Wednesday, April 18, 2007
When are we going to learn?
If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and acts like a duck....then its a duck.
I have been watching the drama unfolding at Virginia Tech. in the wake of the disaster that occurred there on Monday. The pundits and arm chair quarterbacks have been weighing in on their opinions and asking "how could this have happened?" and "how could this have been prevented?". My thoughts on the matter might be simplistic, but I think I can answer those questions.
How could this have happened?
The real question should be "when was this going to happen?". The description of the shooter by all those that interacted with him is consistent. He was a loner. He had written violent plays and essays posted on thesmokinggun.com and in English class. He reportedly had classmates, who after reading his work in English class, prophetically joke that would someday shoot up the school. High school classmates said that he would not respond to pleasantries and if he did it would be with a distant, far off glare. He would not make eye contact when speaking and would often mumble. He was described by his English advisor as "seriously disturbed" and her attempts to get him help through the counseling department failed. She even notified the police who said that there was nothing they could do.
How could this have been prevented?
This kind of illness doesn't develop over night. It hasn't been reported, but I would bet you dollars for donuts that this man had adjustment problems dating back to preschool. He probably made no real connections, had no real friends in elementary school. He may have even been a bed wetter or tortured animals. These are all classic signs of serial killers and mass murderers. Emigrating from Korea at a young age, looking different from other kids in his suburban Washington home didn't help.
Who are the experts when it comes to assessing children's behavior?
Teachers can tell you which kids will do well later in life and which kids will end up in jail. Teachers know who the bullies are, who the shy kids are and they know who are the class clowns. Teachers look our children in the eye everyday and see their inner-workings. They see how our children interact with the world on a daily basis.
His teachers must have known there was something different about this kid, but what could they do? Teachers have to kowtow to parents (who spend less time awake with their children than the teachers do Monday through Friday) and to principals and school boards who are unsympathetic to their concerns. If a teacher tells a parent that they have observed behaviors that are abnormal, then usually the parents become resentful and view the information as an indictment of their parenting.
We put enough burden on our overworked teachers, but there should be a system in place where our teachers can identify children with potential problems and have serious, comprehensive follow-up.
There was no way to prevent a mentally unstable man, fully armed, unafraid to die from doing what he did, but we need to pay more attention to our children and other peoples children. I am not advocating witch-hunts and refilling the state hospitals and mental institutions with people who have mild or even moderate mental illness. I do think we need to identify children at a young age who show anti-social tendencies and be sure that they are properly assessed and treated.
I am uncomfortable with labels. I have worked for the past eighteen years in the field of mental health and seen the damage that labeling someone at a young age can do. I have had clients who are carrying around diagnoses for decades after they have exhibited any symptomology. Labels have discouraged employers from hiring them, the community from embracing them and perpetuated the alienation that drives them further from inclusion.
In the case of this shooter, 32 lives could have been saved by giving this man a label and a chance of being treated for his illness.
If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and acts like a duck.... then its a duck.