.J., people are tryinâ to help you. I been tryinâ to help you. I couldnât reach you. You pushed me away.â After some more failed attempts to get him to explain his actions, she says, âThis is the best place for you to be. I mean really. If you donât know why you did it, how they can help somebody that donât why they hurt human beings?â T.J. then raises his voice for the only time in the conversation and says, emphatically, âThey can.â His mother replies, âNo, they canât. Those were children.â Several minutes later, she chal- lenges him for the third time about his failure to kill himself: âI donât know how you took innocent children but you were afraid to do anything to you. That really has me puzzled. You didnât think twice about doing it to them.â
47THE COPYCAT FACTOR Almost immediately after this last statement, investigators enter and announce that they are going to have to search the house. T.J.âs mother becomes concerned about damage to her home and leaves shortly thereaf- ter. At 11:55 a.m., she says to her husband, âI donât know what else to say, he obviously does not want to talk to us.â She turns to T.J. and says, âI donât know what to say to you, T.J., youâve made your decision.â She and her husband leave. She never touched T.J. As difficult as it is to base a psychological assessment on data of this extraordinary nature, collected so invasively under such stressful circum- stances, these data starkly illustrate a profound lack of emotional connec- tion between T.J. and his mother for some time prior to this. Other evi- dence is completely in accord as to her attentiveness to his outward needs, her diligence in managing their household, her bewilderment over his passivity and increasing withdrawal, and the fact that she repeatedly sought professional help and responded actively to the more visible as- pects of his psychological abnormality. His needs and her responses, however, were caught in a vicious cycle. The more she tried to manage and control his life, the more he withdrew, and the more frustrated with trying to reach him she became. And his withdrawal was successful. He maintained enough of the appearance of normality, to his family and to others, that he seemed just a little imma- ture, not mentally ill. The profound and deepening nature of his depres- sion was concealed under the polite exterior of a boy who always ad- dressed adults as âSirâ and âMaâam,â who generally did what he was told, and who rarely talked back. After the initial signs of T.J.âs worsening depression following the move to Georgia, an appearance of normality reestablished itself. His withdrawal was continuing, however, and it was accompanied by changes in his habits. He began to listen to music at his computer for hours at a time, and his musical tastes shifted from country rock to rap and rock music. He copied lyrics from these songs for hours at a time, to the distress of his parents, as it appeared to detract from his attention to schoolwork. They removed the Internet connection from the home com- puters. At some point, T.J. downloaded bomb instructions from the Inter- net, which were found in his room after the incident; he said he did it long before the incident, although it is not clear when. T.J. also shifted his tastes in music, away from country music to more transgressive and rebellious styles. He copied and tried his hand at writ- ing violent rap lyrics, in the manner of Tupac Shakur and other âgangstaâ rappers.â At one point, he told a female classmate that he wanted to be a rap star and write songs about sex and violence, but then added that he did not want to actually hurt anybody because he was not that kind of person.
48 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE His favorite group, however, was a rock group, Korn. Among the myriad genres of contemporary music, Korn is classified by one music rating service in the categories âpost-grunge, alternative metal, heavy metalâ and described as being âominous, gloomy, nihilistic, aggressive, detached, visceral, bleak, angry, hostileâ (Guide, 2001). A review of Kornâs lyrics discloses a few aggressive threats but a much higher proportion of statements of self-loathing, disgust with others, and suicidal longing. After T.J. entered Heritage High School in the ninth grade, an unam- biguous warning sign appeared. There had been local concern about teenage suicide since the string of three deaths two years before, all in- volving youth who seemed to be loners, like T.J. Although one of these was subsequently reclassified as an accident and a countywide agency report was issued saying there had not been a suicide epidemic, fears were aroused, and Heritage High School began teaching suicide aware- ness classes. Two of his classmates reported that T.J. had expressed sui- cidal thoughts. The school and his family reacted appropriately: the school notified the family, and T.J.âs mother took him for a psychological examination. The examiners concluded, however, that he was not at risk. During his tenth grade year, leading up to his shooting rampage at the end of that year, T.J. grew more and more remote from others. His grades continued to decline, and he engaged in some delinquent acts. One of these was serious. In December, he stole a handgun from his fatherâs boat and sold it to another youth, who subsequently claimed that he had acquired it for self-protection. T.J. subsequently claimed that the other youth had badgered him to get him a gun because T.J. frequently talked about guns, but that he had disabled the gun before selling it. This act is the only substantiated instance of serious delinquency on his part prior to the shooting. There was also a report, in February, that he had brought a gun to school and showed it to another student, but the report was investigated and never substantiated. Other instances of delinquency were quite minor. In February, T.J. stole a CD from the desk of a teacher he disliked. On the same day in February when he was reported to have brought a gun to school, he left school early with another boy, got drunk with him, and returned home late. His stepfather punished him by spanking him with a belt, report- edly the only time he ever applied corporal punishment that severe, but also rather striking for the age at which it was administered. Aside from these incidents, the only form of delinquency T.J. is known to have engaged in consisted of some experimentation with alcohol and marijuana, but this does not appear to have been extensive. There is some indication here of association with delinquent peers, a known correlate of the development of delinquent behavior. There were three boys he was said to have spent time with who had reputations for
49THE COPYCAT FACTOR illegal behavior, including those involved in the gun and drinking inci- dents just described. It does not appear, however, that T.J.âs associations with them were much closer than those with any other youth. They never came to his house, and they seem to have sought him out because of his knowledge of and access to firearms. T.J.âs own position in the configuration of peer groups and group identities in the area was not well defined. Although there were recog- nized labels in the area, they were not hard and fast but rather fluid and overlapping. Although a handwritten note introduced in court proceed- ings contained language about getting revenge on âjocks and preps,â there is no indication that T.J. was strongly identified by others or himself as a member or opponent of these or other categories. One boy who knew him in school said that the group T.J. sat with at lunch could be consid- ered ânerds, preps, or jocks.â In subsequent psychological interviews, T.J. identified categories of âskaters, jocks, freaks, people that were and werenât coolâ and said that he fit none of them. The record does contain some reports that T.J. had been taunted on some occasions by other boys in school, but there does not appear to have been a pattern of persistent bullying, and T.J. was not seen as different from others in having to put up with more of this kind of behavior than others. Despite T.J.âs rather amorphous social identity, there was one source of identity that was salient for him and reported subsequently by many others. He was proud of his knowledge of guns, shooting, and hunting. He talked avidly of his excitement about getting a new gun and his hunt- ing trips with his family. He also invoked this aspect of his identity inappropriately at times. A teacher later reported that he had been so- cially inappropriate in class, making sexual remarks that fell flat and also saying at one point, âDonât mess with me. I have access to guns.â The other significant event indicated in the record as occurring in the months just prior to the shooting was a suicide attempt, or at least a strong ideation. This came to light only in psychological interviews after the incident, but he had apparently gone down to the basement one night and put the barrel of a gun into his mouth. He was not able to articulate his intentions at that time, just as he has never been able to articulate his intentions behind the shooting since it occurred. THE INFLUENCE OF COLUMBINE AND OTHER CIRCUMSTANCES IMMEDIATELY PRECEDING THE INCIDENT It is our contention that, at the time of shootings at Columbine High School, T.J. was suffering from mental illness that had grown steadily more serious since the familyâs move to Georgia two years before and had
50 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE already manifested itself in withdrawal from others and suicidal thoughts. In this condition, the events at Columbine High School made an enor- mous impression on him. Withdrawn and lonely, immersed progres- sively in constructing meaning out of the materials of transgressive popu- lar music, he became obsessed with Columbine. This obsession and its suicidal implications are evident in writings T.J. made before he began shooting, reports by others of remarks he made to them, and writings and statements to psychologists that occurred after the incident at Heritage High School. Writings that were found in his room in the immediate aftermath of the shooting contained the following statement: No one could ever know how I feel. No one will ever know. Even the smallest of scars, can run the deepest. Iâve overcome a lot in my few years, but I understand Iâm still leaving a lot behind me that I havenât even experienced, yet! There arenât many words that I can say, to de- scribe how I feel. One big Question everybodyâs probably wondering about now is WHY?! Well, for the sake of my brothers and sisters relat- ed to the trench coat mafia, that will have to remain a mystery to the public eye. I have been planning this for years, but finally got pissed off enough to really do it. The same statement also contained references to bombs that would be discovered after this fantasized incident. Printouts of bomb-making in- structions downloaded from the Internet were also found. Other fragments of writing found in his room appeared to be at- tempts at writing song lyrics. One of them read, âLaughinâ at my victims as they drop to their knees. Begginâ for their life, screaminâ, âplease, Dear God, donât let this crooked motherfucker murder meââ and was signed âMe.â While there is no question that these documents establish that T.J. had previous thoughts about enacting his own version of Columbine, their timing is uncertain. The prosecution in his court proceedings maintained that the former document had been written the morning of the incident. In his psychological interviews, however, T.J. said that that it had been written some time before. It is unclear when or how he had downloaded bomb instructions from the Internet, since his parents had removed the household Internet connection quite a while before, but there was never any evidence that T.J. made or placed bombs. After the incident, T.J. wrote explicit statements while in detention prior to court hearings that explicitly attributed his actions to the spur of the Columbine example. He wrote: I was feeling anger, rage, envy, and fear all together. It wasnât the first time that I have had that feeling, but I wanted it to be the last. I felt that
51THE COPYCAT FACTOR expressing myself through explicit and violent lyrics, and poems wasnât enough anymore. I was tired of fighting off emotions that I had to let out. Though I did not feel at ease to discuss my thoughts with anyone but myself. I felt the next thing left to release anger would be through violence. I had just gotten the idea from the shooting at Columbine High School on April 20. So the Monday of the May 20 shooting, I decided to open fire May 20, one month after the Colorado shooting. But I didnât really assure myself that I would. Investigations after the incident disclosed multiple instances in which T.J. said things to other people before the incident that indicated his feel- ings of identification with the Columbine killers. He began to talk about Columbine in odd ways to other people. His remarks did not make sense to them and were disregarded at the time. They were not direct threats but rather oblique speculations. During this same period, another boy in this same area had made direct threats to enact a Columbine scenario, and this boy was identified and committed to a mental institution. Those hearing T.J.âs remarks discounted them. A member of his scout troop reported that during a discussion of Columbine, T.J. had said, âI should do something like that.â T.J. also made a number of remarks in the presence of a small group of students he ate lunch with. Those students later stated to investigators or in court that, with explicit to reference to Columbine, âHe said it should have happened to our school a long time ago,â that he âcould understandâ the Columbine killers âwanting to shoot the jocks and preps,â and âthat the kids at Columbine were aiming at certain people and that slowed them down, and if he ever shot at Heritage, that he wouldnât take any time to aim, that he would shoot at everybody.â The record contains two different versions of reports by one student, a boy named Trey Carver, that T.J. had made statements about shifting blame to the band Korn if he did something heinous. The difference between the two statements is that the heinous act in question in the previous version, recorded by investigators immediately following the incident, is suicide. In the latter version, from testimony at T.J.âs transfer hearing, the act in question is shooting up the school. In subsequent legal proceedings, the defense and prosecution attor- neys agreed that T.J. had been obsessed with Columbine but disagreed about whether his identification with the Columbine killers was or was not bound up with suicidal ideations. Evidence on this point was tied to two different reports by a classmate. The investigatorâs notes from the interview on May 20, the afternoon of the shooting, record the classmate as saying âT.J. told me one day that he thought it would be real cool if he could put some song lyric on his calculator about suicide and if he com- mitted suicide, people would blame the band that wrote the song lyrics
52 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE for his suicide.â Appearing as a government witness at the transfer hear- ing on August 8, several weeks later, the classmate changed the story, saying âHe said that if he ever shot up a school or did something like that . . . he would put song lyrics to a band in his book bag so people would blame it on the band.â The classmate further identified the band in ques- tion as Korn. During his testimony, the classmate denied his earlier re- port that T.J. had been talking about suicide but admitted that the Korn lyrics in question were in fact about suicide. It is not clear why the classmate changed his story, but, by conven- tional standards of social science research, the earlier investigation report has the greater credibility, on the basis of its immediate proximity to the events as well as by virtue of the way in which the account emerged during the natural flow of the conversation. Although the classmateâs alteration of his story later played a significant role in the outcomes of T.J.âs court cases, there is ample evidence from multiple sources both that T.J. was suicidal and that he was obsessed with Columbine. Columbine was, after all, a suicidal undertaking. On May 19, 1999, the day before he opened fire at Heritage High School, T.J. had gone to school as usual. That afternoon around 4 p.m., T.J.âs sister discovered a pack of cigarettes in T.J.âs pocket and informed their mother. Later that evening, T.J.âs parents sat down with him for a discussion. A lecture regarding the health dangers of using tobacco turned more broadly to one about accepting responsibility for his actions and understanding the consequences of his behavior. Aside from this conversation, no punishment was given. At 10:00 p.m. the talk was fin- ished and T.J. was sent to bed. He put his favorite Korn CD on the stereo underneath his bed and, as he often did, set the player to ârepeat.â He fell asleep listening to the suicidal lyrics that continued to play throughout the night. THE INCIDENT The following morning, Thursday, May 20, 1999, precisely one month to the day after the Columbine killings, T.J. woke at 7:00 a.m. He sat up in bed and listened for a moment to the music that was still playing. As he usually did, he went out to get the newspaper and returned to the kitchen where his mother gave him his Ritalin medication. He then proceeded downstairs to get ready for school. While T.J. was downstairs, his sister and a friend were upstairs, getting ready to receive awards for academic achievement at a ceremony that day. T.J.âs mother was taking pictures of the girls as they prepared for their triumphant moment. Meanwhile, downstairs at approximately 7:10 a.m., T.J. broke into his stepfatherâs locked gun cabinet and selected a .22 caliber rifle and a .357
53THE COPYCAT FACTOR magnum handgun. He proceeded to saw the stock off of the .22 rifle and hide the discarded butt under a nearby couch. T.J. showered and dressed in baggy blue jeans and a loose fitting white t-shirt. He concealed the rifle inside his pants by securing it to his leg with a leather strap and placed the handgun in his book bag. At 7:45 a.m., T.J. left the house for school and boarded the school bus. Remarkably, several of the other students who were on the bus that day reported to law enforcement officials that they had not seen anything unusual about T.J. One, however, later reported he had noticed T.J. limp a little as he boarded the bus. No one realized that he had two firearms in his possession. T.J. sat at the back of the bus and kept to himself. At a little before 8:00 a.m., T.J. arrived at Heritage High School and proceeded toward the rear door of the schoolâs commons area (see Figure 2-2). On his approach, T.J. left his book bag near some woods just behind the school and continued toward the rear entrance. One student wit- nessed T.J. kneeling by his book bag. In an interview after the incident, T.J. recounts, âWhen I got to school I was walking up there. I didnât even FIGURE 2-2 Heritage High School commons area. SOURCE: Diagram adapted from Rockdale County district attorneyâs files. X = TJâs position = TJâs route of travel B = .22 bullet casings Legend XB B B B B B B GIRLSSNACK BARBOYS CAFETERIA AREA OFFICE Tables Trophy Cases B
54 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE know what I was going to do yet. . . . I just know I had them there. So I was walking, and the thing came out for the gun . . . and the bullets started dropping out. So I put them back in there . . . and then after that it was pretty muchâI pretty much felt I had to do it because, you know, there was somebody that had already seen me with it at this point.â With the .22 rifle in hand, T.J. continued to walk toward the rear commons door. Two other students observed him as they also ap- proached the rear door. T.J. said to them, âYâall stay here. Yâall are cool. Youâll be okay.â T.J. entered the commons area and opened fire. Witnesses reported that T.J. held the .22 rifle at his hip as he fired 12 shots throughout the room, emptying the firearm. Eight students were hit. Two of them escaped injury because the bullets lodged in objects they were wearing (a backpack) or holding (a book). Six were wounded, one seriously, none fatally. Two male students then chased after T.J. as he went back outside through the same doorway he had entered. After dropping the rifle, T.J. pulled the .357 magnum revolver from his pants and turned to fire at his pursuers. They dove for cover, escaping injury. T.J. continued down a sidewalk behind the school and fired two more shots to his rear at the school building but did not strike anyone else. By this time, two of the schoolâs assistant principals had made their way through the gym bringing them outside in front of T.J.âs path. T.J. stopped, dropped to his knees, and placed the revolver in his mouth. In a note written by T.J. sometime after the incident he recalls, âWhen I walked out I had, somewhere between the door and the sidewalk, turned sui- cidal. I felt like death was the only way out of the situation. I was scared and mad at myself. I thought that no one really cared what happened to me from then on.â After several minutes of coaxing from the assistant principals to put the gun down, T.J. complied and handed over the firearm. As he relin- quished control of the .357, T.J. hugged one of the assistant principals. He was crying hysterically and said repeatedly, âI donât know why I did this!â He later wrote, âThen the assistant principal walked out, and I saw he cared so much as to walk into a dangerous situation to help me. So I gave my weapon up and it felt good to know that everything was over.â The incident had lasted 12 minutes. In spite of the sudden and rapid unfolding of events, local officials responded quickly. While several people had called 911 to report the event, it was a student in the school using a cellular phone who first contacted law enforcement. Within four minutes, sheriffâs deputies were on the scene and immediately took T.J. into custody. Table 2-3 details the incidentâs timeline of events. By 8:40 a.m., T.J. was sitting in a Rockdale County sheriffâs office interrogation room in preparation for questioning.
55THE COPYCAT FACTOR After 11 minutes emergency medical personnel had arrived and began treating injured students. Several of the students fled from the school in panic, running across major roadways into neighboring fields. Others were evacuated from the school by bus. The school resource officer, who staggered his hours at the school campus from day to day, was en route when he heard the call on his radio that a shooting had taken place. He arrived minutes later and began assisting in evacuating the school and helping to tend to the injured. Some in the Rockdale community expressed contempt that the officer was not present to prevent or respond to the shooting incident. Yet one school official conveyed relief that the officer was not there, citing the possibility of fatal consequences for T.J. or others. Authorities estimated that there were anywhere from 125 to 200 stu- dents in the common area that morning. Many sat on the floor talking to friends before class. Others worked on homework assignments from the previous day. Remarkably, the spraying bullets struck only eight. Of the six students who were wounded, five were taken by ambulance to an area hospital. The sixth, sustaining the most serious injury, was taken to an Atlanta medical facility by helicopter. Of the injuries sustained, one of the victims was shot behind her right knee. Another was shot twice in his left thigh. Two were shot in the buttocks, one sustaining more serious injury than the other. One was shot in his left foot, and the final injured victim was shot in the back of her right ankle. TABLE 2-3 Incident Timeline of Events May 19, 1999 10 p.m. T.J. goes to bed following a lecture on accepting responsibility for his actions after being caught with cigarettes. May 20, 1999 7 a.m. T.J. is awakened by his mother for school. 7:05â7:40 a.m. After getting paper for his mother, T.J. goes downstairs breaks into gun cabinet and takes possession of a .22 caliber rifle and a .357 handgun. T.J. saws off the stock of the .22, showers and dresses in baggy jeans and a tee shirt. 7:45 a.m. With .22 rifle concealed inside his pants and a .357 in his book bag, T.J. catches the bus for school. 8 a.m. T.J. arrives at school, enters into common area and opens fire. Six students receive non-fatal injuries. 8:15 a.m. Within four minutes Sheriff deputies arrive on scene taking T.J. into custody. EMS arrive within 11 minutes treating victims. The school is evacuated.
56 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE Two other students were shot but did not receive physical injury. One of the students was shielded from harm by her book bag, which she wore on her back; a single book held at chest level saved the other. Soon after word of the shooting incident hit the airwaves, the media swarmed. By one estimate, there were 67 news agencies that rushed to the scene. Their equipment and trucks lined the roadways in the area surrounding the high school. Helicopters circled in the air. Several stu- dents provided interviews and information to the press. In an effort to control the dissemination of information, school offi- cials designated the athletic field house behind the school as the locale for press releases and briefings. Portable toilets were brought in to accom- modate reporters and their crews. The phone lines were flooded by an enormous volume of calls to school and government offices by concerned community members. There was panic and increased awareness across all schools in the county. Several officials echoed the sentiment of one government leader who stated, âThe shooting used every resource this community had.â As the community grappled with the immediate aftermath of the incident, there emerged varying accounts of what T.J.âs supposed inten- tions had been. Early media portrayals of the incident indicated that he was distraught over the break up with a girlfriend. Others pointed to the idea that he had been bullied by classmates and had sought out revenge. Neither of these stories was found to be true. In an interview with a psychologist while in custody, T.J. reported, âI just wanted to cause a big panic. I didnât want to kill or hurt anyone. I wasnât really aiming at anybody. I aimed at objects, not peopleâthe wall, the floor, a cinder block. I was scared and was thinking Iâm going to let it out and afterwards itâs going to be gone.â In another such interview, he said, âI didnât really want to hit anybody. . . . It was as an accident as far as anybody getting hurt. That wasnât supposed to happen.â Prosecutors later discounted these subsequent statements as self-serv- ing and contended that, while T.J. may not have been aiming at anyone in particular, the intent to inflict harm was still present. In support of this, one law enforcement official pointed out that while T.J. was shooting from the hip and aiming low, many if not most of the students in the commons area that morning were seated on the floor or on benches and as such were directly in harmâs way. Apart from the issue of how much harm T.J. intended, it is clear that he did not go there to single out any one person but rather shot randomly throughout the room. Another statement by T.J. that later figured in his court proceedings emphasized how much he envied the attention that the Columbine killers got as a result of their deeds. He said that he was thinking of that when he acted.
57THE COPYCAT FACTOR All of those who subsequently interviewed T.J. were in agreement that his act was prompted by the events at Columbine. The assistant prosecuting attorney on the case stated in an interview for this study, âColumbine was the trigger that gave T.J. the permission to do it. It showed a way that T.J. could gain power; he could be in control. He envisioned he could be someone; that he could be infamous.â And dead. THE OFFENDER AND THE JUSTICE SYSTEM T.J. was immediately apprehended by the sheriffâs department of Rockdale County. A massive law enforcement investigation began at once, involving local and state agencies. T.J.âs family hired a local attor- ney within about three hours and later retained the services of one of the most prominent criminal defense law firms in the state. The principal criminal justice proceedings that ensued were a transfer hearing in juvenile court on August 2, 1999; a sentencing hearing in supe- rior court on October 2, 2000; a decision by the state parole board in May 2001; and, most recently, a court order in superior court amending the original sentence in response to the action of the parole board. At the conclusion of the transfer hearing, the juvenile court waived the offender to superior court, to be tried as an adult. T.J. entered a plea of guilty but mentally ill before the judge, the Honorable Sidney Nation, and received a complex sentence that appeared to make him eligible for pa- role after a minimum of 18 years. In May 2001, however, the state parole board reinterpreted Judge Nationâs sentence under changes in parole board policy that had been instituted the previous year to mean that T.J. would not be eligible for parole for 36 years. In August 2001, Judge Nation issued an ordering reducing the sentence so that, even under the parole boardâs newly announced guidelines, T.J. would still be eligible for parole in 18 years. The sentence reduction also imposed additional condi- tions, including successful completion of psychiatric treatment and a spe- cific admonition that evidence of his being a danger to himself or others would be considered a violation of probation. At each of these four critical junctures in the judicial response to T.J.âs actions on May 20, 1999, issues of the state of T.J.âs mental health, the standards by which his mental health should be assessed, and the rela- tionship of his mental health to state law were central and controversial. In 1994, Georgia joined the list of 47 states and the District of Colum- bia that adopted legislation between 1992 and 1995 making it easier to try juveniles charged with serious crimes as adults. The Georgia legislation specified seven violent offenses, soon known as the âseven deadly sins,â for which charges would become the exclusive jurisdiction of the adult
58 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE criminal justice system. Aggravated assault, however, and the other charges brought against T.J. were not among the seven. Had any of his victims died, he would have gone immediately into the adult system. Since none did, a transfer hearing in juvenile court was necessary before T.J. could be handled as an adult in superior court. The Rockdale County district attorney proceeded in this manner. The mental health issue quickly came to the fore, but in a manner quite different from insanity pleas in adult cases. Georgia law states a number of conditions under which a person age 17 or younger may not be transferred of out the juvenile system. Among them is the requirement that the juvenile not be committable to an institution for mental illness. Other provisions of state law define the conditions that would require such involuntary commitment to a mental institution to include âdisorder of thought or mood which significantly impairs judgment or behaviorâ and presenting âa substantial risk of imminent harm to that person, him- self, or others based on recent behavior.â These standards thus involve much less pronounced forms of mental illness than the severe psychotic disorders that typically must be demon- strated in cases of pleas of not guilty by reason of insanity in adult courts. This situation set the terms for most presentations and interpretations of evidence during the transfer hearing. T.J. and his attorneys did not deny what he had done. Rather, they argued, and the prosecution disputed, that his actions were associated with mental illness sufficiently severe to require that he be involuntarily committed to a mental institution. Since state law recognizes substantial risk of suicide as evidence that a person needs to be so committed, the transfer hearing essentially turned on whether T.J. was seriously suicidal, for which the current study finds there to be powerful evidence in the affirmative. The arguments back and forth between defense counsel and prosecu- tion were thorough, informed, and cordial. There was ample evidentiary support provided by both sides and sharp questioning by the judge, Hon- orable William Schneider. All parties agreed that T.J. was clinically de- pressed, but the court-appointed psychologist asserted that the depres- sion should be categorized as âmild disthymic disorder,â while the psychologist retained by the defense characterized it as âmajor depres- sion, recurrent, severe with psychotic features.â A number of issues left room for interpretation and, ultimately, judi- cial discretion in assessing opposing arguments. The question of whether T.J. should be considered suicidal was parsed, often implicitly, by the time period in question: before, during, or after the shooting incident. Competing assessments of the extent and seriousness of his suicidal in- tentions before the incident turned on whether the previous reports by fellow students who reported him after the suicide prevention class were
59THE COPYCAT FACTOR significant, or whether, as those persons later said during postincident investigations, they had been âjokingâ; 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 âdisorder of thought or moodâ 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 âsecondary gainâ 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 inten- tions. The prosecution argued that this was a âmeâ crime, in which T.J. wanted to get a lot of attention so badly that he was willing to do some- thing 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 antide- pressant medication, Zoloft. After these symptoms and behaviors began to appear, he was switched to a different medication, Depakote, which is also an antidepres- sant 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 com- mittable as long as he was securely confined and given appropriate medi- cation. 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: âThe sever- ity and the viciousness of these offenses makes the publicâs interest in treating the juvenile as an adult paramount to any other interests be-
60 DEADLY LESSONS: UNDERSTANDING LETHAL SCHOOL VIOLENCE fore the Court including the juvenileâs interest in remaining in the juvenile system.â Waiving T.J. to superior court exposed him to far more severe penal- ties 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 juris- diction 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 chil- dren (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.âs family and psychological experts for the court, the state, and the defense. The issue of mental illness played quite a different role in the sentenc- ing 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 pros- ecution. One was about T.J.âs intentions. Both witnessesâ accounts and T.J.âs 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 girlâs chest. Another question was whether T.J. deserved any discount for plead- ing guilty, which the judge referred to as a not uncommon practice in the stateâs 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 âDo we have the guts to protect ourselves from our own children?â
61THE COPYCAT FACTOR Judge Nation handed down a sentence of 60 years of custody by the Department of Corrections along with a concurrent 40 years on proba- tion, 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 con- sidered T.J. mentally ill. He said, âI understand mental illness. I know itâs real. I know it exists,â but, that, in reaching his decision, âWhat 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,â 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 Cor- rections immediately after the sentence was handed down, in October 2000. He was sent to Arrendale State Prison, in the mountainous north- eastern 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 De- cember, 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 Nationâs sentence should be interpreted to mean that T.J. should serve a minimum of 36 rather than 18 years. The parole boardâs decision was presented as conforming to its 1998 guidelines that 90 percent of sentences for 20 specific crimes, including aggravated as- sault, be served in full. Fieldwork for the current study during June 2001, however, disclosed speculation from a number of knowledgeable parties that the parole boardâs action was in fact an angry response to T.J.âs sui- cide 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 consider- ation 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.âs case the previous May.
62 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 pro- bation. These additional conditions are consistent with his original state- ments 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 judgeâs new sentence for T.J. himself is less clear now. If T.J. tries to kill himself again and fails, he risks having his proba- tion 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 judgeâs order might affect T.J.âs future actions. This uncertainty illus- trates 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 en- tered 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 emo- tional distress as a result of their experiences. All of the victims under- went psychological counseling in the months succeeding the shooting. Their parents also suffered emotional anxiety, and several family mem- bers experienced depression requiring prolonged treatment. Some con- tinued 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, âoverprotectiveâ of their children, causing tension. An- other 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
63THE COPYCAT FACTOR who âjust didnât seem to care about much after the shootingâ or âseemed to live for the moment.â In addition to the direct physical, psychological, and emotional im- pacts sustained by the victims of the Heritage High shooting, some fami- lies 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 re- lated 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 to- ward T.J. According to one recollection, three of the victims wanted the longest possible sentence to be handed down in response to T.J.âs actions. In the words of one, âNo, I donât forgive him and I donât 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 âI want him to be in jail as long as he possibly can be.â . . . You see things differently when it happens to you.â Conversely, two other victims expressed attitudes of forgiveness and concern over T.J.âs 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 victimsâ felt that T.J.âs 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. âHe robbed a lot of people of a lot of things. . . . I donât have any anger against him; heâs just a mental case.â 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.âs bullets impacted the lives of the victims and family members in multifaceted ways. Victims were clearly affected physi- cally, psychologically, attitudinally, and within their interpersonal relations.
64 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 incidentâs 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.âs actions as those of a lone âmental caseâ 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 embar- rassed 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 ârapedâ by the media. Another reported that when he talked to people outside the county, he actually got support- ive feedback, to the effect that these incidents could have happened in âAnywhere, U.S.A.â A few people, including some who had worked with the documen- tary 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 âAnywhere, U.S.A.â per- spective 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 un- pleasant 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.
65THE COPYCAT FACTOR 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 âkids were compassionate with T.J. They understood his problems. They described it as âYeah, he had problems with X, Y, Z and he just lost it.â They were not angry with him.â 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, âI donât think T.J. knew who he shot.â Another said, âHe just started pulling the trigger, I donât think he in- tended to seriously harm people,â and another âYeah, he was shooting towards the ground, the whole time. I donât thinkâI really truly donât think he was trying to kill anybody.â Another pointed out how much T.J. knew about guns and said, âif he wanted to kill somebody, theyâd be dead.â 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 âcry for helpâ and a âcry for attention . . . look at me.â One said, âI think he got tired of everybodyâs bullshit and said âScrew it,ââ to which another added his construction of T.J.âs state of mind as âNobody else is going to help me, Iâll do it myself. . . . I think he wanted to scare the hell out of everybody. And he accomplished that.â When asked what kind of help they thought he wanted, they said âFriends, somebody to care about himâ and âSomebody to stop judging him; judgment is a huge issue, right now.â 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 prosecutionâs 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, âPeople feel sorry for him. Shouldnât it be the other way around?â 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,
66 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 success- ful in doing so. Churches became involved and held community meet- ings. One church organized a retreat at which some students from Col- umbine High School came to Rockdale to talk with Heritage students. On a more long-term basis, the school system has increased the num- ber 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 inter- viewed expressed ongoing concern that too many local youth still are in need of adult attention. One of them offered the opinion that âItâs not kids. Itâs the parents.â The circumstances of rapid community change and of many young people on their own while their hard-working, afflu- ent 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: âA 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 donât think it will ever get as loose as what they were. But they are getting looser about you carrying a gun.â The primary area in which there is evidence of decisive, long-term change in institutional policy is that of relationships between school offi- cials 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 secu- rity. There was general agreement that bringing in metal detectors was not the answer and that the community âdid not want the schools to become like prisons.â 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.âs shooting strategy that strictly forbids baggy pants of the type in which he concealed the .22 rifle.
67THE COPYCAT FACTOR The major change, however, appears to be the new policy of immedi- ately referring any incident involving weapons in school to law enforce- ment. There was an incident following T.J.âs 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 attrib- uting 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 interven- tion 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 sub- sequent 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.
68 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. Men- tal illness, the example of Columbine, and emotional attachment and ac- cess 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? Undoubt- edly 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 pre- sents 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.âs 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 subse- quent 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 as- sessed 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 treat- ment to mentally ill juveniles may have been severely compromised. Just two years before the incident at Heritage High School, the State of Geor- gia resolved an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into condi- tions 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
69THE COPYCAT FACTOR 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 Soci- ety 9:239â276. Butterfield, F. 1995 All Godâs 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: 1970â98. 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 Ag- gression Among Children, D.J. Pepler and K.H. Rubin, eds. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.