Why Didn't Someone Do Something Before School Shooting?


March 26, 2005 — -- Now they're saying he was a "ticking time bomb." If he were, why didn't somebody stop Jeff Weise before he turned his high school into a slaughterhouse?

Bemidji, Minn., is where you can find out what the cold is. At temperatures of 24 degrees below zero, with a wind chill of minus 80, exposed skin feels like it is peeling away your body.

Near this town in northern Minnesota is the Red Lake Chippewa Reservation. Some 5,000 Native Americans live on this vast, flat plain of isolation. Forty percent of the people are unemployed, most live in poverty, and both the number of gangs formed and the amount of drugs and alcohol consumed have been rising.

Put the 16-year-old Chippewa Indian -- with his troubled family and his admiration for Hitler -- in the middle of this environment, and somebody should have known there could be trouble.

When he was 8 years old, Jeff's father committed suicide after a daylong standoff with police. His mother, who had remarried, was involved in a serious car accident that left her brain-damaged. She is confined to a wheelchair and living in a nursing home. Jeff moved in with his grandmother, who then left his grandfather, a tribal police officer.

At Red Lake High, he was considered smart by teachers, but the students described him as "odd." He wore black all the time, a Goth. They say he drew swastikas in his notebook and seemed to have no friends at school. Turns out he had been online frequently communicating with a neo-Nazi organization. His log-on name was a German word meaning "Angel of Death."

School officials took disciplinary action against Jeff, and he reportedly received psychiatric care. So people saw a kid in crisis, but nobody suspected his problems would lead to murder.

On a cold March afternoon, Jeff went to his grandfather's house and shot him and the grandfather's girlfriend. Jeff then took his grandfather's shotgun, two handguns and a bulletproof vest, and drove his police cruiser to Red Lake High School.

In a 10-minute shooting rampage Jeff Weise killed seven more people -- a security guard, a teacher and five students. Then he shot himself in the head.

Ten people dead, at least five others wounded. It was the worst U.S. school shooting since the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. That's where two teens -- who were often the target of bullying by the school's popular jocks -- killed 13 people, wounded 23 others and then turned the guns on themselves.

It was awful. The nation was horrified. Everybody got involved. Politicians, community and law enforcement officials, social scientists and psychiatrists, educators. The problem was studied, conclusions formed, recommendations proposed. But here we are again.

Harvard psychologist William Pollack had some explanations that he set forth in a book called "Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood."

He says little boys are told not to cry, to buck it up, to be a man. Pollack says when boys are kept from showing emotions:

"If from childhood onward, we force [boys] to put their vulnerable emotions behind a mask, if we tease them and shame them and all this pent-up emotion has to come out, it will come out this way in violent and murderous action," he says.

Pollack says boys get depressed but feel they are not allowed to talk about it. Girls do talk about their problems, cry openly and most of them ask for help. They may self-mutilate or attempt suicide, but they don't go on killing sprees. Boys want to hurt those who made them feel shame. They want payback.

OK, so we learned some things from Columbine. But why aren't people taking preventive action? Many experts say adults don't talk to teenage boys, don't hug them, don't tell them how important they are. That's a clear role for parents and guardians. But teachers and students who go to school and every day see someone they think is "odd" should report that to some authority.

Most of the experts agree that those actions and less access to weapons would go a long way toward not only reducing school violence, but also saving kids' lives.