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February 2, 2013

Memories of an angry young man


I thought of Sean when I heard about the school shooting in 1998 in Springfield, Ore., where a 15-year-old named Kip Kinkel killed two people and injured 37 at his high school in Springfield, Ore.

As I read the description of Kinkel — a “troubled” boy who had recently been expelled from school and who tortured animals; who was described as a “goth,” often wearing black — I could think only of Sean.

I thought of Sean again after the 1999 shootings in Columbine, Colo., where Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people. Harris and Klebold allegedly sought revenge on “jocks” who had bullied or teased them.

And I’m thinking of Sean again after the recent shooting in Taft, Calif., where 16-year-old Bryan Oliver had compiled a “hit list” of students and threatened them with death. Oliver shot at two students, injuring one, before a teacher talked him down.

I know that no single factor — not a psychological profile, not a background of abuse, not a history of bullying, not an affinity for guns and violence — can predict what turns an angry kid into a school shooter.

I do know there are plenty of Seans in high schools across the country, for whom adolescence can seem intolerably difficult. And I wonder if it is not easier for someone to become like Kinkel when he is continually told, not only by his peers, but by teachers, shopkeepers, police officers and maybe even his parents, that he is a freak, an outsider, someone who doesn’t belong.

I wonder if it is easier to contemplate taking away someone else’s future when you feel you don’t have one.

We are in the middle of an important national conversation right now — about guns, mental health care, security and the rights of the individual. These issues are vital to understanding why school shootings keep happening. But I hope we can find room in the conversation to talk about people like Sean; young people who do not have a place or a voice in society, whose demons threaten to overwhelm them.

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