Heeding Signs Of Troubled Teens

Jade Moon
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Wednesday - March 30, 2005
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What happened to turn a child into a killer?

Jeff Weise, 16 years old, not only killed, but he used the weapons of law enforcement to do it. He shot his grandfather, a policeman, with the man’s own gun. He shot to death his grandfather’s female companion. He donned the police-issue bulletproof vest and strapped on the old man’s gun belt, and headed off to school. There he rampaged through the corridors until, at the end, 10 people were dead. He was one of them.

There were signs. Experts say there usually are. Achild doesn’t get up one morning and say, “I think I’m gonna blow people away today.” The rage builds over time.

June Ching, past president of the Hawaii Psychological Association, says the clues are usually there. All people have to do is connect the dots.

“It doesn’t happen in isolation,” she says.

Some people may notice a change in behavior, a boy acting more irrationally. He may lose his temper more frequently.

Ching says the teen often has feelings of being wronged in some way, and “some of them fantasize that this will gain them some kind of respect.”

She says the teen may talk about his desires for revenge. He may dream and talk about retaliation. He may tell someone he wants to damage the school, or kill those guilty of making him miserable. Sometimes the student will write about his violent fantasies in a journal, a note or a class assignment.

Or he could turn to the Internet. Weise may have posted hate messages on a Nazi website. A classmate said Jeff Weise drew a picture of a skeleton with a swastika — a bloody, gory, disturbing image that was actually displayed on the wall of his classroom. The caption on it said, “march to the death song till your boots fill with blood.”

Another signal: The teen may be stepping up or starting abuse of drugs or alcohol. Ching says those substances are “uninhibitors” that make it easier to act out the fantasies.

Weise had a tragic history for one so young. His father had committed suicide. His mother is in an institution, brain damaged in a car accident. His fellow students teased him often. He was a loner. He wore black. The clues were there.

But no one connected the dots.

Ching says the key is to communicate, communicate, communicate. And she includes in this mandate “the students, parents, school personnel, neighbors.”

“I think the school can set up a confidential hotline, or some sort of pipeline in which they get inquiries.”

Ching says the hotline would be for students who are concerned about another, but also for the young person who feels he may be losing control.

“Whether they’re the ones who may be acting out or the ones who fear for their own safety, they need to know there are people out there who can help them.”

But the important thing is to let students know the pipeline is open. The kids should know they can talk to their parents, a clergyman or a school counselor about their concerns.

Adults need to listen.

And look for the dots.

I would add another step.

Parents need to train their children to be compassionate. Antibullying programs should be a requirement at all schools. Students need to understand that their little cruelties do matter, and could backfire with tragic results.

I do not know if Jeff Weise could have been prevented from committing his heinous acts of murder. I do not know if his troubled young soul is in hell. But the broken community he left behind is now dealing with its own hell on earth. The citizens of the Red Lake Indian Reservation are looking back, searching for answers.

And perhaps they are wondering why they didn’t connect the dots before it was too late.

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