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Statement # 17

A Loser Shoots

At the end of April 2002, a 19-year-old male youth in Erfurt, Germany, shot 17 people and himself. In the US such things happen more frequently. 
The murdered people urge us to ask: is this an incident, or are there trends we should recognize?
We have to speak about the contact between parents, teachers and youths - or the lack of this contact, about large schools and alienation, about violence on TV or in computer games, and about the handling of emotions - or learning how to handle them - especially for boys.
OK - and can we do something meaningful?

What happened 

The parents did not know anything 

Is there a type of killer? 

... in a type of society? 
Pressure to perform 
Large schools 

Coping with feelings 

What happened 

Earlier in 2002 Robert Steinhaüser, 19, was earlier this year expelled from school, the Gutenberg Gymnasium in Erfurt, Germany. Last year, he had failed his final examination. He was not given a second chance because he had committed fraud with absentee reports. He had hidden this from his parents. Every morning, he pretended to go to school. 

He was a member of a shooting club and apparently was able to get weapons. His act must have been premeditated and planned for quite a long time. On April 26, he shot 14 teachers, two girls, a police officer, and himself. The parents, the family, the school and the broader community were perplexed; nobody had foreseen this. 

The parents did not know anything 

The parents did not know that their son had been expelled from school. They knew that he was

"addicted to violent computer games", as they told Der Spiegel. 
"He always sat in front of his computer," the mother tells, "it was an addiction." 

The parents locked up the computer, but nothing helped.

His family life was called "normal", but there was scarcely any real contact, only now and then a few words. The boy would almost always stay in his room, and did not tell he was expelled from school. The parents knew he was a member of a shooting club, but didn't know he had smuggled weapons into the house. They especially did not know anything about his inner life, his feelings. Apparently, there was some behavior control, but no contact with his inner world.

"This is a fatal mistake of judgment. Maybe the demands on him were too heavy and was he very unhappy."
"After this horrible act, we ask ourselves again and again where Robert's hatred and despair might have come from, and why we did not observe this before."

The parents in Littleton, Colorado, about which we already have written, knew only a little bit about the inner worlds of their sons. 
And this was also true in January 2002 when 15-year-old Charles Bishop flew a small airplane into an office building in Tampa, Florida. 

"Bishop's mother had no idea her son sympathized with Bin Laden."

A more recent story, March 2003, told that two teenagers went to Tsjetjenia to fight against the Russians. Unless the boys had prepared their traveling from 11 September 2001, again we read "The parents did not know anything". The boys had trained themselves, had a lot of money, had visas and tickets. 

"My parents were upset that I was gone away," says one of the boys, "they were very glad I was back." The boy wants to go back to fight as a martyr. But 

"No, we do not talk about it anymore."

Is there a type of killer?

"Bishop was a lone wolf. He had few friends. He was a youngster who was psychologically fouled up," reported the police. According to his schoolmates, he was "an inconspicuous boy", who was also cheerful sometimes. Different from the boys of Littleton, he never stood out, for example, by wearing black clothes.

Psychologist Steffen Dauer mentions in Der Spiegel a couple of characteristics which, as he calls them, Amokläufer (people who run amuck), have in common: 

"They are introverted, have bad contact with people around them, and over a long period of time feel themselves te be hurt and disappointed. Usually, they kill wildly and by so doing let off steam. They figure they will die."

... in a type of society?

Trying to typify the killers leads nowhere. After Littleton, this became an obsession in the US, but it lead to absurdities, nothing more. Kids who wear particular clothes or use specific words, and even children who played at shooting have been dismissed from class and sent to a psychologist, who could not find any sign of mental illness - or sent directly to police. We found some examples in an article and placed them in a file named "Zero Intelligence". 

It would be better look at the circumstances and the environment. There is a social environment, a class, a school and a society. There we find characteristics with which we might do something.

We see a bad relationship between youths and their parents, a lack of any meaningful contact.. We see teenagers who completely isolate themselves and busy themselves with violent games. In Japan, this appears to happen quite frequently: youths lock themselves in their rooms for months. 

We see large schools in an achievement-oriented society. We read about many suicides of young students, in Japan but also here [in the Netherlands]. Recently, a ten-year-old girl killed herself because she thought she had made mistakes in her homework. This is not far from home, because the US, Germany and the Netherlands have the same type of culture and society. We must have a critical look at that. Here, in the Netherlands, are very few weapons available. In the US, weapons are readily available. Let's keep it safe in our country, but let's have a look at the other trends. 

Pressure to perform 

This is a characteristic of our culture. Formally, there are no more lower and upper classes. Instead there is equal opportunity - but now we have the obligation to avail ourselves of the opportunity. Now that there are equal demands, there is greater competition. You have to become the winner, not a loser. But not everybody can win. 

There have been so many school killings in the US that it is possible to do statistical research. In a study of 209 cases, including suicide, it was shown that there are two peaks during the year: in the autumn - when the school year starts - and in the spring - when it becomes clear who will be the losers.

We should diminish this pressure to perform and put it in a broader perspective. There are more values in life than winning and earning money. We must give attention to the losers as persons. 

Large schools 

"The human scale is gone," said politician Ursie Lambrechts (NRC, 24 March 2001). "Students and teachers function best in a small well-organized school of, say, a maximum of 600 students. If there are more, no one knows one another."

Anonymity and massiveness are the parents of hate, says psychologist René Diekstra. He refers to the Internet, where after the Littleton shootings more than a thousand hate sites appeared. He and others say that  the 'school factories': increase in scale results in alienation, which in turn is a foundation for criminality. (Diekstra in WD, 21 May 2002, De Graaf in WD, 3 May 2002).

School education has become more impersonal, among others due to the use of computers and other methods of teaching. "Teachers must return to the class," says a group of professionals. "They must come back as an example." A large school has insufficient view of the individual child. This especially hurts children who have fallen behind - perhaps the future dropouts. 

One may build fences and gates, institute pass controls and school security or police officers to create a safe school, but ultimately everything hinges on the personal contact between all involved. In the case of Erfurt, we have seen that 'model behavior' does not help or prevent anything. Many school shooters are described as inconspicuous students. The secret is to see them and to approach them as a person - including the 'silent grey mice' who do not attract attention. If not, we don't know which and how many strong feelings they suppress and do not express, thus cannot handle with. 

Coping with feelings 

As happened Littleton, after the Erfurt schootings there was a public discussion about violence on TV and in computer games. Violence in films and games might be censored, but even the  News Journal for Youth we have here daily on television cannot avoid violence. There is violence in our world.

The influence of TV violence has been investigated at length. Gradually, researchers have agreed that there is such an influence. The crucial point is of course how the young viewer copes with it, and for this, emotional contact with her or his parents is vital. Again, the crucial issue is not control but instead personal involvement and contact with the inner world, the feelings of the young person, and thus: personal contact.

Violence in computer games is still being debated. Here, opinions are split. Logically it seems that winning scores by killing people must have some influence. But others view this as a kind of sport and an outlet to let off steam, thus healthy. Again, the crucial point is how the player copes with feelings like excitement or hate, but also powerlessness and losing.

Thus, young people have to learn to cope with feelings. This could readily be done at school. For example in the classes about drama and literature, as well as in sports and expression, but also in daily contact with one another.

In our culture, boys and men are especially weak in coping with feelings. We have already written about this in Statement # 6 "Time for Boys". At school, boys participate less than girls. Boys are more action oriented, girls more verbal. Freerd Ykema points to the "testosterone explosion" boys go through at puberty. (De Volkskrant, 21 February 2001). Many boys see there father at home only seldom, and at elementary school they mostly only see  female teachers.

"It seems as if nobody likes boys in puberty or adolescence. In our discussions in the teachers' room, for eight out of ten girls the subject is their grades and the quality of their work, but for eight out of ten boys we speak mostly about their unruly behavior. [...]
I regret that very few teachers have a real emotional bond with the boys in their classes. If there is a bond, it has a reprimanding and correcting character. Very seldom there is a bond like 'you may be struggling, but I see you're very smart'. Ultimately, communication is the crucial point. This asks for a method fitted to boys."

We are able to do something. As we are not politicians, we cannot change the number of students in a class. But at our schools, we may be able, as a parent, a teacher or a student, to promote a small-scale atmosphere, one that includes good contact. As individuals, we may better establish and maintain contact with young people; especially with their inner world.


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