School Climate & Safety Opinion

A Violence Predictor Schools Should Heed

By Neal D. Barnard & Karen M. Pirozzi — November 17, 1999 4 min read
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Identification of at-risk children remains a critical element of any plan to promote peace amid the chalkboards, desks, and lockers.

Well before April’s school shootings in Jefferson County, Colo., teachers, administrators, and parents struggled to find effective strategies against the wave of violence that has hit the nation’s schools with tsunami force.

Peer-mediation and anger-management programs. Anti-bullying campaigns and parenting-skills training. Smaller schools, more psychologists, greater opportunities for counseling. These proposals and others, both concrete and philosophical, may prove effective in isolation or combination. But we can’t ignore the tried and true as we seek the new and innovative. Identification of at-risk children remains a critical element of any plan to promote peace amid the chalkboards, desks, and lockers.

If we’ve learned anything from the common features of school shootings over recent years, we have learned their warning signals. One in particular has gone unheeded: abuse of animals. Whatever differences there may have been among Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold of Colorado, Kip Kinkel of Oregon, Andrew Golden of Arkansas, and Luke Woodham of Mississippi, they shared in common a history of killing and torturing animals before moving on to humans.

The two Colorado shooters told friends about mutilating animals, and Kip Kinkel, who killed two classmates and his parents in Springfield, Ore., reportedly had killed cats before that and placed their heads on sticks as eerie trophies. In Jonesboro, Ark., young Andrew Golden was said to brag about shooting dogs with a .22-caliber rifle. And Luke Woodham, who went on a high school shooting spree in Pearl, Miss., tortured to death his own dog, Sparkle, describing the act in his journal as “true beauty.”

Repeatedly, research has shown early animal abuse as a rock- solid sign of trouble. Since the 1970s, in fact, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has included this attribute in its profile of serial killers. Such infamous characters as Jeffrey Dahmer, David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz, Ted Bundy, Albert “Boston Strangler” DeSalvo, and Charles Manson, among all too many others, share this ignoble history.

In the cases of the recent school shootings, however, those in the know apparently did not report the future shooters’ misdeeds. Such silence only gives time for perpetrators to “practice” on easy victims before “graduating” to human prey. Once a child learns an animal’s life is disposable, he (or, rarely, she) may apply that lesson to all life.

To heed this warning beacon, we need to remind staff members and students to take cruelty seriously—not only for the sakes of innocent animals, but also to safeguard their students and friends. Any instance of animal abuse should be viewed as a serious transgression, never as a benign case of “boys being boys.”

Not all animal abusers will grow up to be mass murderers, of course, but many will continue their abuse at a less public level. Research indicates that they are more likely to abuse and threaten their spouses, children, and others, thereby perpetuating the cycle of violence. Many will injure or threaten family pets in an effort to exert control, thus modeling a behavior their own children will likely carry on—a tragic tradition of disrespect for life.

By recognizing the predictive signs of that future trajectory, and taking steps to deflect its course, we can exert a real difference for generations to come.

As we consider which methods will best help violence-prone children and which programs will nurture children’s empathy, it makes sense to look directly at the interaction with animals. When children fail to value life, they demonstrate this deficit first by abusing animals. Couldn’t we help head this off by teaching a Golden Rule respect for life—also starting with animals—and thereby help bolster children’s understanding and empathy for all sentient beings?

Lesson plans and curricula for teaching caring for animals are available from many groups, including the National Association for Humane and Environmental Education and Lifetime Learning Systems. But it may be just as important to examine our own status as models of empathy and respect. Children have sensitive hypocrisy meters, so consistent messages and actions are a must when it comes to such matters as caring for classroom fish tanks, dealing with unwanted rodents in the school, or even helping a stray cat on school grounds.

Admittedly, it may take time, as a society, to explore the many inconsistencies in our treatment of animals that lurk in school policies or in our own personal philosophies. But we can begin right away to protect our young people by remaining vigilant for warning signs of animal abuse.

Dr. Neal D. Barnard, a psychiatrist, founded the Washington-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in 1985. Karen M. Pirozzi, a health writer, is currently a graduate student in education and school psychology at the College of St. Rose in Albany, N.Y.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 1999 edition of Education Week as A Violence Predictor Schools Should Heed


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