This is a contribution from Dr Miller Newton, author of Adolescence: Guiding Youth Through the Perilous Ordeal; Not My Kid; Kids, Drugs and Sex and other books treating the topic of adolescents with compulsive behavior disorders such as alcoholism, drug use, sexual deviancy and other addictions.
Here, the world-renowned expert on both adolescent development and treatment of adolescents with problems speaks about the Parkland Massacre.
The massacre by 17-year-old Nicholas Cruz has resulted in a national furor about school mass shootings. In our pain, trauma, grief, and anger America is demanding solutions to the problem ranging from gun regulation to armed school personnel and hardening of school security. Unfortunately, many of the suggestions will not effectively solve the problem.
One father in President Trump’s listening session, in his deep grief, angrily stated “I have lost my daughter who is lying in a cemetery in Parkland Florida and that after the first incident of mass school shooting (Columbine High School in Colorado), it should have been the end of school mass shootings.” And he is absolutely right. We should have decisively addressed the issue after Columbine.
The shooters have all been troubled adolescent males.
These young males have grown up in highly stressed and troubled families often headed by single parents, families whose children have low sense-of-self or personal potency. The growth of this group of low sense-of-self males is a result of the impact of the deterioration of Judeo-Christian morality as a basis for our society.
First and foremost is the growth in number of unmarried mothers as a result of deterioration of sexual morality making unwed childbirth acceptable. Add to this, the ease of divorce based on the personal whim of adults, neglecting the devastation of divorce on the children. The absence of two parents means financial stress, neglect of attention to children because of the mother’s stress to provide a financial base for the family and her need to have some kind of social life outside of the family. The immaturity of teenage unmarried mothers results in young women who are emotionally unable to provide stability for children due to their young age and lack of maturity. (There are single mothers, who with help of extended family, put aside a selfish personal life and amass the personal resources necessary to raise healthy children.)
Young males grow up without the stability of both male and female figures as parents. The single mother is under stress and is unable to support the young males in the various activities which are self-affirming, such as sports, scouting and other activities. The young males are lonely, often the victims of impatience and criticism, and they enter the school world as loners who do not connect with peers, who do not participate in school or extracurricular activities, and so are generally looked on as losers by peers and school staff. Most of these children simply live in isolation and loneliness. For a small number, their growing sense of impotence leads to anger, growing resentments which become rage.
They cope with the isolation, loneliness and rage by building a fantasy life in which violence becomes the tool of self-affirmation. This is enhanced by violent video games, movies and television shows. The action figures are the epitome of power and strength as they violently wipe out others with weapons. These fantastic characters and their violent behavior are the seeming antidote to the impotence of these young males. They fantasize about showing all the adults and peers who treat them badly how powerful they really are by gunning them down. The sense of loneliness and fantasy is enhanced by the isolation produced by electronic devices such as smart phones, tablets, video games, and personal computers. One can easily witness groups of teenagers sitting next to one another, but each on his or her electronic device without any personal contact with the kids right next to them. All that is needed to complete the fantasies is the actual acquisition of weapons and a strategy to empower themselves by shooting others.
Many of the proposed solutions to the problem will fail.
Solving the problem through gun restrictions, such as raising the age from 18 to 21 for acquisition of rifles such as the AR-15 is not a real solution. It is possible to acquire weapons at gun shows that have little regulation as well as through personal purchases from individuals including slightly older teenage friends. Weapons will always be available to these troubled adolescents. Changing the law in this manner does nothing to change that fact.
Solving the problem by placing armed personnel in our schools will only cut down the number of victims since the armed personnel will be involved in shootouts with the young male assassins. It is true that this strategem might cut down the number of victims, but there will still be victims and trauma for all the children in the school. President Trump’s idea that this will be a preventive strategy will only happen after one or two actual events take place that involve shootouts with armed school personnel. Do we really want any more school gun battles?
Hardening the security boundaries of schools would hopefully contain the gun battle at school entrances. However, my sense is that the young shooter will incorporate in his fantasy a strategy for dealing with the security at school entrances and so the increased security measures will in no way deter the gun battle.
To solve the problem, we must move the line of defense from the school to the street, detecting the troubled young males who were contemplating a school attack.
In the case of Nicholas Cruz there were numerous ‘red flags’, including:
- two reports to the FBI
- numerous police visits to his house
- a Florida Department of Children and Families visit assessing his potential for violence
along with numerous school actions including:
- not allowing him to have a backpack on school grounds
- warning school personnel that he was a dangerous individual
- eventually expelling him
All of this was enough to provoke serious action to investigate his social media, his possession of weapons and his potential for school attack. The same “red flags” were actually true of most of the other young males who perpetuated a violent attack on their schools.
So why the failure to prevent the attacks?
A “culture of reluctance” exists on the part of the helping systems including social work, mental health, and law enforcement. We often hear from law enforcement, “we cannot do anything until he commits a crime”. And from mental and social work professionals, “we don’t have enough information.”, or “he is just a ‘poor troubled young person”.
This is based in part on the atmosphere created by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attack on civil commitment, which has resulted in the HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 law concerning confidentiality with a multitude of detail regulations that prevents commitment of individuals who are potentially harmful to self or others.
As a clinical professional I have experienced numerous occasions where individuals I have taken to Emergency Rooms or admission departments of mental health units were not committed by professionals who used a variety of small detail criteria to avoid a commitment. It often happened that the individual in the next day or two made a suicide attempt. These professionals are afraid of possible lawsuits and/or sanctions from their superiors, so they go out of their way to avoid commitments.
Second, a “culture of ‘seductive obsession’ with troubled adolescents” exists among the helping professions. The psychiatrist who was treating the Aurora Colorado theater shooter had all the information she needed to either commit him to an institution or report him to the police but in her obsession to protect him she did neither, and then he murdered a number of people in the theater. I saw the same thing occur with the blonde Public Defender who put a protective arm around Nicholas Cruz and then told the world that he was “a broken child who was remorseful”. Granted, she needs to defend him legally, but there was this air of personally protecting this 17-year-old killer who destroyed not only 17 individuals and their families, but who also injured 14 others and created trauma for hundreds in the school.
We desperately need to change the culture in the helping and law enforcement communities. We must force them to become proactive in sharing information and immediately pursuing investigation of young males who are acquiring weapons and showing signs of violence, including investigations of their social media activities. Without waiting for the political discussion to end, and new laws to be enacted, funding to be increased for mental health, and the training and arming school personnel, there needs to be an immediate national initiative to search for young males who are acquiring weapons and ammunition. Then using these names, the criminal justice system, the family service system and their schools need to be checked for incidents. Finally, social media needs to be checked for talk of school violence.
I guarantee there are 10 or 15 others in the wake of the Parkland Massacre who are stimulated by it, and who are actually also fantasizing themselves on TV News like Nicholas Cruz was, who are at this moment dreaming of achieving self-empowerment by school violence and are in the process of acquiring weapons and developing their strategies.
We must move the line of defense from the front door of the school to the place where these troubled young males are developing fantasies and strategies for self-empowerment by school violence, and we must stop them now before they act. This is the only solution that actually prevents violence and victims at schools.
– Dr. V. M. Newton